Afghanistan: Responding to the President's Speech
By Matt Southworth on 06/23/2011 @ 12:30 PM
Eighteen months after he declared the U.S. would begin a “rapid transition” this July, President Obama announced his Afghanistan withdrawal plan last night. In a speech noticeably light on detail, the President said of that transition promise, “Tonight, I can tell you that we are fulfilling that commitment… Starting next month, we will be able to remove 10,000 of our troops from Afghanistan by the end of this year.” This initial reduction will be followed by another 23,000 by summer of 2012 and a “steady pace” of reduction until 2014, when Afghans will take full control of their own security.
This announcement, including claims of progress that facts do not support, was not news to any of us around here; the writing on the wall forecasted a reduction of 9-12,000 troops back in January. As for a strategic military shift, this is not one. Joint Chief of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen tweeted late last night, “strategy same.” The strategy simply amounts to aimlessly throwing money and military power at what in the end is a political problem with only political solutions. In sum, the Pentagon will do what it has been doing, just with fewer troops over the next year. This is a troop shift, not a strategy shift.
It was most unfortunate to hear no change in U.S. policy in Afghanistan. Rather than charting a course for stability and peace through a rapid military deescalation, broad regional reconciliation efforts and more a sustainable U.S. diplomatic presence, President Obama reasserted a military strategy which has failed to deliver peace and stability in Afghanistan for over a decade.
President Obama mentioned Pakistan five times in his speech. The relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan has been breaking down rapidly—long before the Osama bin Laden operation in Abbottabad. Rather than repair diplomatic ties, prolonging a large scale conflict on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border will undoubtedly worsen the issues between the U.S. and Pakistani governments, while causing greater instability in Pakistan itself. The White House must refocus efforts to rebuild diplomatic ties with Pakistan.
A drawdown of 10,000 U.S. troops by the end of this year will have little impact on the regional conflict. . Presently, approximately 100,000 U.S. troops and 40,000 international troops are in Afghanistan, along with 110,000 contractors (fulfilling a range of tasks from security to counternarcotics to development), 280,000 Afghan troops and 150,000 Pakistani troops on the Af-Pak border—totaling 686,000 (for less than 100 al Qaeda, according to Leon Panetta, the new Secretary of Defense). These large numbers do not provide peace and stability. Rather, they undermine peace and stability by creating lopsided power structures and corruption. The longer the U.S. military stays in Afghanistan, the harder it will be for it to ever leave.
What Does Success Look Like?
A Secure Afghanistan: For the administration, military success in Afghanistan is defined as preventing safe havens—whatever those are—in Afghanistan and Pakistan (ignoring places like Florida, where the 9/11 hijackers actually learned to fly planes). The cornerstone of that policy, as President Obama mentioned in his speech, is training Afghans to provide their own security. However, building and maintaining the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and Afghan Local Police (ALP) is costly.
In fact, it is so costly that Afghans will not be able to sustain it. The fiscal year 2012 request for the ANSF is $12.8 billon, some $6 billion of which is for salaries and benefits alone; the Gross Domestic Product of Afghanistan (including the illicit drug trade) is $14-16 billion (97% of which comes from military aid and foreign assistance spending, according to the World Bank) and the annual revenue of the Afghan government is a mere $1.5 billion, making salaries and benefits for the ANSF nearly six times the entire revenue of the Afghan government. Either the U.S. will be funding the ANSF for the foreseeable future or Afghanistan will have nearly 300,000 trained, armed militia men without paychecks running around the country. It makes no sense to build a security force Afghans cannot sustain if U.S. taxpayers are not willing to indefinitely foot the bill.
A Political Solution: according to President Obama, the United States has joined initiatives to “reconcile the Afghan people, including the Taliban”—marking the first time the President has acknowledged the high level talks. He noted that talks “must be led by the Afghan government.” FCNL has long supported political reconciliation of all Afghan groups—including the Taliban. What seems to be shaping up now, however, is a disproportionate deal struck solely between the Afghan government and Taliban—who for many Afghans represent the crooks and warlords. Any sustainable peace deal must include civil society; talks should not isolate the vast majority of Afghans that do not make up elements of the Afghan government and Taliban.
Two legs of the Afghanistan policy stool intended to provide an exit may exacerbate the conditions for political strife and civil war, ultimately making it impossible for foreign troops to leave without leaving a failed state behind. The other leg of the stool—aid and development—has seen mixed results because of overt ties to the military, which has left many projects with uncertain futures. Durable peace in Afghanistan is possible, but not at the hands of the U.S. military. Ultimately, a secure Afghanistan will not come as a result of U.S. military solutions, but as a result of Afghan solutions to Afghan problems with limited international assistance.
2014 and beyond?
Just how long will this war go on? With no clear end in sight, the White House and Pentagon are negotiating an “enduring partnership” between the U.S. and Afghan government which could extend far beyond 2014—the date President Obama cited in his speech for “full transition” to Afghan authority. This morning, Admiral Mike Mullen stated “The partnership between the U.S. and Afghanistan must endure… not based on our military footprint, but our mutual friendship.”
The Pentagon is setting up to maintain forces in Afghanistan on non-permanent but “enduring” bases until as late as 2021, the present year where current funding projections for Afghanistan end —around $50 billion per year from 2015-2021. This is what the peace community needs to take on: attempting to force an end to the U.S. war in Afghanistan long before 2014, long before 2021.
What should be done?
FCNL has been clear about how to begin to end the conflict in Afghanistan. The fact remains that the U.S. and Afghanistan simply cannot endure the fiscal or human costs of another decade of war. The projected cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are well over $4 trillion when the cost of veteran care and interest on the borrowed money are taken into account. According to the Department of Defense, these wars have caused over 100,000 U.S. casualties and medical evacuation and untold numbers of dead and injured civilians. Poorly defined objectives and military lead strategies have seriously jeopardized prospects for long term peace in Afghanistan. This policy amounts to pure madness.
The first step to ending this madness is changing how the war is reviewed. So far, all major assessments of the Afghanistan war policy have been made by the Pentagon. It is therefore not surprising that we continue to see military solutions being explored in Afghanistan. By taking the power of review out of Pentagon hands, a fair and accurate assessment is more likely. A Congressionally mandated, bipartisan, consensus Afghanistan-Pakistan Study Group could provide sensible alternatives to the present military strategy. A report such as this will also create both political space to change the policy and congressional buy-in to listen. Such a review was appropriated last week by Rep. Frank Wolf (VA) after a year long effort by FCNL. The Senate must replicate the effort for such a review to take place.
A review is a good tactic, but not an end in and of itself. Ultimately, we seek a world free of war and the threat of war. Therefore, the peace community must continue to pressure both the Administration and Congress to end the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Many measures, such as cutting all funding for the war (which will be offered by Rep. Barbara Lee (CA) on the Defense Appropriations bill in the coming weeks), will not end the war. However, the importance of these legislative efforts cannot be overstated, as they add to the pressure needed to end the war in Afghanistan. Make no mistake: all of our advocacy over these last few months compelled President Obama to announce when the "surge" troops would return home. It is imperative that Congress continue to pressure the Administration for a substantial policy change before 2014.