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."
The Afghan National Army will not be ready to hold its own with the Taliban or take over major combat missions from ISAF in southern and eastern Afghanistan in any realistic time frame. According to The Economist, "Less than 3% of recruits are from the troublesome Pushtun south, from where the Taliban draw most support. Few will sign up, fearing ruthless intimidation against government 'collaborators' and their families. As a result, northern officers who only speak Dari have to use translators when in the Pushtu-speaking south. Northern infantry are reluctant to go there at all." U.S. Marine Corps General James Conway told the press last August that the Afghan National Army would not be ready to take over security from U.S. troops in Afghanistan's Helmand and Kandahar Provinces for several years because of conditions on the ground.
The Pakistani military, driven by its perception of India as the enemy and its perceived requirement for strategic depth, will not end its support for and provision of sanctuary to its longtime Afghan Taliban proxies or accept a truly independent Afghanistan.
And public opinion in the United States and other allied countries, finally, is unlikely to permit the extension of the intervention for the length of time counterinsurgency doctrine says is required for success.
With all these individual elements of the United States' existing Afghanistan policy in serious trouble, optimism about the current strategy's ability to meet its objectives reminds one of the White Queen's comment in Through the Looking Glass: "Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast." The time has come, therefore, to switch to the least bad alternative -- acceptance of a de facto partition of the country.
U.S. President Barack Obama's repeated statements that the United States will be starting to end its combat role in Afghanistan soon have weakened U.S. diplomatic strength throughout the region. The administration should stop talking about exit strategies and instead commit the United States to a long-term combat role in Afghanistan of 35,000-50,000 troops.
At the same time, however, Washington should accept that the Taliban will inevitably control most of the Pashtun south and east and that the price of forestalling that outcome is far too high for the United States to continue paying. To be sure, the administration should not invite the Taliban to dominate the Afghan Pashtun homeland, nor explicitly seek to break up Afghanistan. Rather, the United States and its partners should simply stop dying in the south and the east and let the local "correlation of forces" there take its course -- while deploying U.S. air power and Special Forces for the foreseeable future in support of the Afghan army and the government in Kabul, to ensure that the north and west of Afghanistan do not succumb to the Taliban as well.
In short, President Obama should announce that the United States and its Afghan and foreign partners will pursue a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy in Pashtun Afghanistan and a nation-building strategy in the rest of the country, committing to both policies for at least the next seven to ten years. Reluctantly accepting such a de facto partition would be a profoundly disappointing outcome to the United States' ten-year Afghan investment. But regrettably, it is now the best result that Washington can realistically and responsibly achieve.
WITHDRAW IN ORDER TO STAY
After so many years of faulty U.S. policy toward Afghanistan, there are no quick, easy, and cost-free ways to escape the current quagmire. Even with all its problems, a de facto partition offers the Obama administration the best available alternative to strategic defeat. Stressing that the United States will retain an active combat role in Afghanistan for years into the future and that it does not accept permanent Taliban control of the south, the United States and its allies would withdraw ground combat forces over several months from most of Pashtun Afghanistan, including Kandahar. ISAF would stop fighting in the mountains, valleys, and urban areas of southern and eastern Afghanistan (although it would continue to provide arms, aid, and intelligence to local tribal leaders there who want to resist). Washington would concentrate its efforts, meanwhile, on defending the areas in the north and west of Afghanistan not dominated by the Pashtuns, including Kabul.
The Afghan Taliban would be offered a modus vivendi in which each side agreed not to seek to enlarge the territory it controlled, so long as the Taliban stopped supporting terrorism -- a proposal that they would probably reject. The United States would make clear that it would strike against any al Qaeda targets anywhere, any Taliban encroachments across the de facto partition line, and any sanctuaries along the Pakistani border. No terrorist safe havens would be exempt from intensified U.S. attacks on either side of the Durand Line.
Washington would enlist Afghanistan's Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, and supportive Pashtuns in this endeavor -- as well as its NATO allies, Afghanistan's various neighbors, and hopefully the United Nations Security Council. The allies would continue to accelerate the training of the Afghan army. They would devote nation-building efforts to groups in Afghanistan's north and west that are willing to accept help and are not systematically coerced by the Taliban. And the time might eventually come when a much stronger Afghan National Army might be able, with help, to retake the south and the east.
As the policy analyst John Chipman has pointed out, "A containment and deterrence approach would be a strategy that was limited to dealing with the threat as originally defined by the coalition forces that intervened in Afghanistan. . . . It would replace the impression that an eventual drawdown of combat forces from Afghanistan would constitute victory for the enemy, with the reality of a strategy that could be maintained for a longer period while meeting the principal security goal." In this respect, recent press reports that some U.S. forces will remain in Afghanistan until the end of 2014 are a welcome development.
Such a change in U.S. strategy would make clear to all that the United States, through its prolonged military presence in Afghanistan, intends to remain a power and influence in South and Central Asia for many years to come. It would dramatically reduce U.S. military casualties and thus minimize U.S. domestic political pressure for a hasty withdrawal. It would substantially lower U.S. expenditures on Afghanistan (now nearly $7 billion per month). It would increase the likelihood that NATO allies would continue their missions in Afghanistan over the long term. It would allow the U.S. Army and Marines to recover from years of fighting two ground wars. It would encourage most of Afghanistan's neighbors to support an acceptable stabilization of the country. It would reduce Islamabad's capacity to use the U.S. ground role in southern Afghanistan to extract tolerance from Washington regarding terrorism emanating from Pakistan. And it would allow the Obama administration to concentrate intensively on other important issues.
NO GOOD CHOICES
Accepting a de facto partition of Afghanistan has enough downsides that choosing it makes sense only if the other options available are even worse. They are.
One alternative, for example, would be to stay the counterinsurgency course in Afghanistan no matter how long it takes, and perhaps even expand the existing commitment. This course would not make sense because U.S. interests in Afghanistan are not high enough to justify such an investment. The United States now deploys about 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, yet according to the CIA, there are now only 50 to 100 al Qaeda fighters there. That is between 1,000 and 2,000 soldiers and perhaps a billion dollars per terrorist each year -- far beyond any reasonable expenditure of U.S. resources given the stakes involved. The original U.S. military objective in Afghanistan was to destroy al Qaeda, not to fight the Afghan Taliban, and that goal has largely been accomplished.
Another alternative would be for the United States to withdraw all its military forces from Afghanistan over the next year or two. But this course would lead to the rapid resumption of an all-out Afghan civil war and then to a probable conquest of the entire country by the Taliban. It would draw Afghanistan's neighbors into the fighting, destabilizing the region and further souring relations between New Delhi and Islamabad. It would raise the odds of the Islamic radicalization of Pakistan, which would in turn call into question the safety and security of Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. It would weaken, if not rupture, the budding U.S.-Indian strategic partnership, undermine NATO's future, and trigger a global outpouring of support for jihadist ideology and increased terrorism against liberal societies more broadly. And it would be seen around the world by friends and adversaries alike as a failure of international leadership and strategic resolve by an ever-weaker United States, with destructive aftershocks for many years to come.
A third alternative would be to try to achieve stability in Afghanistan through negotiations with the Taliban. NATO could seek to entice the Afghan Taliban to stop fighting and enter into a coalition government in Kabul. As CIA Director Leon Panetta has said, however, so long as the Taliban think they are winning, they will remain intransigent: "We have seen no evidence that they are truly interested in reconciliation where they would surrender their arms, where they would denounce al-Qaeda, where they would really try to become part of that society. We have seen no evidence of that, and very frankly, my view is that, with regards to reconciliation, unless they're convinced the United States is going to win and that they are going to be defeated, I think it is very difficult to proceed with a reconciliation that is going to be meaningful." Despite the intensification of drone attacks, the United States cannot kill the Taliban into meaningful political compromise. As a senior Defense Department official told The Washington Post in late October, "The insurgency seems to be maintaining its resilience," adding that if there was a sign the momentum was shifting, he did not see it.
But what about the potential problems with the de facto partition option? If the Afghan Taliban were allowed to control the south and the east, would they not invite al Qaeda fighters back into the country and restore the pre-9/11 situation? Not necessarily. Last October, then National Security Adviser James Jones said that the U.S. government's maximum estimate was that al Qaeda had fewer than 100 members in Afghanistan, with no bases and "no ability to launch attacks on either [the United States] or [its] allies." The Afghan Taliban may have learned their lesson about what happens when al Qaeda is allowed to run free.
If they did not, however, the United States could continue to attack al Qaeda targets on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border, applying deadly pressure in ways that were not available before 9/11. The sky over Pashtun Afghanistan would be filled with Predators targeting not only terrorist activities but also, if necessary, the new Afghan Taliban government in all its dimensions. Taliban civil officials (governors, mayors, police chiefs, judges, tax collectors, and the like) would wake up every morning not knowing if they would survive the day in their offices, during routine outside activities, or in their homes at night. There would be no mountain caves in which they could hide and at the same time do their jobs. This should produce some degree of deterrence. And even if many of the roughly 300 al Qaeda fighters now in Pakistan did move a few score miles north across the border, it would not make much practical difference -- surely not enough to justify an indefinite major ground war to prevent it.
What if the Afghan Taliban did not adhere to the rough boundaries of a de facto partition and sought to reconquer the entire country? They might well try, but they would be prevented from achieving their goal by the continued military might of ISAF and the growing capabilities of the Afghan National Army. Accepting a de facto partition would not lead to a civil war; such a conflict is already being fought. What partition would do is help stabilize the situation by making clear which side holds what territory.
What about the islands of non-Pashtun peoples in the south and the east, the women of those areas, and any Pashtun tribal forces that want to resist the Taliban -- would not this course abandon them? Unfortunately, the answer is essentially yes. But this would be a tragic consequence of local realities that are impossible for outsiders to change in any reasonable time frame and with justifiable amounts of blood and treasure sacrificed. The United States and its allies did not go to war in Afghanistan to protect all segments of the local population there from medieval brutality, and they should not take on that decades-long task now.
Might this course lead to the emergence of an irredentist Pashtunistan and undermine the stability of Pakistan? Managing Islamabad's reaction to a de facto partition would be a daunting challenge, because such a course would indeed stoke Pashtun separatism on both sides of the Durand Line. But the Pakistani military is already contributing to such problems through its cross-border support for the Afghan Taliban, so in truth Islamabad has little grounds for complaint. If anything, the emergence of a clear division in Afghanistan might provide just the sort of shock the Pakistani military apparently needs in order to appreciate the dangers of the game it has been playing for decades.
Would this course lead to a proxy war in Afghanistan between India and Pakistan or destabilize the region more generally? At this point, intensified competition between New Delhi and Islamabad in Afghanistan is probable no matter what policy the United States pursues. But so long as Washington maintains a long-term military commitment there, India will not put troops on the ground, and so the possibility of a major or direct conflict between India and Pakistan will be reduced.
China, Iran, Russia, and Afghanistan's Central Asian neighbors, meanwhile, all have their own interests and perspectives, and none of them currently supports a de facto partition. But none of them wants to see the reemergence of a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan either, and so as current U.S. policy proves unsustainable, they should be open to other ways of heading off that worst-case scenario. Their self-interest should therefore lead them to consider seriously a plan such as the one laid out here (although bringing them on board would require sustained and artful U.S. regional diplomacy, which is now absent).
DYING FOR A MISTAKE
Whatever their views on Afghanistan, many officials and pundits go analogy shopping to try to strengthen their cases, searching until they find ones that reinforce their preexisting policy inclinations. The truth, however, is that the differences between the current situation and other cases are so great that almost all such comparisons are unhelpful.
The analogy most commonly cited to justify the current Afghanistan strategy, for example, is the 2007 troop surge in Iraq, which is given credit for having created enough stability there to allow the United States to start withdrawing its troops while avoiding defeat. Yet as James Dobbins, former U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan, has pointed out, replicating the sort of wholesale shift in loyalties seen among former insurgents in Iraq would be exceedingly difficult in Afghanistan. By 2007, the Sunni Arab minority in Iraq had been decisively beaten by the majority Shiite militias, and it was only after this defeat that the Sunni Arabs turned to U.S. forces for protection. The Taliban insurgency, in contrast, is rooted in Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, not its smallest.