Stephen M. Walt

A Plan B for Afghanistan

As we all know by now, President Obama and General Petraeus hope to win the war in Afghanistan through a strategy of escalated counterinsurgency warfare. Yesterday, I suggested that they ought to be thinking about a Plan B in case (or when) their approach fails. With splendid timing, on Wednesday the New America Foundation will ...

YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images
YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images

As we all know by now, President Obama and General Petraeus hope to win the war in Afghanistan through a strategy of escalated counterinsurgency warfare. Yesterday, I suggested that they ought to be thinking about a Plan B in case (or when) their approach fails. With splendid timing, on Wednesday the New America Foundation will provide that Plan B, in a report entitled "A New Way Forward: Rethinking U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan." (You can watch a press conference on the report at 12 noon on Wednesday here, or read study director Steve Clemons’ summary here.)

Full disclosure: I was a member of the Study Group, so you won’t be surprised to hear that I agree with most of its contents. But don’t let that stop you from reading the report and pondering its arguments carefully.

To whet your appetite, here are the Study Group’s five main recommendations:

  • Emphasize power-sharing and political inclusion.
    The U.S. should fast-track a peace process designed to decentralize power within Afghanistan and encourage a power-sharing balance among the principal parties.
  • Downsize and eventually end military operations in southern Afghanistan, and reduce the U.S. military footprint.
    The U.S. should draw down its military presence, which radicalizes many Pashtuns and is an important aid to Taliban recruitment.
  • Focus security efforts on al Qaeda and domestic security.
    Special forces, intelligence assets, and other U.S. capabilities should continue to seek out and target known al Qaeda cells in the region and be ready to go after them should they attempt to relocate elsewhere or build new training facilities. In addition, part of the savings from our drawdown should be reallocated to bolster U.S. domestic security efforts and to track nuclear weapons globally.
  • Encourage economic development.
    Because destitute states can become incubators for terrorism, drug and human trafficking, and other illicit activities, efforts at reconciliation should be paired with an internationally-led effort to develop Afghanistan’s economy.
  • Engage regional and global stakeholders in a diplomatic effort designed to guarantee Afghan neutrality and foster regional stability.
    Despite their considerable differences, neighboring states such as India, Pakistan, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia share a common interest in preventing Afghanistan from being dominated by any single power or being a permanently failed state that exports instability to others.

But wait, there’s more! The Study Group also identified eleven important "myths" in the current debate on Afghanistan. Here they are (I’ve omitted the Group’s assessment of what the reality on each one is): 

  • The United States can afford to stay in Afghanistan for as long as it takes to win.
  • The Obama administration has a feasible strategy and a clear timetable to end the war.
  • The "surge" in Iraq proves that counterinsurgency strategies can work; all we have to do is "stay the course."
  • The Taliban is a group of religious fanatics who can never be appeased through negotiations.
  • There is no meaningful difference between the Taliban and al Qaeda.
  • If we leave Afghanistan, the Taliban will take over, al Qaeda will re-establish itself there, and new and deadly attacks on America will be more likely.
  • Our large-scale presence in Afghanistan is the only thing that will ensure women’s rights.
  • Withdrawal from Afghanistan will be seen as a victory for al Qaeda and enhance its prestige.
    If we scale back our engagement in Afghanistan, they will simply follow us home.
  • Scaling back the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan will threaten Pakistan’s stability and jeopardize control of its nuclear arsenal.
  • Reducing the military effort in Afghanistan will cause allies to doubt our credibility and staying power. Some might even be tempted to cut deals with our adversaries.
  • If the Obama administration scales back the mission in Afghanistan, Republicans will portray it as "soft" and the Democratic party will pay a big political price in the 2010 and 2012 elections.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you’ll know why I think a lot of these claims are mistaken. If you want to know what the realities are, read the full Study Group report. And kudos to Steve Clemons and the other members of the Study Group for providing the administration with an alternative approach. We’re going to need one.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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