Byron v. Lalla: Winning the Afghan War, But Losing the Region

Note: This article is part of a continuing debate on this topic. For an alternative perspective, see PolicyMic Contributing Writer Rajiv Lalla's article.

In his article on the Afghan War, my PolicyMic colleague Rajiv Lalla illustrates that the U.S. military has a tough road ahead in order to achieve strategic success. Rajiv points out two substantial components of that success: the legitimacy and accountability of the Karzai government; and the issue of safehavens for Afghan Taliban, Al Qaeda, and other associated armed groups in Pakistan. Rajiv’s argument suggests that the lesson the U.S. has yet to learn is that its strategic focus is too limited in order to achieve success on a grand scale.

While these elements are significantly important to long-term U.S. national interests in the region, I argue that they are not essential in responsibly bringing the war to a close. Rather, I argue that the continuation of the war in Afghanistan is one of the main barriers to resolving the issues with which Rajiv is concerned.

The belief that the U.S. can fight its way to victory against the Taliban is growing dim. Even as U.S. and NATO forces achieve some success in the south, Taliban forces make gains elsewhere. It is becoming clear that only an agreement with the Taliban can end the war in the near term.

Furthermore, the prosecution of the Afghan War is reducing the ability of the U.S. to adequately confront more pressing issues in the region: Pakistani instability, issues of Afghan governance, containing Iranian influence, and transnational issues such as drug trafficking and terrorism.

The parallel strategy of a counterinsurgency surge combined with a more gradual diplomatic 'surge' in talks with the Taliban, among other public and private diplomacy efforts with relevant third parties, would allow the Afghan security forces the ability to train alongside ISAF forces, and should also suggest to the Taliban that the longer they hold out, the less ideal the agreement. Furthermore, we make it clear to Pakistan and Iran that it is in their best interest to support the talks.

As such, U.S. strategy should take the form of a parallel approach toward a ceasefire with the Taliban; one that ramps up pressure while offering avenues for peace. Furthermore, U.S. strategy in Afghanistan must take into account a medium-term appraisal of security in the region. As such, it must consider conditions in Pakistan and plan its post-war presence accordingly.

The success Rajiv describes is impossible within the context of the current war strategy because the time is too short and willingness too low to bring about the particular confluence of events necessary for success on such a grand scale. The answer here is not to expand the elements of the war strategy, which would inevitably involve a longer troop presence and increase the long-term costs of the war. Instead, the U.S. should focus on working toward a favorable agreement in bringing the war to a close in order to focus on more pressing long term security issues. Only in this way can the U.S. adequately address Rajiv’s concerns.

Photo Credit: The U.S. Army