America’s flawed Afghanistan strategy

By Dr Steven Metz

Despite the lavish time and attention that the Obama administration devoted to reviewing its Afghanistan strategy, the result was more continuity than change. The administration adjusted U.S. troops levels and shifted some operational methods but accepted the most basic — and questionable — assumptions of the Bush strategy. Unfortunately, these do not hold up under close scrutiny. The new strategy, like the old one, totters on a dangerously flawed foundation.

Both the Bush and Obama strategies assume that al-Qaeda needs state support or sanctuary. That, after all, is the fundamental rationale for continued American involvement in Afghanistan. But throughout the “war on terror,” no one has made a persuasive case that the September 11, 2001, attacks would not have happened had al-Qaeda not had bases in Afghanistan. While it may take meetings and phone calls to plot terrorism, these can be done from nearly anywhere. Al-Qaeda’s Afghanistan sanctuary was a convenience, not a necessity. Destroying the sanctuary has not stopped bin Laden and his henchmen from plotting new attacks.

Why, then, should the United States devote billions of dollars fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan if doing so has little effect on al-Qaeda’s ability to launch terrorism? The answer says more about the way Americans think than it does about how terrorists operate. The United States has expended great effort to eradicate al-Qaeda’s bases and training camps less because they were important than because we are effective at it. There is an old saying that, “when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” America has an amazing hammer — its military — which is very good at seizing and controlling territory. So, we reasoned, eradicating bases and training camps will cripple al-Qaeda. Yet there is no evidence to validate this idea.

The Obama strategy also assumes that without U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, the Taliban will regain control. But the Taliban came to power in 1996 because the warlords opposing it had little outside support and, more importantly, because Afghans did not understand just what Taliban rule would mean and thus did little to resist it. Now they do know and will resist, at least outside Afghanistan’s Pashtun areas. Simply funding the Afghan government and providing it with training and advice can prevent an outright Taliban victory without a large U.S. military presence.

The Obama strategy then assumes that if the Taliban regains control of Afghanistan, it will again provide bases and sanctuary to al-Qaeda. The Pentagon’s newly released Quadrennial Defense Review warned of al-Qaeda “regaining sanctuary in Afghanistan.” In his December 2009 speech at West Point, President Obama stated that al-Qaeda would “operate with impunity” if the region “slides backward.” This is only true if the Taliban is remarkably stupid. Before September 11, 2001, the Taliban allowed al-Qaeda to train and plot in Afghanistan because it was profoundly ignorant of American intentions and power. The United States, Taliban leaders believed, understood enough history to not intervene in Afghanistan. Now they know better. If the Taliban somehow returned to power, it would face enemies enough without provoking another American assault or intervention by giving al-Qaeda a free hand.

Finally, the Obama strategy assumes that if the Taliban regained control of some or all of Afghanistan and did, for some reason, provide support and sanctuary to al-Qaeda, this would increase the threat to the United States and the other NATO countries. Again, this overlooks history. Al-Qaeda was able to plot terrorism from Afghanistan because the United States was unaware of the impending danger. Had America known what was coming, it certainly would have rendered al-Qaeda’s Afghanistan bases useless even without a full scale invasion. There is no reason to believe that if al-Qaeda somehow recreated its pre-September 11 Afghanistan sanctuary that the United States would not quickly destroy it.

Ultimately, then, the basic rationale of American strategy in Afghanistan is questionable. Certainly America cannot ignore that country as it did before September 11, 2001, and should continue supporting the national government and other Afghans opposed to the Taliban. But in strategy, balance is the key — the expected security benefits of any action must justify the costs and risks. Today, America’s Afghanistan strategy, with its flawed assumptions, is badly out of balance.

Dr Steven Metz is a Research Professor of National Security Affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute of the United States Army War College. The views expressed in this op-ed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Reprinted with permission of the Strategic Studies Institute Newsletter, U.S. Army War College.

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5 thoughts on “America’s flawed Afghanistan strategy

  1. Norman

    I doubt that this mindset will ever change. Between the NeoCons, the Military, the Israeli lobbyists, the corruption in the Government, the War manufactures, as well as the population who see the bogyman every time they are awake, plus a P.O.T.U.S. who seems unsure of himself, for what ever reason, the Country is doomed, in the mad dash to get what ever piece of the treasury is available. Meanwhile, the infrastructure continues to fall apart, the middle class is rapidly disappearing, the social fabric of the nation has become fragmented, because of all the above. One most important fact that nobody is willing to admit or talk about, is that since “O” became P.O.T.U.S., the hate fringe, the Right in their concerted efforts to not only degrade the office through rhetoric, but also that the Democratic response has been mute. When ever one side gets away with what has taken place in the country, without a counter balance, then that group only grows more brazen as time passes. What ever the reason for “O” to sit on the sidelines, has in effect divided this country, which will never heal until he either gets off his smug oratories, or leaves office. Then what will be the case? Bush left the country in such a mess, one can only imagine what it will look like when “O” is out?

    Personally, I believe that each & everyone who continues advocates War, especially bombing Iran, are being traitors to the United States Of America. The senseless killing that’s taking place in the name of the U.S.A. , in treasure of money & human life, is against what made this country great. Left & Right, both have abandoned the virtues of the American way, for greed, selfishness, stupidity. The so called Christians in the country that support War, are also guilty of being traitors. What will be left for the Children, Grandchildren, Great grandchildren, beside a decimated infrastructure, a mountain of debt that they can’t pay off, a heritage of despair. Shame on everyone who wears those little lapel American flags that are made in China. It just may be too late to mend the injustice that this country has inflected upon human kind with these Wars.

  2. Christopher Hoare

    The US strategy is either the raving of fools or a pretext. I still favour the latter assessment. Enough imperialists in Washington want to extend the US sphere into Central Asia that the Afghan disaster is only a sideshow. The objective has been to build up US military presence in the country and keep it there. They don’t want a success that might see the forces withdrawn.

    Of course taking on Russia and China in their own backyards is in itself the action of fools.

  3. Norman

    Christopher, I’ll go with the former, the raving fools. Why? Simply because the U.S. doesn’t have enough Military personnel to fight while maintaining every garrison they are in, along with running out of treasure. It doesn’t take much to see how stretched out in terms of fighting men & women these same forces are. War is to fools, like Opium is to the addict, or perhaps a better analogy might be like “Crack is to the Crackhead”! Which by the way, is a C.I.A. invention I’m to understand. It’s very hard to discern as to what is really the objective & what is the distraction, (side show). Some one should have told “O” that by his sitting on the fence like he has, allows the country to be pulled apart, not in a beneficial way, but to hasten the demise of country. It just proves that the smug oratory isn’t enough. He talks the talk, but hasn’t got enough to walk the walk. This is to imply that in these times, we need a strong leader, not a sometimes strong preacher.

  4. Afghanistan

    Strategy can always be flawed and there is always a room for improvement. Strategy built on the facts and professionals working with out political or media pressures will generally be more perfect than a policy developed to accommodate the wishes of Politicians, and business Concerns. Afghanistan project can bring allot of benefits to USA and if not handled perfectly can cause a bigger tragedy to USA than 9/11. Pandora box opened by the Bush must now be handled by professionals. I am a tour Operator in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Pakistan. I have been a frequent traveler and mix freely with the masses. Afghan masses are not with taliban. They hate the Foreign Dictation, they want peace, they aspire for progress and comfort for their children. They are humans like any other Human Being. But they hate when USA soldiers spend evenings with Afghan Prostitutes, act arrogantly, Dictate to them. Develop a strategy based on the ground realities and project will bring benefits to every body but now I also think the project is progressing towards a failure.

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