Will the US Win in Afghanistan?
We ask several leading foreign policy thinkers about America’s prospects in the conflict.
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Last fall, a two-part question circulated throughout the Pentagon:
Can the United States win in Afghanistan? Will the United States win in
In this case, “win” meant accomplishing the strategic objectives of
U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, as presented in President Obama’s
December 2009 speech
at West Point: disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda in Afghanistan
and Pakistan through “a military effort to create the conditions for a
transition; a civilian surge that reinforces positive action; and an
effective partnership with Pakistan.”
The consensus among civilian and military staffers and officials was
that while roughly half thought the U.S. military could win in
Afghanistan, almost nobody believed that it would. This disconnect has
created an uncomfortable situation where some of the people who design,
refine, and implement U.S. strategy in Afghanistan simply do not believe
it will ultimately succeed.
Today, the Obama administration acknowledges setbacks, such the
increase in attacks by Afghan security forces on U.S. and ISAF troops,
the Taliban’s suspension of the negotiating process with the United
States, and the alleged murder of sixteen civilians in the Kandahar
province by an Army staff sergeant. Nevertheless, the White House
affirms that its Afghanistan strategy is working. Two weeks ago, General
John Allen told the House Armed Services Committee, “I am confident
that we will prevail in this endeavor.” On Saturday, Secretary of
Defense Leon Panetta proclaimed:
“In Afghanistan we’ve also made a turning point. The level of violence
has gone down…We’ve seen the Taliban weakened so that they’ve been
unable to establish and organize efforts…The bottom line is it’s
Public opinion polls
show that the American public is increasingly skeptical of the U.S. war
strategy in Afghanistan and the likelihood of its success. The majority
of Americans think the United States is not winning the war in
Afghanistan (62 percent), that the war is going “somewhat” or “very”
badly (68 percent), and that all U.S. troops should be withdrawn earlier
than the 2014 (55 percent). The vast majority of Americans now oppose
the war (72 percent), an increase of 21 percent since President Obama
entered the White House.
With less than twenty months until U.S. troops are scheduled to be
withdrawn, we asked several foreign policy experts who focus in
Afghanistan to address this question:
“The Obama administration’s stated objectives in Afghanistan
are to deny al-Qaeda a safe haven, prevent the Taliban from overthrowing
the government, and build up Afghan security forces in order to
transition U.S. combat forces out of the country by 2014. Based on the
current strategy, do you think that the Obama administration will
achieve its goals?”
- Andrew Exum, Senior Fellow, Center for a New American Security
I may lose my think-tanking license for writing this, but my honest
answer to the question is that I simply do not know. I have been
traveling to and studying Afghanistan for a decade now, and the more I
learn about the country and the conflict there, the less confident I am
in my ability to know anything certain about what will or will not
happen as a result of U.S. actions.
I believe Afghanistan may be a case in which the president’s policy
will succeed but not the strategic goals associated with that policy. It
may be possible, in other words, to continue to disrupt and dismantle
al-Qaeda while failing in the effort to create a stable Afghan
The question asked specifically if the United States could prevent
the Taliban from overthrowing the government, and the answer to that
question is probably yes. My suspicion, which has been unchanged since 2009,
is that the people of Afghanistan will suffer for the foreseeable
future from a proxy war fought between elements supported by United
States and its allies on the one hand and elements supported by
Pakistan’s security services on the other hand. The United States can
ensure the Taliban and its supporters across the Durand Line do not win
that war. But it will be very difficult to minimize the suffering of the
Afghan people, who have surely already endured more than their fair
share of pain.
- Jamie M. Fly, Executive Director, Foreign Policy Initiative
The Obama administration’s (and America’s) ability to meet those
goals will depend in large part on the decisions that President Obama
makes in the coming months. If he follows the reported advice of Vice
President Biden and others in his administration who favor an early
announcement of additional troop withdrawals in 2013, the strategy will
be seriously compromised. With the surge forces that the President sent
to Afghanistan in 2009 and 2010 set to return home by the end of this
September, our commanders on the ground are already being forced to make
do with lower force levels than they would have preferred.
In the coming months, we will see if the gains that have been
achieved at great cost in American lives in areas like Helmand and
Kandahar hold as we hand over more control to Afghan security forces.
The situation in the east along the border with Pakistan remains
uncertain and the administration does not appear to have a coherent
Pakistan strategy that would enable success in Afghanistan.
These uncertainties have led General John Allen to say that he will
not be able to adequately assess required troop levels for 2013 until
the end of this year after the surge forces are withdrawn and the
fighting season comes to an end.
Over the last three years, the Obama administration has pursued what
appears to be a schizophrenic policy toward Afghanistan. Despite his
decisions early in his administration to double down and send tens of
thousands of additional troops, the President and his top advisors are
clearly uncomfortable with a war that they believe to be a political
If the war is lost, it will be lost in Washington, not on the
battlefield. Our men and women in uniform can succeed, but only if they
are given the resources and time to do so.
- Colonel Gian P. Gentile, Professor of American History, United States Military Academy at West Point
For the last eleven years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan the American
Army has displayed a conspicuous and troubling tendency to fall in line
with an American Way of War: A Way which sees any problem in war solved
by an optimal operational solution discovered by the army’s senior
officers, especially its higher ranking generals. In Vietnam it was
search and destroy; in the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan it has
been hearts and minds counterinsurgency.
To be sure wars fought for a nation’s existence like World War
II–with the Allies goal of unconditional surrender of Germany and
Japan–a military’s operational framework can provide the solution in
war. However, in limited wars of choice such as Vietnam and the current
wars in Iraq and Afghanistan sometimes even with an optimal operational
solution the wars can still be lost, or fought to a point to where they
are no longer worth fighting. This seems to be the state of affairs in
Afghanistan today. Yet instead of seeing the strategic reality that the
war is no longer worth fighting, the American Army maintains its faith
in an operational solution to save a war fought under a botched
That botched strategy has sought to achieve very limited policy
aims–the reduction of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan–with a maximalist
operational method of armed nation building. It represents the death of
good American strategy and a waste of good American blood and treasure.
- Michael Wahid Hanna, Fellow, The Century Foundation
The core goals of the Afghan war are still within reach for the Obama
administration, as they are not reliant on the actual defeat of the
Taliban. Al-Qaeda’s role in Afghanistan has been degraded materially and
their effective presence is now de minimis. The Taliban are
also not in a position to topple the central government and reassert
political control over all of the Afghanistan.
However, the United States and its allies simply cannot defeat the
Afghan insurgency. The insurgency has proven to be resilient and is able
to take advantage of safe havens in Pakistan.
As such, the United States can achieve its core mission, albeit with a
continuing but vastly diminished commitment post-2014. However, the
only viable pathway for achieving a durable settlement without an
ongoing U.S. presence remains a negotiated outcome with the insurgency.
Short of this result, the United States will have an enduring military
presence in the country. This is obviously a suboptimal outcome. Yet, we
have not seen a truly committed approach to the political track, which
remains parallel to military efforts.
It is incumbent that the United States expend political capital now
to test the ultimate intentions of the Taliban leadership and their
capacity to enforce a settlement, if one is reached. In turn, this will
inform planning for the post-2014 environment. The war will not be won
in that timeframe regardless of U.S. military strategy. Bearing this in
mind, harmonizing political and military strategy represents a prudent
approach with few downside risks.
In any event, plans for transition should continue unabated, as an
extended presence under a Strategic Partnership Agreement is only
conceivable or sustainable with a vastly reduced presence. And it is
only if a political process fails that an American commitment to
Afghanistan is defensible.
- Malou Innocent, Foreign Policy Analyst, CATO Institute
The pervasive corruption in the Afghan government, the militant safe havens in Pakistan, and the “crisis of trust”
between American soldiers and Afghan troops will likely prevent the
Obama administration from achieving its goals. Fortunately, a sustained
U.S. troop presence to deny al Qaeda a safe haven is unnecessary–in
Afghanistan or elsewhere. Al Qaeda poses a manageable security problem that requires discrete operations, intelligence sharing, and surgical strikes when necessary.
Let us remember that in 2009, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, warned
that without a surge of forces the conflict “will likely result in
failure.” The Obama administration tripled the American military
presence and yet we have seen no meaningful turn around. A classified
NATO report, “State of the Taliban 2012,” said the Taliban’s “strength, motivation, funding and tactical proficiency remains intact.” And in separate dissents appended
to the 2011 National Intelligence Estimate, the U.S. commander in
Afghanistan, Marine General John Allen, and the U.S. Ambassador to
Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, argued that the Taliban have shown no readiness to abandon their political goals.
Slowly turning over portions of the country to Afghan security forces
implies that threats to Afghanistan’s internal security will be
resolved or substantially diminished in the next eighteen months. Such
problems will likely persist, but do not threaten vital U.S. security
- Candace Rondeaux, Senior Analyst, Afghanistan, International Crisis Group
There is not much to recommend the Obama administration’s current
strategy on Afghanistan. Barring a major course correction in U.S.
policy on South Asia and a tectonic shift that unifies the increasingly
divided Afghan political elite, Washington is unlikely to succeed in
building up an Afghan security force capable of confronting the Taliban
after 2014. Rife with factionalism, high attrition rates and low morale,
Afghan security forces are ill-prepared to handle the threat from
insurgent safe havens in Pakistan. They will be even less prepared if
NATO proceeds with proposals to slash military aid to Afghanistan and to
drastically reduce the number of Afghan security forces on the rolls by
2015 or 2017 without a comprehensive contingency plan for
demobilization. Washington’s effort to blunt the threat in South Asia
through negotiations with the Taliban doesn’t offer much hope
either. Neither Obama nor President Hamid Karzai have been able to
convince Afghan insurgents of the value of breaking ranks with their
backers in the Pakistani military. The Pakistani military, meanwhile,
has repeatedly demonstrated it is prepared to go to great lengths to
control the negotiation process and to marginalize or even eliminate
perceived defectors or their backers among Afghanistan’s elites. Mullah
Omar’s Quetta shura, as a result, appears to be split over whether and
how to proceed with their nascent talks with the U.S. Osama bin Laden is
dead and gone but leading Taliban negotiators involved in the Qatar
process have refused to publicly renounce al-Qaeda, saying that do so
would be a betrayal of Islamic values. The Taliban are unlikely to
overthrow the Afghan government wholesale but they don’t have to for the
White House strategy to fail–it already has.
This article originally appeared at CFR.org, an Atlantic partner site.
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