W e asked four experts what US policy in the AfPak theater would yield in the next ten years—and what, if anything, Washington might do differently. Military historian Victor Davis Hanson begins by offering a contemporary context for American efforts; New York Times Magazine writer James Traub envisions what a partition might look like; Ann Marlowe , returning from her latest trip to the region, suggests that demography will play a more important role than we might think; and Matthieu Aikins reports from Kandahar on the need to spend less, talk more, and shed the illusion of “victory.” — The Editors
Victor Davis Hanson:
A Brief History of Everything
T he now almost decade-long narrative of the American experience in Afghanistan has been revised many times, in light of shifting American presidential politics, the fog of war against the Taliban, and our concurrent topsy-turvy fortunes in Iraq. Despite this “good” war’s supposed antithesis to the “bad” war in Iraq, Afghanistan—NATO sanctioned and UN approved, for years with mostly light casualties and a relatively small US footprint, and with a direct connection with the 9/11 attacks—was always a more dubious battle than Iraq ( see World Affairs, Winter 2009 ).
Afghanistan has exasperated foreign invaders since the era of the autonomous, two-century, Greek-speaking kingdom of Bactria. Its difficult terrain, harsh climate, absence of ports, and multiplicity of tribes always plagued Macedonians, Greeks, Persians, and Chinese. In Afghanistan’s modern era, endemic poverty, illiteracy, religious fundamentalism, and the omnipresence of an ambitious nuclear Pakistan and hostile theocratic Iran on the borders only compound these age-old challenges facing any foreign presence. Add all that up and we get the trope “Afghanistan, the graveyard of empires,” which passes as conventional wisdom for what transpires when foreign forces enter this forbidding territory.
Much of that innate difficulty was often forgotten in the last decade—for years by the Bush administration, whose stunningly quick 2001 victory over the Taliban and even more miraculously successful installation of the Karzai government seemed to be followed by relative quiet. (American fatalities never exceeded one hundred per year until 2007.) The incoming Obama administration initially assumed that Afghanistan’s differences from the violent Iraq of 2007–08, especially in the calculus of domestic American politics, ipso facto made it the more feasible project for nation building.
Yet by the beginning of 2011, Americans were more confused than at any other time during the nearly decade-long war. The once heralded and Americanized Afghan president Hamid Karzai (two of his brothers are restaurant owners in the Washington, DC, area) has metamorphosized in the popular press from the recipient of the Philadelphia Liberty Medal (2004) and three honorary degrees from American universities (2006) into a treacherous friend and supposed manic depressive. Now we are supposed to forget his mellifluous Western cadences and past presence at the State of the Union address, and instead get used to him as someone knee-deep in corruption and prone to spouting anti-American slogans.
When Iraq went quiet in 2008–09 and Americans were supposedly able at last to quit “taking our eye off the ball” and devote the proper attention and capital to defeating the Taliban, US fatalities in Afghanistan spiked during the first two years of the Obama administration. Indeed our numbers killed in action in just the last two years have far exceeded the aggregate number of American dead during the first eight years of the war combined. During an administration pledged to withdraw from Afghanistan, our presence there has radically expanded. Nearly one hundred thousand American troops are now in the country—aided by forty thousand NATO allies—and the cost is reaching between $100 billion and $125 billion a year.
The new administration’s anticipated multilateral effort had already turned problematic by Inauguration Day. That unforeseen escalation in violence in Afghanistan prompted a series of confusing reactions from a commander in chief, as what he had apostrophized into the “good” war during his campaign now turned bad on his hands: initial disengagement from and then firing of General David McKiernan; the announcement of troop withdrawal dates, oddly followed by pledges to surge the fighting force by thirty thousand more; the relief of the indiscreet and unhappy General Stanley McChrystal, followed by the appointments of Generals David Petraeus and James Mattis; bifurcation of diplomatic responsibilities between Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and the late Richard Holbrooke; a passive-aggressive public praise-and-blame of President Karzai; massive increases in Predator drone attacks in Pakistan following earlier criticism of the Bush antiterrorism protocols; and the de rigueur bombast of an erratic Vice President Biden about winning, losing, leaving, and staying on. By the end of his second year in office, it proved hard for Obama to be against Iraq and for Afghanistan, when Iraq was nearly won and Afghanistan seemed nearly lost.
I n light of that misdirection, it is eerie how the prophets of doom about Afghanistan are now channeling the same 2006 pre-surge despair about Iraq into another war that is now supposedly just as “lost” as that one was said to be: we must partition Afghanistan; the war has become a quagmire; we have only empowered the worst elements in Pakistan by our presence there; we need to stop counterinsurgency and simply bomb terrorists; and so on. So given all this hectic recent history, the recriminations and revisionism, what might the American and Western legacy be in Afghanistan and Pakistan by 2020?
For all the problems currently dramatically on view in Afghanistan, there is a variety of reasons why even a corrupt Afghan government and its Western allies will probably not be defeated or expelled from the major cities there. The infusion of billions of dollars in annual international aid survives the present global downturn. The Afghan security forces are slowly growing. An entire generation of American troops, veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, has become skilled in counterinsurgency. The increase in Predator attacks has extended the vulnerability of Taliban and al-Qaeda terrorists well into Pakistan. For all the talk of quagmire, in November and December, General Petraeus made real progress in securing provincial cities and killing large numbers of Taliban insurgents, often with the hammer-and-anvil aid of the Pakistani army.
Despite the disruption caused by the brief tenures of Generals McKiernan and McChrystal, the appointments of Generals Petraeus and Mattis are generally heralded as a decision to put two top combat officers in the US military in charge of the war. For now, despite party differences, Obama has either embraced or expanded the prior Bush commitment to Afghanistan. In response, the Left has abruptly muted its antiwar criticism against one of its own. Although public support wanes—America’s Afghan war recently exceeded the duration of the Soviets’ nine-year, fifty-day-long conflict—there is as of yet no move in either the Democratic-controlled Senate or the Republican-dominated House to cut off funds for the conflict. Most conservatives usually support the president even in times of controversial wars; liberals almost always when the commander in chief is a liberal and there is no draft. Meanwhile, Iraq remains quiet. And the US commitment in manpower and dollars there continually diminishes, ensuring in times of lean budgets more resources for Afghanistan as well as an end to a source of general antiwar fervor.
Nor has there arisen a popular antiwar movement analogous to that which met Iraq. Hollywood is making no movies on Afghanistan similar to the anti–Iraq War In the Valley of Elah , Green Zone , or Lions for Lambs . We won’t see Alfred A. Knopf publish something analogous to Nicholson Baker’s Checkpoint , or a docudrama akin to Gabriel Range’s 2006 Toronto Film Festival award-winning film about the imagined assassination of George W. Bush in payment for his bloodlust in Iraq. In sum, the supposedly unacceptable status quo in Afghanistan turns out in many ways to be quite acceptable—especially in comparison to the dark days in Iraq.
So a second question arises: To what degree can the Afghan government secure enough of the provincial territory outside the major cities to prevent Taliban and al-Qaeda enclaves from threatening the Kabul government or exporting terror beyond the borders of Afghanistan? Despite Obama’s talk of deadlines and troop withdrawals, the Taliban will not prevail so long as the US maintains the status quo and continues to undermine Taliban authority through a mixture of arms, economic assistance, and cultural change—at least enough so that the country might resemble something close to the forty-year span of relative peace during the reign of Mohammed Zahir Shah between 1933 and 1973.
True, Iran and Pakistan have done their best to undermine US efforts in Afghanistan; yet both face internal unrest that makes their own stability as questionable as conditions in Afghanistan. Predator strikes have terrified much of the Taliban and al-Qaeda leadership in the borderlands, and sanctions are beginning to ossify the Iranian economy. Pakistan privately is as duplicitously working with the US against the Taliban as it is with the Taliban against the US. In the view of the Taliban, it has been unable to return to power for nearly a decade, during which time millions of Afghans have grown accustomed to its absence as a governing power. If it is likely that the Karzai government will make some accommodations with some elements of the Taliban, it is unlikely that Afghanistan will return to its pre-9/11 status.
The United States—and perhaps even NATO as well—will not summarily withdraw from Afghanistan and leave the Taliban control of the country in a fashion akin to Saigon in 1975. To do that would doom millions of women, reformers, and allies who took the West at its word that it would prevent the return of a radical Taliban Islamization of the country and the outsourcing of its territory to al-Qaeda terrorists. In sum, by 2020 Afghanistan may not look like the constitutional, pro-Western state that was once envisioned in autumn 2001, but it will not resemble the Islamic republic of 1996–2001 either.
Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow in classics and military history at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author, most recently, of The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern.
Visions of Partition
S uppose that in 1970, when President Richard Nixon was widening the war in Vietnam by invading Cambodia, while at the same time transferring control of the overall effort to our local allies through the process of “Vietnamization,” you were to have guessed what Vietnam, and American objectives there, would look like in 1980. You might have predicted that a combination of American airpower and South Vietnamese military strength would have driven the Vietcong back to their redoubts; or, alternatively, that the South Vietnamese would collapse, and Communism swiftly spread across Southeast Asia. Of course, you would have been wrong in either case. The South did collapse, the Communists did take over—but no other dominoes (except for Cambodia itself) fell. By 1978, in fact, Vietnam was at war with China, while US influence in Asia was rising. In short, the American effort failed completely, but the consequences were much less grave than expected.
As we try to imagine a future outcome in Afghanistan, the experience in Vietnam should remind us of a few things. First, whatever we predict is almost certainly to be wrong. Second, America’s capacity to build desirable outcomes in remote places does not remotely match its capacity to wreak havoc in those places. And finally, our apocalyptic fears of the consequences of failure may come to look hyperbolic in retrospect.
According to current US policy, American troops will remain in Afghanistan through 2014 while they transfer control over day-to-day military operations, security of the population, and governance to Afghan soldiers, police, and civil servants. President Obama has not spoken of what force, if any, he envisions thereafter, though a recent study by the Center for A New American Security suggests a “residual force” of thirty to forty-five thousand troops, most of them American. Presumably by 2020 the numbers would be lower still, since by that time Afghanistan would be largely at peace and self-governing, if still threatened by extremists lurking in sanctuaries across the border in Pakistan.
It’s an appealing scenario—but an unlikely one. The capacity of Afghan security forces to “hold” areas “cleared” by NATO forces has consistently run behind expectations, and is likely to continue doing so; district- and provincial-level government remains rudimentary, and is likely to stay that way so long as the regime of President Hamid Karzai insists on keeping authority and resources in Kabul; and millions of ordinary Afghans, for all that they fear and loathe the Taliban, will continue to hedge their bets by cooperating with the government by day and the insurgents by night.
If President Obama, or his successor, does stay the course, I would guess that 2014 would look something like 1972 or so in Vietnam, with real improvements in some areas masking the continued resilience and effectiveness of the insurgency. But the American public, impatient with the lack of progress, and increasingly sour about large-scale American engagements abroad, may insist on a speedier pace of withdrawal than Obama now envisions. In either case, a “conditions-based” transfer of responsibility will probably prove impossible, and NATO troops and civilians will be forced to hand off more authority than local soldiers and civil servants can handle.
That doesn’t mean the insurgents will win, as they did in Vietnam. A likelier 2020 scenario is an Afghan state whose writ is limited to the major towns and cities of the north and west; a region in the south and perhaps the east dominated, if not governed, by the Taliban; and perhaps a contested area in between. And all of those fluid and contested borders could lead to a civil war involving tribes, warlords, and proxies of neighboring countries—Pakistan, India, Iran. In the worst case, the violence might look more like central Africa than central Asia.
Even a relatively stable de facto division of the state would be bad for the Afghan people. The country has made major gains in recent years in access to health care and education, in road construction, and, to a lesser extent, agricultural development. As poor as government services now are, it would be worse still to have no services, or only those the Taliban offer. Women would go back to the Middle Ages. But how bad would it be for American interests? Would the US find itself facing a Taliban with global ambitions unimaginable to the Taliban of 1995? Would al-Qaeda and other foreign fighters re-establish their base in Afghanistan? Would the “victory” in Afghanistan become a rallying cry for jihadists worldwide?
Critics of the effort whose memories go back to Vietnam, like Leslie Gelb, argue that fears about the consequences of American withdrawal will prove just as inflated now as they were then. The reputational damage will be transitory. An increasingly localized and fragmented jihadist movement will not enjoy a sudden windfall of recruits because NATO forces have reduced their commitment in Afghanistan. And whatever the Taliban’s intentions, al-Qaeda may conclude that it’s safer in its Pakistani redoubts than it would be in the farmland of Kandahar or Helmand. I’m not so confident on any of these counts, but the many costs of the war, and the improbability of success as now defined, and the likelihood that ten years from now Afghanistan will pose much less of a threat to US national security than some other place altogether—Egypt, or Saudi Arabia—make me prepared to take that risk.
I f then we are to accept as a reality some kind of de facto partition of Afghanistan, as the former diplomat Robert Blackwill recently proposed, how can we do it in such a way as to minimize the possibility of civil war, which would not only be a catastrophe for the Afghan people but would make American counterterrorism efforts almost impossible? First, total withdrawal would be a serious mistake. The US and NATO plainly must keep some kind of residual force, including special operations and intelligence capacities as well as training, airlift, and the like, in government-controlled areas of Afghanistan for a long time to come.
Second, the US will have to prevent Pakistani intelligence forces from using its proxies—especially the so-called Haqqani network—to further destabilize the government in Kabul. Since India’s increasing presence in Afghanistan serves as both a pretext and a genuine rationale for Pakistani meddling, the US will have to persuade India to reassure Pakistan by steering clear of Afghan politics. More broadly, the US will need to play a larger role in orchestrating regional diplomacy, including not just India and Pakistan but China, Russia, and Turkey. By 2020, those countries will matter a great deal more in Afghanistan than they do today. They will be less susceptible to American suasion, but more prepared, and more able, to advance their own interests in a stable Afghanistan.
Finally, the scaling back of the current counterinsurgency effort must not be seen as yet another abandonment of Afghanistan by the West. The US, NATO, the UN, and neighboring states must make a long-term commitment to the well-being of the Afghan people. The best way to prove to Afghans that the state is worth defending against the Taliban is to bring some measure of prosperity and stability to those portions of the country under government control. That effort, as the Obama administration has painfully learned, will take a long time in a place as underdeveloped and ungoverned as Afghanistan. American experience in trying to bring about fundamental social change in such places—think of the Philippines in the first decades of the twentieth century—is hardly encouraging. But that’s the best long-term solution.
Indeed, in the years to come, American policymakers seeking to counteract the terrorist threat will have to negotiate a path between large-scale counterinsurgencies that seem to work only on paper and the homeland-security-first policies that a disgruntled public may demand. We may need to develop a new “counterinsurgency lite” doctrine that will require fewer troops and more diplomats, aid officials, civil society bodies, and the like. And we will need to learn that the strategies that work provide very little instant gratification, and no shock or awe. That, surely, is a job for political leadership.
James Traub is a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a weekly columnist for ForeignPolicy.com. His latest book is The Freedom Agenda.
It’s the Demography, Stupid
A mericans, accustomed to action, are apt to overlook the ways in which the condition of Afghanistan in 2020 will be determined not only by American policy but by demographics and geography. Afghanistan has a current population growth rate of 4.8 percent, representing a doubling time of 14.5 years. The current population is around twenty-five million (there has been no census since an incomplete one in 1979), and estimates suggest that it will be around forty million ten years from now. That is a lot of people to feed, given that only twelve percent of the land is arable. While agricultural provincial reconstruction teams and private NGOs are trying to improve Afghan agricultural practices, it’s questionable whether these often-resisted changes can happen quickly enough to keep pace with population growth.
The current population is currently straining the electrical grid in most cities and the water table in some rural areas. Bringing a reliable electrical supply to more of the country—essential for economic growth—will be a tough race with the growing population growth rate. As to water, Kabul is lucky to sit on deep aquifers, although in some parts of the south, locals say the water table is falling. (Hasty well-digging by well-intentioned foreigners is to blame in some areas.) Cities such as Kandahar may be affected by water shortages if they continue to grow.
Pakistan—which has one of the world’s highest birth rates—will have between 221 and 234 million inhabitants in 2020. There are already simmering disputes over the share of water from rivers that run through Afghanistan and Pakistan and Afghanistan and Iran.
The question will be whether the growth of Afghanistan’s GDP in 2020 (and here we can include the illicit earnings from the drug trade, whatever those may be) will be sufficient to prevent widespread joblessness and hunger, particularly in the fast-growing cities. In 2009, Afghanistan’s non-drug GDP grew 22.5 percent, and the World Bank estimates it will grow 8.5 to 9 percent in 2010–11. But will this rate continue indefinitely into the future, especially if the US commitment diminishes? And is it enough to support Afghanistan’s population growth?
Kabul—currently around 3.6 million people —is forecast to be among the top five cities in the world in terms of rapid growth before 2020. Will this growth lead to a dense ring of shantytowns around the capital housing hundreds of thousands of desperate, illiterate poor people?
In raising these Malthusian issues I am not forgetting about the way that increased numbers of people tend to develop clever and innovative ways of feeding themselves. But resourcefulness itself depends on a certain level of development. Starting from so far behind, Afghanistan is not now and is not likely to quickly become an incubator of innovation.
A fghanistan has one of the world’s youngest populations —forty-four percent under the age of fourteen and less than three percent over the age of sixty-five. So let’s hazard a guess that if the country has forty million people ten years from now, sixteen million of them will be younger than fourteen. Currently, forty-six percent of Afghan children don’t attend school . Let’s say, a bit optimistically, that the improvements the Afghan government has promised come to pass and just thirty percent, or five million kids, won’t be in school in 2020—and we’re not even considering the millions who will only attend grades first to third or so. This means that perhaps three million Afghan boys under the age of fourteen will be unlettered. What are they going to do in the years to come?
Note that the current Afghan Constitution does not make education compulsory; it merely says it is a right and shall be free of charge when provided by the government. In some Pashtun areas, parents prefer a madrasah education to one in the state schools. In some parts of the Pashtun belt, the Taliban or other insurgents have burned or commandeered schools or forbidden locals to attend. In other areas, there are no teachers.
Given the reluctance of a sizable chunk of the Afghan population to send their kids to school, and the little that they learn when they are there, it’s a sure bet that illiteracy will continue to retard Afghanistan’s progress. And more ominously, since education of females is associated with smaller families, the low school attendance rate among girls will doom Afghanistan to continue to have one of the world’s highest birthrates.
These demographics have implications for US policy. If we still have troops stationed in Afghanistan in 2020, and if we still believe in the relationship between effective counterinsurgency and the ratios of troops to people, the higher population will mean that Afghanistan will need a much larger number of security forces than it has today. Even if the insurgency somehow abates, the country will need a lot more police for the additional ten or fifteen million people. That’s bad news, considering Afghanistan can barely retain the police we are currently training at great expense.
I n ten years, what will Afghans want? Just about anyone you meet under twenty-five is studying English or IT or wants to be. A large number want to leave to join relatives in Western nations or the Gulf states (although few want to live in Pakistan or Iran). Many of the thirty to forty percent who live in cities want more or less the same things people in other developing countries want—cheap consumer goods and electronics, a car, better education for their kids. This isn’t to say that Afghans necessarily look to the West or to the United States as models. They may look to India (which they see in popular soap operas and movies) as a model for how a traditional, family-centered society can modernize without “losing its soul.” They may look to Dubai—culturally sterile and tawdry though it is—as a model for material progress.
But even while more or less progressive values will penetrate Afghan society via the Internet, satellite TV, innovative local TV programming, and exposure to foreign troops and foreign civilians, we can also expect a backlash affecting some portion of the population. Many Afghans are fearful of the effect of modernity on their way of life and particularly the potential or actual conflict between “enlightenment” and Islam as they know it. There is a substantial anti-progressive faction in Afghan politics and culture whose public expression ranges from scholarly condemnations to newspaper articles to jihadi videos and tapes. Those who feel themselves left behind by lack of education or opportunity will want explanations, and there are plenty of people who will be anxious to hand them a classic script of hatred designed to turn their resentment into action.
Afghans are patient—until they are not. If current levels of corruption continue, I would expect an explosion of frustration. The event that sets it off may not be one that Americans would anticipate, and the reaction may not be rational. It may be grossly disproportionate. But there is a dangerous level of anger among the young, who, as we have seen, comprise most of the population.
The problems Afghanistan will face in 2020—and in 2050, when it may have a population of eighty million—may make those of today look easy. What this Afghan future shows is that the United States is on the wrong side of trends that will give more power to the least educated, least progressive, least democratically inclined parts of the world and take power away from us, Europe, and Japan. According to one account , “The population of the developed countries as a group will have increased by less than 350 million between 1950 and 2050. The developing countries, on the other hand, will have an estimated 6.8 billion people more—thus almost quintupling their 1950 population. This modern ‘population explosion’ in the Third World is not comparable to the demographic transition of Europe in the 18th and 19th century. It is a historically unique phenomenon. . . . No country in Europe has experienced annual population growth rates of more than 0.5 to 1 percent during its ‘high growth’ period.”
The world in 2020 may already be sliding toward a grim new reality in which literacy, rationality, and secularity are slowly being overwhelmed by inchoate forces. We may be able to laugh about the fact that many Africans continue to believe in witchcraft, but when there are 1.3 billion Africans in 2020 (and between 1.7 and 3 billion in 2050), that laughter may ring a little hollow. It will be those of us who don’t believe in witchcraft who prove out of step. The problems of Afghanistan will be the least of our worries.
Ann Marlowe, a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute, blogs for World Affairs. In December she returned from her latest reporting trip to Afghanistan.
Spend Less, Talk More, and Don’t Expect Victory
I t’s been a year since the last foreign military forces left Afghanistan, their public at home weary of the drawn-out war and uneasy about whether its sacrifice has been in vain. The insurgency, however, still rages across the country. In Kabul, an unpopular president, increasingly besieged by internal opponents, struggles desperately to maintain his legitimacy by calling a national loya jirga to rubber-stamp a new constitution.
Pakistan, its tribal areas destabilized and radicalized by its involvement in the war, continues to manipulate its proxies across the border, squelching any Afghan insurgent groups who might want to break free from its hard-line position against the Kabul government.
Yet despite Islamabad’s and Kabul’s efforts to maintain control, the political and economic fragmentation of Afghanistan is accelerating. In order to maintain its grip over the country’s roads and urban centers in the absence of foreign forces, the Afghan government has been forced to rely on a disparate collection of regional, ethnic, and tribal militias, and even the national army has, in many provinces, fallen under the sway of local strongmen. For their part, insurgent groups have turned to plundering logistics convoys and peddling opium. The entire system hangs tenuously on an influx of foreign patronage, and a sudden shock, such as the financial collapse of an ailing superpower, could plunge the country into chaos.
This is 1990, not 2020. It’s a description of the twilight of President Najibullah’s Communist regime, which surprised most observers by clinging on for a few years after the Soviet military had departed. The Soviet withdrawal had been negotiated under the Geneva Accords, which were supposed to pave the way for a peace deal between warring parties, but the intransigence of the US and Pakistan, and the deep-rooted economies of conflict wrought by a decade of war, proved too much to overcome. What followed next is well known: years of vicious civil war, succeeded by the brutal and retrograde Taliban regime.
How plausible is such a scenario thirty years later, for Afghanistan in 2020? Many would insist that the current US-led counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan bears little resemblance to the Soviet one. For starters, the forty-eight-nation International Security Assistance Force has been authorized within the framework of international law and the general support of the United Nations. ISAF has evidenced a greater commitment to human rights and the protection of civilians, avoiding the wholesale abuses of the Soviet campaign. Equally significant is that the current insurgency is far less widespread than that which the Soviets faced.
There are some less encouraging differences. Afghan institutions—whether the judiciary, security forces, or bureaucracy—are far weaker than they were under the Communist regime, which had the legacy of the monarchist government to build on. Karzai, a weaker leader than Najibullah, has trouble managing his own government and has no political party through which to maintain elite unity and mobilize the urban population. Indeed, Afghanistan’s governing class seems to lack the motivation to do much more than enrich itself, whereas the Communists were far less corrupt and had a common ideology and articulation of what they were fighting for. By contrast, the Taliban today are more unified than the fractious mujehedin groups, the opposition in the 1980s, ever were.
But rather than try to weigh out these comparisons, perhaps it is most important to point out the basic similarity between 1990 and a likely 2020 scenario. If there is no urgent move toward national reconciliation today, and if Afghan interests are given no precedence over those of “stakeholders,” we will once again move toward a fragmentation of the country, urged on by the centrifugal forces of warlordism and the illicit economy.
T o begin, we need to drastically reduce the tens of billions of dollars in stabilization and development funding pouring into the country. “Money as a weapons system”—a military dogma that has no basis in historical counterinsurgency but that is very profitable for contracting firms—has been thoroughly discredited in Afghanistan. A series of House and Senate investigations, research by scholars like Andrew Wilder, and a large body of journalism have demonstrated that our spending in Afghanistan has actually increased violence there. Our uncontrolled influx of cash has created a massive network of perverse incentives and ensured that the main political networks to emerge post-2001 are unstable, transient ones aimed solely at capturing the top-down flow of international patronage.
What’s astonishing is that even as a consensus has emerged among experts on the destabilizing effects of our spending, and even as the Obama administration has scaled back its rhetoric and ambitions about nation building in Afghanistan, we’ve dramatically expanded the breadth and dollar amount of our operations there. For example, after spending $20 billion on training the Afghan security forces over the past six years, we’re set to spend $11.6 billion on them in 2011 alone. We now have nearly one hundred thousand troops in Afghanistan. Base construction has accelerated and even the yearly cost of keeping an American soldier in Afghanistan has grown from an average of $425,000 from 2005–09 to $694,000 in 2010.
By de-escalating this spending, along with more effective contracting oversight (easier with fewer contracts) and smarter anticorruption efforts (such as domestic prosecution of corrupt Afghan-Americans), we can ratchet up our leverage with the Afghan government and reduce the current incentives among powerbrokers to continue the conflict.
The second key initiative is a genuine peace process. Despite all the lip service paid to the need for a “political solution,” the US has not been acting in good faith to reach out to insurgent groups, perhaps one of the most important Afghanistan-related revelations in the documents released by WikiLeaks. The leaked diplomatic cables show that the US has consistently pressured the Afghan government to avoid offering real concessions and stick instead to what are essentially terms of surrender, such as disarming and accepting the current constitution.
Real efforts toward a peace settlement by the US are desperately needed. In December 2010, along with sixty Afghan, Pakistani, and Western journalists, experts, NGO workers, and former military and diplomatic officers—including scholars like Robert Crews, Gilles Dorronsoro, David Edwards, Antonio Giustozzi, and Ahmed Rashid—I signed a letter urging President Obama to engage in direct negotiations with the Taliban leadership in Pakistan.
We are not advocating a return of the Taliban regime to Kabul. Indeed, we are not making statements about the legitimacy or desirability of the Taliban (or, for that matter, some of the characters who compose the Karzai government), but rather we are dismissing the fantasy of a military victory and asserting that the insurgent groups and their leadership must be negotiated with in order to bring about a viable peace settlement.
T he struggle in Afghanistan is not an existential one against radical Islam, contra those who would conflate Afghan insurgents with the handful of al-Qaeda operatives based in Pakistan. “The purported merger of the Taliban and al-Qaeda,” Kandahar-based scholar Alex Strick van Linschoten recently wrote , “is the WMD of the Afghan war.” The vast majority of insurgents are fighting because their family and tribal networks have been alienated from the government, or else because they have an economic incentive to do so in order to capture income from foreign spending or the drug trade.
While Pakistan’s sway over insurgent groups is worrisome, refusing to admit them as a legitimate voice in Afghan political discourse only strengthens their reliance on Islamabad. It should be remembered that as the former Taliban regime gained strength in the late 1990s, it was increasingly able to resist Pakistani demands such as acknowledging the Durand Line.
We’ve been propagandized to imagine that the Taliban represent some sort of unique and absolute evil, with whom compromise is impossible. In reality, the ugliness is on all sides. Aisha—the disfigured young woman on the cover of a recent issue of Time magazine—did not have her nose cut off by the Taliban, according to an investigation by the respected Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission. It was a not-uncommon act of patriarchal violence within an impoverished and traumatized community whose most vulnerable members, including women, are regularly abused. Only by ending the conflict can we empower ordinary Afghans, who are currently caught between two sides led by the kind of corrupt and predatory forces that flourish during war.
If we have the courage to say no to more military spending and to make genuine sacrifices in search of peace, we might imagine an alternate vision for Afghanistan in 2020: a tenuous but holding cease-fire, a sustainable political and economic order based on indigenous sources of support, and fragile Afghan civil society emerging from decades of ruinous conflict.
Matthieu Aikins’s writing and photography have appeared in Harper’s, the Globe and Mail, the National Post, and Walrus. He filed this article from Kandahar, Afghanistan.