This piece was published as part of The Future of Afghanistan and U.S. Foreign Policy, a collaboration between the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism and

The withdrawal of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) from Afghanistan cannot properly be described as international, an exit, or a strategy. The so-called transition to Afghan leadership by the end of 2014 is a timetable driven largely by U.S. domestic politics. When this timetable is complete, Afghanistan will still be at war.

In December 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama outlined the goal of U.S. policy in Afghanistan: “…to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future.” The most striking feature of this policy is the treatment of al Qaeda’s sanctuary in Pakistan and Afghanistan as a single and uniquely dangerous threat. This is not because it is an ungoverned space. Large areas of Somalia and Yemen also fit this description. Nor is it because the population has ideological sympathy for al Qaeda. Pockets of support for al Qaeda can be found elsewhere, including in the West. And it is also not the only staging ground for attacks on the West. Al Qaeda’s affiliates in the Arabian Peninsula and North Africa have, in recent years, proven more lethal than the core of al Qaeda’s leadership in Pakistan.

Instead, the region presents a pressing danger due to the unique confluence of radical ideology and nuclear weapons within it. Adherents to radical ideology are spread throughout the globe, and at least nine states have nuclear weapons. However, only in southern Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan are there adherents to al Qaeda’s radical ideology less than a day’s drive from the world’s least secure nuclear arsenal. Moreover, al Qaeda does not need Afghanistan to achieve its goal of acquiring one or more nuclear weapons for use against the West. Even if Afghanistan were perfectly stable, the danger of al Qaeda acquiring nuclear weapons in Pakistan would remain. Without the threat of nuclear terrorism, the insurgency in Afghanistan would be no more important to the West than are similar threats around the world.

To address this threat, the United States conducted a reassessment of its strategy in Afghanistan in 2009. The Obama Administration considered two broad strategies: a fully resourced counterinsurgency and a more limited counterterrorism strategy. The first approach was based on the tenets of counterinsurgency doctrine -- protect the population, develop the capabilities of Afghan security forces, and strengthen the legitimacy of the government in Kabul by improving its capacity to provide security and other essential services to the population. This plan would have required about 140,000 ISAF troops, an increase of 40,000 over 2009 levels.

A full counterinsurgency approach might have worked in 2001, but it became politically infeasible by 2009. Consider an ideal alternative history at the outset of the war in Afghanistan. A robust U.S.-led military coalition could have toppled the Taliban, captured or killed Osama bin Laden and other key al Qaeda leaders, and provided post-conflict security to the Afghan people. A strong civilian team could have assisted in developing a legitimate Afghan government capable of providing essential services to the population. Skillful diplomacy could have convinced Pakistan that a stable Afghanistan was in its interests, while security assistance could have helped it deny sanctuary to al Qaeda and the Taliban in its northwest territories. Even in this ideal situation, rooting out extremist elements in Afghanistan and Pakistan would have taken a generation.

Instead, the United States underestimated how many troops it needed, allowing bin Laden and other key al Qaeda figures to escape to Pakistan and security within Afghanistan to deteriorate. The United States then squandered credibility at home and goodwill abroad by launching the war in Iraq. To this day, U.S. civilian assistance is unequal to the challenges of developing a legitimate Afghan government. And elements within the Pakistani government continue to foster chaos in Afghanistan.

Those advocating a program of counterinsurgency in 2009 behaved as if these events either did not happen or did not matter. But a decade’s worth of blunders and misrepresentations has exhausted the patience of the American people. For nearly ten years, U.S. officials insisted that their Afghan policy was succeeding. They did not ask the public to fight the war or to pay for it, and they failed to reveal the deterioration in security on both sides of the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Revelations began to emerge around the time that the global economy collapsed in 2008. In the aftermath of the financial crisis, the economy is the top national concern. Devoting the hundreds of billions of dollars required by a counterinsurgency campaign into an open-ended conflict in Afghanistan would have been difficult even in 2001. By 2009, such a policy became impossible.

But the alternative approach, focusing on counterterrorism, was scarcely better. It called for an increased emphasis on capturing or killing key insurgent and terrorist leaders and accelerating the development of Afghan security forces, but it was more a collection of tactics to disrupt al Qaeda than a strategy to defeat it. It did not offer any means of addressing the incompetence of the government in Kabul, the explicit support for the Taliban and tacit support for al Qaeda in Islamabad, or the political conditions inside Pakistan that fuel the growth of extremist ideology.

And yet the policy that emerged from the reassessment of strategy in 2009 -- increasing troop levels through the summer of 2011 and withdrawing at the end of 2014 -- was worse than either of the proposed options. It failed to take into account that al Qaeda was all but gone from Afghanistan and that the overwhelming majority of those fighting ISAF in Afghanistan were locals with limited ambitions beyond the country’s borders. Increased troop levels allowed ISAF to fight the insurgency, but the time limits placed on the mission kept that fighting from producing enduring political results. The plan also did little to address the Afghan government’s corruption. And it relied on drone strikes to disrupt al Qaeda in Pakistan rather than address the toxic political conditions within Pakistan that make it a danger not only to itself and its neighbors but also to much of the world.

If the Obama administration hoped to end the war in Afghanistan and focus on domestic priorities, then it did not need to commit additional forces. If hoped to prevent the Taliban from seizing power in Kabul, then time limits on troop commitments undermine its efforts. If it sought to defeat al Qaeda, then it focused U.S. resources on the wrong country.

Over the next three years, the United States and its partners will continue to withdraw forces from Afghanistan. American domestic politics and fiscal constraints will largely drive this exit. No matter which political party prevails in the 2012 U.S. elections, the domestic political calculus will be the same: spiraling costs for entitlements and interest on the debt, deep divisions about what mix of spending cuts and tax increases will solve the problem, heavy pressure to slash defense spending and foreign aid, and little political will to continue the war in Afghanistan beyond 2014. The best-case scenario is that ISAF’s transition to Afghan leadership will occur according to the current plan. But another financial shock or further political dysfunction in Washington could accelerate that timetable.

Either way, the war in Afghanistan will rage long after 2014. Until ISAF leaves, combined security operations, drone strikes, and special operations raids will continue to take their toll on insurgent and terrorist networks. When ISAF is gone, Afghan security forces can continue to fight even without foreign combat troops, but it is uncertain how the Afghan government will pay for its army and police without substantial external assistance. Other regional actors, such as China, India, and Iran, will jockey for influence in Afghanistan while doing little to strengthen the legitimacy or capacity of the government in Kabul. And the Afghan government is unlikely to address the ineptitude and graft that makes such assistance necessary.

The future of Pakistan is more difficult to predict. It could limp along as a failing state, or suddenly fail with little warning. The West knows so little about the internal dynamics of the country that virtually any significant change will come as a surprise. Although the exact timing and extent of state failure in Pakistan is difficult to predict, the consequences of such failure are not. Partial or total state failure of a nuclear Pakistan would pose a grave threat to the United States. In such a scenario, the White House would not know who controlled Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. A nuclear-armed al Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Taiba, or other extremist group would be difficult if not impossible to deter.

ISAF’s exit from Afghanistan has much more to do with American domestic politics than with coalition strategy. American fiscal constraints and political paralysis set this course in motion long ago, and corrective measures are unlikely in the absence of a crisis. Too often, what passes for strategic thought in the United States is actually a struggle among self-interested elites seeking political, commercial, or bureaucratic advantage. Such behavior is the privilege of a country that is both rich and safe. However, a pattern of such behavior is self-correcting: no country that behaves this way will stay rich or safe for long.

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  • PAUL L. YINGLING is a colonel in the U.S. Army and a professor of security studies at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
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