A Cheaper and More Effective Military Strategy for Afghanistan

Supporters of an escalation of the Afghanistan war often ask that we give military options a chance. They also respond to criticism of the surge by asking “okay smart guy, what would YOU do to fight Al Qaeda in Afghanistan?”

Well, initially, the U.S. admits there are only a small handful of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. As ABC notes:

U.S. intelligence officials have concluded there are only about 100 al Qaeda fighters in the entire country.

With 100,000 troops in Afghanistan at an estimated yearly cost of $30 billion, it means that for every one al Qaeda fighter, the U.S. will commit 1,000 troops and $300 million a year.

There are probably more than 100 homicidal maniacs in any large American city. But we wouldn’t send soldiers into the city to get those bad guys.

Indeed, a leading advisor to the U.S. military – the very hawkish Rand Corporation – released a study in 2008 called “How Terrorist Groups End: Lessons for Countering al Qa’ida”. The report confirms what experts have been saying for years: the war on terror is actually weakening national security.

As a press release about the study states:

Terrorists should be perceived and described as criminals, not holy warriors, and our analysis suggests that there is no battlefield solution to terrorism.

There are additional reasons why prolonging the Afghan war may reduce our national security, such as weakening our economy.

But if you want a military solution anyway, Andrew J. Bacevich has an answer.

Bacevich is no dove. Graduating from West Point in 1969, he served in the United States Army during the Vietnam War. He then held posts in Germany, including the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, the United States, and the Persian Gulf up to his retirement from the service with the rank of Colonel in the early 1990s. Bacevich holds a Ph.D. in American Diplomatic History from Princeton University, and taught at West Point and Johns Hopkins University prior to joining the faculty at Boston University in 1998. Bacevich’s is a military family. On May 13, 2007, Bacevich’s son, was killed in action while serving in Iraq.

Last year, Bacevich wrote in an article in Newsweek:

Meanwhile, the chief effect of allied military operations there so far has been not to defeat the radical Islamists but to push them across the Pakistani border. As a result, efforts to stabilize Afghanistan are contributing to the destabilization of Pakistan, with potentially devastating implications. September’s bombing of the Marriott hotel in Islamabad suggests that the extremists are growing emboldened. Today and for the foreseeable future, no country poses a greater potential threat to U.S. national security than does Pakistan. To risk the stability of that nuclear-armed state in the vain hope of salvaging Afghanistan would be a terrible mistake.

All this means that the proper U.S. priority for Afghanistan should be not to try harder but to change course. The war in Afghanistan (like the Iraq War) won’t be won militarily. It can be settled—however imperfectly—only through politics.

The new U.S. president needs to realize that America’s real political objective in Afghanistan is actually quite modest: to ensure that terrorist groups like Al Qaeda can’t use it as a safe haven for launching attacks against the West. Accomplishing that won’t require creating a modern, cohesive nation-state. U.S. officials tend to assume that power in Afghanistan ought to be exercised from Kabul. Yet the real influence in Afghanistan has traditionally rested with tribal leaders and warlords. Rather than challenge that tradition, Washington should work with it. Offered the right incentives, warlords can accomplish U.S. objectives more effectively and more cheaply than Western combat battalions. The basis of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan should therefore become decentralization and outsourcing, offering cash and other emoluments to local leaders who will collaborate with the United States in excluding terrorists from their territory.

This doesn’t mean Washington should blindly trust that warlords will become America’s loyal partners. U.S. intelligence agencies should continue to watch Afghanistan closely, and the Pentagon should crush any jihadist activities that local powers fail to stop themselves. As with the Israelis in Gaza, periodic airstrikes may well be required to pre-empt brewing plots before they mature.

Were U.S. resources unlimited and U.S. interests in Afghanistan more important, upping the ante with additional combat forces might make sense. But U.S. power — especially military power — is quite limited these days, and U.S. priorities lie elsewhere.

Rather than committing more troops, therefore, the new president should withdraw them while devising a more realistic — and more affordable — strategy for Afghanistan

In other words, America’s war strategy is increasing instability in Pakistan. Pakistan has nuclear weapons. So the surge could very well decrease not only American national security but the security of the entire world.

I think that diplomatic rather than military means should be used to kill or contain the 100 bad guys in Afghanistan. But if we are going to remain engaged militarily, Bacevich’s approach is a lot smarter than a surge of boots on the ground.

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