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No Good Choices

You might think Afghanistan's fate lies in U.S. President Barack Obama's forthcoming strategic decision on troop levels. But the picture is bleak, no matter what.


Today, U.S. President Barack Obama met with top advisers to debate four proposals for a new military strategy for Afghanistan, most of which include increased troop levels. Gen. Stanley McChrystal has requested an additional 40,000 soldiers to neutralize the insurgency, stabilize the government, and increase U.S. security. Vice President Joe Biden and others propose a lighter-footprint counterterrorism strategy aimed at fighting al Qaeda rather than the Taliban that would keep approximately the same number of troops in place.

The truth is: None of the proposals would have much effect.

We used forecasts from statistical models to determine how the two strategies under Obama’s consideration might play out: the chances that insurgency will abate and democracy will strengthen, as well as the impact on the stability of Afghanistan’s democratic government and its neighbors, like Pakistan. Unfortunately, we found that regardless of what the United States does, the chance of violent insurgency remains woefully high — and that a larger force deployment might actually endanger the weak Afghan state.

To perform this analysis, we studied similar efforts by foreign powers to establish democracy during the 20th century — the Allied forces in Germany and Japan after World War II, for instance, and Sudan after the British colonial occupation. We studied the correlation between the occurrence of insurgency in foreign-created democracies and factors such as the level of economic development, social divisions, number of neighboring democratic states, and historical episodes of political violence. In turn, we studied how these characteristics and the insurgencies they spur influence the durability of democracy. We input data on historical conflicts and current conditions in Afghanistan to generate forecasts for each of the force deployment strategies under Obama’s consideration.

We studied the prospects for Afghanistan on a two-year time frame under several scenarios: a same-sized U.S. force, an increased U.S. force, and an increased Afghan force, for instance. In all of our models, regardless of the number of soldiers deployed, the probability of insurgency in the years after the force deployment — and, thus, continued violence and instability in Afghanistan — remains so high as to seem certain.

The current cadre fighting al Qaeda and the Taliban includes 68,000 U.S. troops, 40,000 NATO troops, and 94,000 soldiers from the Afghan National Army (ANA). If that same force stays in place, there is a 93.6 percent probability of insurgency over the next year. Regardless of how many additional troops arrive — or who sends them — the chance of insurgency in 2010 and 2011 remains more than 90 percent. If the ANA achieves its force target of 134,000 troops, for instance, the probability of insurgency reduces negligibly. Deploying 15,000 more U.S. troops reduces the risk a scant 0.1 percent in 2010. Deploying 60,000 more — the largest additional U.S. force suggested — reduces the risk just 0.1 percent further than that.

What explains the inability of any additional deployment to reduce the likelihood of insurgency in Afghanistan? Our analysis suggests that the U.S. counterinsurgency swims against two very strong currents.

First, the combustible mix of Afghanistan’s relatively immutable social and political characteristics — its ethnic and religious divisions, low level of economic development, and large population — almost guarantees continued insurgency. The country’s poverty and large population encourage competition for scarce resources, and that competition gins up violence. Democracy itself seems to further destabilize the country: Our analysis shows that when foreign countries institute democracy in countries with deep ethnic and religious divisions (and Afghanistan is a tribal-based society), insurgency results.

A second factor suggesting that additional U.S. troops won’t do much to quell political violence is the length of the war in Afghanistan. Insurgency develops momentum and is more difficult to eliminate the longer it persists. A force that might nip a fledgling insurgency in the bud is unlikely to do so once it is embedded — and the rebels in Afghanistan have been around for nearly a decade.

While the continued high probability of insurgency in Afghanistan is bad news by itself, its implications for the survival of democracy in Afghanistan are even more sobering. Indeed, the same ethnic and religious divisions, poverty, and large population that make Afghanistan ripe for the Taliban also undermine the viability of the democratic government — and additional foreign soldiers do little to ameliorate those underlying conditions.

If the United States keeps the current force in place, our analysis predicts a nearly 20 percent chance that democracy will fail in Afghanistan within three years, 40 percent in five years, and 62 percent in 10 years. The most aggressive force expansion, adding 60,000 troops, actually increases the risk of democratic failure, to 22 percent in a three-year time frame and 73 percent in 10 years. Our analysis indicates that larger force deployments increase the risk of democratic failure because they stimulate discontent within the civilian populace — even if they increase security — making the durability of the elected government more tenuous.

We also explored the consequences that continued insurgency in Afghanistan might have for its regional neighbors. Our research shows that the successful development of democracy in Afghanistan would promote regional democratization and peace, creating a powerful example for the wider region to follow and encouraging democracy in Pakistan and Iran. But democratic failure in Kabul would carry severe negative effects. In particular, the failure of democracy in Afghanistan raises the risk of civil conflict in Pakistan by a non-negligible 4.2 percent. Not only would the failure of the fledgling Afghan democracy undermine regional hopes for democracy, but the instability would no doubt spill over the country’s borders.

Ultimately, our forecasts paint a bleak picture for Afghanistan, regardless of the strategy Obama chooses. Our analysis clearly shows that the time for the stabilization of Afghanistan, if such time existed at all, has passed. The deployment of additional troops to Afghanistan shows little chance of either ending the insurgency or sustaining Afghan democracy. At the same time, the collapse of democracy in Afghanistan raises the specter of something even more worrying: instability in a nuclear-armed Pakistan. As such, our analysis suggests that the resources proposed for the continuation of a losing bet in Afghanistan would be better applied to supporting Pakistan and maintaining its stability.

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