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How to Exit Afghanistan

Five pillars of an exit strategy for Afghanistan.

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U.S. Army Sgt. Robert Newman watches the sunrise after a  patrol mission on March 19, 2009.

Photo by Adam Mancini / U.S. Army.

Weeks after a classified military report asking for additional troop increases in Afghanistan was leaked, the debate surrounding U.S. policy there is still heating up. President Obama and his team are spinning their wheels trying to devise a policy to right the sinking ship, but the most sensible solution, for Afghans as well as U.S. citizens, is to start planning a way out. Putting an end to the presence of U.S. combat troops is the best way to support Afghanistan’s long-term prospects for peace and prosperity.

A new poll indicates that 50 percent of Americans oppose sending more troops to Afghanistan, a 15 percent drop in support from March, when Obama ordered an increase of 21,000 soldiers. And where it matters most, in Afghanistan, support is even lower. A February poll found that only 18 percent of Afghans support increasing the number of U.S. troops in their country.

For years, the war in Afghanistan has been in crisis. But now with a failed Afghan election, the resurgence of the Taliban as a political power, NATO allies withdrawing from the battlefield, and Pakistan's tribal areas under increasing influence from the Taliban and al-Qaeda, the situation looks worse than ever.

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A U.S soldier keeps watch as his unit unloads a helicopter in Bagram, Afghanistan, on Feb. 15, 2009.

Photo by Sgt. Prentice C. Martin-Bowen / U.S. Army.

As U.S. and NATO troops start the ninth year of war, there is little progress to be shown. This year has proven to be the most deadly for U.S. and coalition troops since the war began. And over 1,500 Afghan civilians died in the first six months of 2009, according to the United Nations.

Sadly, the sacrifices these solders made have not resulted in better conditions for Afghans on the ground. Agricultural production is at its lowest since the war began, only 23 percent of the population has access to clean drinking water, and 40 percent lives below the poverty line. Life expectancy in Afghanistan is 44 years. Three million Afghans have fled their country. According to a UN threat assessment, 40 percent of Afghanistan is today either Taliban-controlled or at high risk for insurgent attacks.

Beyond the human toll, the war is placing a severe financial burden on the United States. To date, the U.S. has spent more than $220 billion in Afghanistan. Over 90 pecent of that spending has been for the military. Today, the U.S. is spending $4 billion a month in Afghanistan, eclipsing the costs of Iraq for the first time since 2003.

Policymakers in Washington are debating two questions: What is the proper mission for troops? Should the United States send additional soldiers?

Yet there are more important questions to be asked: Is there a role for troops at this point at all? What does an exit strategy look like and when can we get there?

What Mission Can Be Accomplished?

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President Barack Obama meets with Army Lt. Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, in the Oval Office at the White House on May 19, 2009.

Photo by Pete Souza.

Even if General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan who has asked for an as yet unspecified number of new soldiers, gets all of the troops he wants, is the mission possible? McChrystal's counterinsurgency strategy seems unobtainable, even in his own review. He notes that the Afghan state is too weak to build the support needed for a robust counterinsurgency campaign and that NATO may not have the training, equipment, or motivation for success. Indeed, Afghanistan is causing some experts to question NATO's ability to last much beyond its 60th anniversary this year.

Furthermore, McChrystal's plan is highly dependent on the training of the Afghan National Army (ANA). Such training has been a dismal failure in the past eight years, even as the United States has spent $17.6 billion instructing the ANA. Saying that we now can do better is a dubious proposition at best. Rebuilding the Afghan military is no small task, no matter how many trainers McChrystal sends.

The alternative suggested by many of the earlier strategic reviews and now championed by Vice President Joe Biden, is to narrow the mission to focus on al-Qaeda and the Taliban with the more limited goal of stopping Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terrorists. This is the counter-terrorism strategy that President Bush pursued with little success. The problem with even this more limited objective is that neither NATO nor the United States could achieve it without staying in Afghanistan forever.

Sending more troops and resources to George Bush's war has little chance of success. Even if it did succeed, such a strategy would likely further damage the U.S. economy, military, and our standing in the world in the process.

Another option is needed on the table—a clear and measurable timetable for withdrawal.

A Plan to Avoid the Graveyard of Empires

Afghanistan has often been called the "Graveyard of Empires." The reference applies to a much different time in history, but with no promising options on the table for ending the war, we need to make sure it doesn’t become applicable once again.

Create an Exit Strategy. General McChrystal's plan offers no timetable or exit strategy, beyond warning that the next 12-18 months are critical—a timeframe that New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman bandied about so freely in Iraq that guesstimates like McChrystal's became known as "Friedman Units"—they imply an interminable series of indefinite extensions.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has rejected outright a timetable for withdrawal. But with NATO partners, Britain, France, and Germany calling for a timeline, this option should be examined more closely.

The first and most important effect of a timetable would be to disarm the Taliban’s argument that the "occupiers" will never leave. It promises that at some point the war in Afghanistan will end with a negotiated peace treaty.

Figuring out what that treaty should say and constructing a timetable to meet those conditions should be the next step in Afghanistan. Given the Karzai government’s lack of legitimacy and the relative political strength of the Taliban, negotiations must include a wide range of Afghans. Key principles for a treaty should include:

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Hamadulha Helmand, a leader in the Barackside tribe, speaks with U.S. Marine Corps Lt. Col. William McCollough about district infrastructure improvements during a civil affairs group patrol in the Nawa district of the Helmand province of Afghanistan on July 30, 2009.

Photo by U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. William Greeson.

Deny Al-Qaeda Safe Haven. Most analysts would argue that keeping Afghanistan (and other countries across the globe) free from al-Qaeda and other terrorist networks should be a primary objective for global security. But the manner in which this can be achieved is under fierce debate. Occupation and invasion should be off the table. Instead, under the provisions of Chapter VII of the UN charter, nation states have the right to adequately protect themselves from imminent attack. One primary example of this was the capture of Khaled Sheikh Mohamed, who was not nabbed in a military raid but by a coordinated police action. This approach should be coupled with an international effort to track and capture members of terrorist networks.

Too much of the debate has focused on who rules Afghanistan, rather than on our goal of isolating al-Qaeda. The United States shouldn’t try to determine who can be in the government, how it is chosen, or how it rules, so long as that government abides by an agreement not to harbor al-Qaeda, and to work with the international community to enforce that agreement. The Taliban, while its treatment of women and harsh rule are reprehensible, is not itself a threat to the United States. 

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Afghan school undergoes repairs funded by the Canadian International Development Agency in April 2008.

Photo by Umar Khan "Darweesh" / CIDA

Commit to Development. Afghanistan is one of the most underdeveloped nations in the world. Funding for development has been far below needed levels. The country urgently needs basic infrastructure. Without roads, access to markets, better agricultural inputs, or available credit, local businesses can't start up or thrive. Such levels of commerce are needed to help combat the lucrative drug trade and raise the population out of poverty. 

With few natural resources and a government highly dependent on international contributions, dedicated funding from the international community is needed. However, aid provided so far has not been successful. Too many projects are planned, designed, and implemented with far too little involvement from Afghans. Failure to learn from the successes of development projects that work hand-in-hand with the local population—such as the one described in Greg Mortenson's book, Three Cups of Tea—has doomed many of these projects. Aid should go directly to Afghan-led organizations, coupled with strong auditing by international agencies.

Withdraw all Combat Troops. Foreign troops on the ground (and drone attacks from the air) have been the most important tool for recruiting in terrorist networks. A commitment to withdrawing all combat troops will help deflate the recruitment for these groups. If the Afghan National Army is to replace them and contribute to the security of Afghanistan, it will require human rights training and a central government by which it can be held accountable. Further training must be refocused and fall under a common set of guidelines, including oversight under the Leahy Law that suspends training funding for any groups involved in human rights abuses.

Separate Pakistan from Afghanistan. No essay on Afghanistan these days seems to omit the problems arising in Pakistan. It is wrong to see the distinct challenges facing these two countries as one struggle; the U.S. history in Pakistan requires a far different approach. The United States must address directly with Pakistan the growing threat of al-Qaeda and the Taliban in that country.

Clearly there are other steps to be taken, but these are the most important and should be the starting point for negotiations. As much as the citizens of United States and the world want President Obama to succeed in fixing Afghanistan, the policies that are under discussion are most likely to put us one more "Friedman Unit" away from a resolution. With more civilians and soldiers bound to perish during that time, it's time for a fundamentally different approach—one that can greatly diminish the greatest threats to the United States and at the same time, start Afghanistan on the road to recovery.


Erik LeaverErik Leaver wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a nonprofit national media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions. Erik is the policy outreach director for the Foreign Policy In Focus project at the Institute for Policy Studies. Another version of this article was published by Foreign Policy in Focus.

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