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Plan B in Afghanistan
ROBERT D. BLACKWILL is Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. He served as U.S. Ambassador to India in 2001-3 and as Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Planning in 2003-4.See more by this author
Current U.S. policy toward Afghanistan involves spending scores of billions of dollars and suffering several hundred allied deaths annually to prevent the Afghan Taliban from controlling the Afghan Pashtun homeland -- with little end in sight. Those who ask for more time for the existing strategy to succeed often fail to spell out what they think the odds are that it will work in the next few years, what amount of casualties and resources they think the attempt is worth, and why. That calculus suggests that it is time to shift to Plan B.
The United States and its allies are not on course to defeating the Taliban militarily. There are now about 150,000 U.S.-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops in Afghanistan. This is 30,000 more troops than the Soviet Union deployed in the 1980s, but less than half the number required to have some chance of pacifying the country, according to standard counterinsurgency doctrine.
Nor, with an occupying army largely ignorant of local history, tribal structures, languages, customs, politics, and values, will the alliance win over large numbers of the Afghan Pashtuns, as counterinsurgency doctrine demands. In Sebastian Junger's phrase, the United States will not capture the "human terrain" of southern and eastern Afghanistan. In November, Afghan President Hamid Karzai told The Washington Post that he wanted U.S. troops off the roads and out of Afghan homes and that the long-term presence of so many foreign soldiers would only worsen the war. "The time has come to reduce military operations," Karzai said. "The time has come to reduce the presence of, you know, boots in Afghanistan . . . to reduce the intrusiveness into the daily Afghan life." Such attitudes are common -- and profoundly inconsistent with the counterinsurgency strategy of deploying soldiers in local communities.
The quality of governance emanating from Karzai's deeply corrupt government will not significantly improve, and without a comprehensive reform of the Afghan government, U.S. success is virtually impossible. As the counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen stresses, "You are only as good as the government you are supporting." In that context, Dexter Filkins noted in The New York Times that "Afghanistan is now widely recognized as one of the world's premier gangster-states. Out of 180 countries, Transparency International ranks it, in terms of corruption, 179th, better only than Somalia."