Time to Figure Out the Endgame in Afghanistan

In the February 28 issue of The New Yorker, Steve Coll writes about a development in the Afghan War unlike any we have heard since the U.S. led invasion in 2001: potential peace talks with the Taliban. To many, the idea of such a strategy might viscerally seem like a betrayal of the American lives that were lost in the World Trade Center on 9/11. Hence, the idea of sitting down and talking with Taliban, one of our sworn enemies that we know has collaborated with the Al Qaeda in the past, would likely be unsettling to many people.

While all of that is true, the point Mr. Coll raises is an important one. We have reached a stalemate in the Afghan War, and the Obama administration is not blind to this reality. Coll writes: “… the Obama Administration has understandably concluded the status quo is untenable. The war has devolved into a strategic stalemate: urban Afghan populations enjoy reasonable security, millions of schoolgirls are back in class, Al Qaeda cannot operate, and the Taliban cannot return to power, yet in the provinces ethnic militias and criminal gangs still husband weapons, cadge international funds, and exploit the weak.”

This is an unsustainable state of affairs for a couple of reasons. The first is simple: the longer we remain mired in the current impasse in Afghanistan, the more U.S. lives will be lost. The second, more complex reason, is similar to our experience in Iraq – as long as it appears that U.S. forces are willing to linger in Afghanistan, we will be a hindrance to the Afghan government’s necessary feeling of urgency to build up a peacekeeping force of their own.

The stalemate in Afghanistan has been dramatized by the recent documentary HBO aired entitled, “The Battle for Marjah,” which documented Marine Bravo Company as they embarked on the United States’ largest offensive in the Afghan War to date. The footage is a stark reminder of how challenging the war has been for our troops on the ground in Afghanistan. Akin to Iraq, the risk of stepping on an improvised explosive device (IED) is omnipresent. There is always the real and palpable fear that bullets can miss their intended targets and mistakenly harm, if not kill, innocent lives. All of this is compounded by the fact that local Afghan governments have not proven influential enough to create stability and security for their own citizens.

Complexities such as these make the Afghan War particularly treacherous. The documentary did a commendable job of explaining that while there is a distinct strategy, i.e. counterinsurgency, to winning the hearts and minds of Afghan citizens — clear out the Taliban, hold ground seized, build infrastructure and governance, and ultimately transfer control to Afghan security forces — the strategy is only as effective as the ability to achieve the first step. “The Battle for Marjah” gave a sobering account of how difficult it is to clear and hold an area when Taliban leaders prey on the local citizens and conscript them, effectively undermining any attempt to rid an area of threats to peace. Furthermore, the documentary showed that just when it seemed as though the U.S. Marines had gained a real foothold in the town, firefights beginning in the town’s outskirts caused them to have to relinquish their ground to find a less exposed position.

More than anything, “The Battle for Marjah” reveals that the status quo of the Afghan War is, and will continue to be, uncertain unless something dramatically changes. After 10 years at war, it is time to revise our strategy. Even the late Richard Holbrooke, the White House’s Special Envoy to Af-Pak and master strategist, said of the Afghan War, “If this becomes a war of attrition against the Pashtun, we’re in trouble.” But just last week, Afghan Defense Minister, Abdul Rahim Wardak, told U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates that the Afghan people will need help from the United States after the planned withdrawal of U.S. troops in 2014. The next day Minister Wardak elaborated on this point in an interview with Charlie Rose: “… I definitely believe that this war is eminently winnable, but the final solution is, as you mentioned, it is - it should be the Afghan solution … We shall demonstrate that our will is not broken, both to the Afghan people and the international community. Any wavering of the resolve or any premature exit strategy will have catastrophic consequences for us all. So that is going to be the key, and that’s why the relations, security relations beyond 2014 is going to play a very vital role.”

If we do not take decisive action to ensure a meaningful drawdown of troops from Afghanistan by at least 2014, we will be putting ourselves in exactly the position Holbrooke sought to avoid. If that means sitting down at the table and trying to hammer out some type of agreement with Taliban leaders that ensures 1) the safety of Afghan citizens and 2) the legitimacy of the Afghan government, then that has to be the strategy that gets our full attention. It can’t just be an idea that gets lip service. It has to be something we work hard to enact. Otherwise, we face the unenviable position of just running out of options.

During his presidential campaign, President Obama said, much to the alarm of many people, he would be a president willing to engage our foes in “aggressive personal diplomacy” to make progress abroad. He argued that it was high time for American foreign policy to move toward a willingness to sit down at the negotiating table as opposed to simply negotiating through sanctions and other deterrents. The Afghan War is the time to put that rhetoric to the test. If we can sit down with the Taliban and have open conversations about how to progress from the current stalemate, then maybe we can get somewhere. If that can happen in any remotely successful way, then we can begin to move away from a strategy aimed at “inflicting morale-sapping damage on the Taliban” as Steve Coll writes, and toward a strategy that seeks to prepare the Afghan government and its people for an American drawdown in 2014.