Stephen M. Walt

Defending the Afghan Study Group Report

The Afghanistan Study Group report that I wrote about last week is getting some predictable flak from people who hold different views about U.S. strategy there.  It is hardly surprising, for example, that Andrew Exum lavished high praise on Joshua Foust’s extended rant against the report. Exum is a counterinsurgency enthusiast and was a vocal ...


The Afghanistan Study Group report that I wrote about last week is getting some predictable flak from people who hold different views about U.S. strategy there. 

It is hardly surprising, for example, that Andrew Exum lavished high praise on Joshua Foust’s extended rant against the report. Exum is a counterinsurgency enthusiast and was a vocal advocate of escalating the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. As such, he is hardly likely to favor a report that questions the wisdom of this approach, despite his telling admission that our current strategy is "troubled."

It is of course possible that Exum will one day be proven right, but one would have more faith in his judgment if the situation in Afghanistan had not gone from bad to worse since Obama took his advice. Obama began escalating the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan shortly after he took office, and since then we’ve had a fraudulent presidential election, an inconclusive offensive in Marjah, a delayed and downgraded operation in Kandahar, and a run on the corrupt Bank of Kabul. Casualty levels are up, and aid groups in Afghanistan now report that the security situation is worse than ever, despite a heightened U.S. presence.  

This situation is no accident, as Anatol Lieven outlines here. Rather, it reflects our enduring ignorance about Afghan society and the folly of trying to build a Western-style centralized government in a multi-ethnic society that is notoriously suspicious of foreign occupiers and where the prerequisites for a Western-style political order are lacking. Given the actual situation on the ground (and the condition of the U.S. economy), the Study Group concluded that it did not make sense to spend $100 billion or more per year trying to "nation-build" in a country whose entire GNP is about $14 billion. 

As for Foust, his main criticism seems to be that the Study Group didn’t consult as many Afghan experts as he would have liked, or provide a lot of nitty-gritty empirical detail to back up our analysis. This latter complaint is partly valid, but largely beside the point. Our objective was to encourage U.S. leaders to rethink the strategic stakes at issue in Afghanistan, to help them understand why the current U.S. strategy wasn’t working, and to outline a plausible alternative approach. Despite his overheated rhetoric, Foust says he agrees with most of that, and he also agrees that the current U.S. approach is wrong-headed. Yet he is so eager to cast cold water on the report that he dismisses virtually all of its recommendations, even on obviously specious grounds. For example, he criticizes our call for greater effort to engaging regional partners by saying "it’s been tried." But what’s his alternative: that we refrain from trying to get regional stakeholders to help us neutralize the conflict? And isn’t it palpably obvious that any enduring solution to the Afghan mess is going to require a lot of buy-in from its neighbors?

Moreover, Foust can’t even get our arguments straight. He claims that we recommend turning Afghanistan into a "Special Forces and drone firing range," which is simply false. Like President Obama, we argued that America’s only vital strategic interest in Afghanistan was to prevent it from becoming a "safe haven" that would materially increase al Qaeda’s capabilities and thus make it a significantly greater threat to the United States. This situation could only occur if 1) the Taliban regained power, 2) Al Qaeda moved back into Afghan territory in strength, and 3) if it once again created large bases in which to train a substantial number of new cadres and thus become significantly more dangerous. We pointed out that if that were to happen — and it is hardly a foregone conclusion that it will — such large bases would be readily visible and could be targeted in a variety of ways. And unlike the 1990s, when the Clinton administration vacillated about attacking al Qaeda’s compounds, there were would be little debate about going after large al Qaeda encampments today. As Greg Scoblete notes here this sort of campaign does not requires a large scale U.S. military presence, and it is far cry from turning the entire country into a "firing range."

The key point to remember is that Al Qaeda can organize small clandestine cells in a wide variety of places (including Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, Pakistan, Europe, or even the United States itself) and that Afghanistan no longer offers it any particular strategic advantages. Indeed, even if we succeed beyond our wildest dreams in Afghanistan, the government in Kabul would not be able to prevent al Qaeda from re-establishing clandestine cells on Afghan soil. In short, victory in Afghanistan won’t eliminate al Qaeda, and a reduced U.S. presence there won’t allow it to become significantly stronger. And if that is the case, what vital national interest is at stake?

Moreover, Terry McDermott’s recent New Yorker profile of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Muhammed suggests that the existence of a "safe haven" in Afghanistan had relatively little to do with the attacks that the United States suffered on that fateful day in 2001. McDermott reports that KSM operated primarily out of an apartment in Karachi, while the attackers themselves were mostly based in Hamburg. The proper lesson to draw is that defeating al Qaeda does not depend on victory over the Taliban, and keeping 100,000-plus troops in Central Asia is probably counterproductive to the larger effort against anti-American terrorists. 

Judging from his response, Foust seems to think that our failures to date are due solely to errors in implementation, and not to the possibility that the United States is pursuing objectives that are neither necessary for U.S. security nor appropriate to the Afghan context. This view — which is widespread among U.S. policymakers — tends to assume that nation building can always work provided we devote enough resources to the problem, have the right policies in place, and stay the course for a long enough period. But as Jason Brownlee shows here, there is abundant evidence showing the success or failure in "nation-building" depends as much or more on the conditions prevailing in the societies we are trying to transform. And if those conditions are lacking (as they seem to be in Afghanistan), then lots of extra effort won’t get us very far. Even if it could, it is by no means clear that all this extra effort would be worth it.

Meanwhile, Michael Cohen at offers a more sympathetic critique, and says he’s mostly disappointed that the Study Group didn’t offer more detailed, actionable recommendations. He also chides us for making arguments that he (and others) were making a year ago. He’s correct that we didn’t lay out detailed "action plans" for implementing our various recommendations, but that’s also largely beside the point. Until the national leadership is convin
ced that the present course is a non-starter, there is little point in offering detailed action plans for implementing a different course. The Group also sought to produce a report that key staffers and politicians would actually read, unlike some of the doorstop reports that think tanks often offer. And at least one reader welcomed this feature. Cohen is also correct that the Group was neither alone nor the first to identify the problems with current U.S. strategy, but so what? The question is whether one can get the relevant decision makers to finally pay attention.

The bottom line is that these various critiques have not damaged the report’s central conclusion: The war in Afghanistan has become a fool’s errand that is neither essential to U.S. national security nor likely to produce a satisfactory outcome. It is also an increasingly expensive undertaking, and a major distraction for U.S. leaders at a time when there is no shortage of problems to address. The current strategy is unlikely to work, and the United States and its allies will eventually have to come up with an alternative approach. Our report was intended to accelerate the strategic reassessment that we believe is inevitable, and I hope that interested citizens will read it, along with the views of our critics.

For additional defenses of the Report, see Matthew Hoh here, Justin Logan here, and Bernard Finel here

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

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