The South Asia Channel

Mission can’t-complete

Michael O’Hanlon and Bruce Riedel insisted in an op-ed last week that the United States must stay in Afghanistan "until the job is done." While they are wise to warn against making rash decisions based on the particularly tragic events of the last few weeks, they never convincingly explain when the job should end and ...

Scott Olson/Getty Images
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Michael O’Hanlon and Bruce Riedel insisted in an op-ed last week that the United States must stay in Afghanistan "until the job is done." While they are wise to warn against making rash decisions based on the particularly tragic events of the last few weeks, they never convincingly explain when the job should end and how we can expect to accomplish it in the next few years if we – to borrow a phrase from the last war – stay the course. The mission and objectives O’Hanlon and Riedel envision are of the never-ending variety: creating a viable, stable nation where none has previously existed. They also ignore their former, wiser caution on the future of the war.

At a July 2010 debate in New York, hosted by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence (ICSR), O’Hanlon collegially squared off against Ambassador Peter Galbraith on whether or not the war in Afghanistan could be won. I was just three months away from deploying to Helmand Province as a civilian member of a U.S. Army Human Terrain Team. I was rooting for O’Hanlon. I wanted this leading defense intellectual to justify the commitments and risks I would be embarking upon.

Ambassador Galbraith, with a sour taste in his mouth from his own experiences with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, insisted the war was doomed because our Afghan partners in the Karzai regime are hopelessly corrupt, inept, and illegitimate in the eyes of the Afghan population. O’Hanlon insisted that the new "counterinsurgency strategy" could work.

O’Hanlon described himself as seeing Afghanistan as a glass that is "55-60% full" and expressed optimism grounded in caution and caveats. He noted that in a year’s time, if insufficient progress has been made, he might be arguing on the same side as Ambassador Galbraith. Noting President Obama’s July 2011 deadline to major force commitments in Afghanistan (which has come and gone), O’Hanlon remarked, "I agree that if the strategy is not showing certain signs of hopefulness over the next 12 months, then we have to fundamentally re-assess."

Just months before, Riedel commented, "If, by the middle of 2011…we don’t see any sign of change, then we’ve learned something. The patient was dead."

Two years later, reading their article on "finishing the job" in Afghanistan (which recycles the same old arguments) it is clear to me that O’Hanlon has not fulfilled his promise to call for a re-assessment, and Riedel has not been frank about our lack of success. After a nine-month tour with the brave British and Danish troops of Task Force Helmand, I saw little reason for the optimism O’Hanlon and Riedel maintain. Granted, this is only one province, but it has seen our greatest effort and investment, with too little to show for it. As of the beginning of this year, 30,000 troops – one out of every five ISAF military personnel – were in Helmand.

To turn a phrase, we have gotten too much bang (in the explosive sense of the word) for our buck.

This is not to say there has not been positive change. But the changes we have seen are not sufficient and will not meaningfully endure. Even Gen. (retired) David Petraeus is famous for noting that all progress in Afghanistan has been "fragile and reversible." There has been Afghan political institutional growth, but no political progress towards a settlement or stable accommodation. There has been significant Afghan security force development, but units that can plan and operate independently are precious few. Even if current force levels and spending were maintained to 2014, there is little reason to think that the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) will be able to stand on their own. Aside from being plagued by incompetence, illiteracy, and a fatal dependence on our logisticians, planners, and administrators, the ANSF are riddled by internal factions and divisions that threaten to fall apart in the absence of a large presence of foreign troops.

The patient is dead.

As O’Hanlon and Riedel note, the Taliban have been pushed out of many (but not all) key populated areas of the south, but no one I know who has served over there seriously believes that the Afghan government’s "hold" on these areas can endure absent another decade of high ISAF force levels and unacceptable costs in blood and treasure. By presenting a few selective statistics and re-framing a couple more that do not fit the narrative, they present a misleading picture of what "progress" in Afghanistan has meant. Indeed, other analysts of the conflict, such as Anthony Cordesman, have long presented a more complete and consequently negative picture of the campaign based on the same set of statistics. However, their biggest analytical sin is continuing to view counterinsurgency operations as discrete from larger policy and strategic concerns.  When one widens the aperture, it becomes evident that the campaign in Afghanistan is not in step with American interests in the region. Operational success has not led to strategic gain.

What is the supreme purpose of this war? How can we create a viable nation-state in Afghanistan? Why should we bother? O’Hanlon and Riedel do not answer these questions. Indeed, Riedel’s support for an expanded counterinsurgency campaign was always premised on weak suppositions. He based his recommendation for a "surge" in part on his concern that the Pakistani Army would strike a deal with al-Qaeda that would put Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal in the hands of terrorists. Riedel insisted that the war was winnable simply because the Taliban are mostly Pashtuns and Pashtuns are not a majority in Afghanistan (although, they are a plurality). This statement, repeated at a number of different venues, betrays confusion about Afghanistan’s ethnic history (Afghanistan has almost never had a non-Pashtun ruler) and how insurgency can work as a method to impose the will of a driven minority on a passive and cowed majority.

Our only strategic interest in Afghanistan is ensuring transnational terrorists cannot establish a haven from which they can launch attacks.  Through aerial drones and special operations forces, the United States has become adept at keeping al-Qaeda on the run. Al-Qaeda is not a sufficient reason to build a thus-far fictive Afghan state with a thus-far aspirational monopoly on violence in its own territory.  

As Riedel has argued before, Afghanistan cannot be de-linked from regional issues: namely Pakistan. But we also cannot afford to have a military campaign de-linked from our national interests. Our campaign in Afghanistan has not had a stabilizing effect in Afghanistan or the region. To argue that "more of the same" – at predictable cost to life and limb – will somehow lead to stability is an exercise in amnesia.

Despite the analytical shortcomings of their article, Riedel and O’Hanlon identify the correct end-state in Afghanistan: a residual force of 10-15,000 US troops to serve in training, mentoring, air support, special operations, and logistic capacities. Why not get there sooner?

Ryan Evans is a Research Fellow at the Center for National Policy.

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