Andrew Bacevich: Redefine Victory in Afghanistan

Afghanistan: What's Our Definition of Victory?
In Afghanistan today, the United States and its allies are using the wrong means to pursue the wrong mission. Sending more troops to the region, as incoming president Barack Obama and others have suggested we should, will only turn Operation Enduring Freedom into Operation Enduring Obligation. Afghanistan will be a sinkhole, consuming resources neither the U.S. military nor the U.S. government can afford to waste.

The war in Afghanistan is now in its eighth year. An operation launched with expectations of a quick, decisive victory has failed signally to accomplish that objective. Granted, the diversion of resources to Iraq forced commanders in Afghanistan to make do with less. Yet that doesn't explain the lack of progress. The real problem is that Washington has misunderstood the nature of the challengeAfghanistan poses and misread America's interests there.

One of history's enduring lessons is that Afghans don't appreciate it when outsiders tell them how to govern their affairs—just ask the British or the Soviets. U.S. success in overthrowing the Taliban seemed to suggest this lesson no longer applied, at least to us.

But we're now discovering that the challenges of pacifying Afghanistan dwarf those posed by Iraq. Afghanistan is a much bigger country—nearly the size of Texas—and has a larger population that's just as fractious. Moreover, unlike Iraq, Afghanistan possesses almost none of the prerequisites of modernity; its literacy rate, for example, is 28 percent, barely a third of Iraq's. In terms of effectiveness and legitimacy, the government in Kabul lags well behind Baghdad—not exactly a lofty standard. Apart from opium (last year's crop totaled about 8,000 metric tons), Afghans produce almost nothing the world wants.

Meanwhile, the chief effect of military operations in Afghanistan so far has been to push radical Islamists across the Pakistani border. As a result, efforts to stabilize Afghanistan are contributing to the destabilization of Pakistan, with potentially devastating implications. No country poses a greater potential threat to U.S. national security—today and for the foreseeable future—than Pakistan. To risk the stability of that nuclear-armed state in the vain hope of salvaging Afghanistan would be a terrible mistake.

All this means that we need to change course. The war in Afghanistan (like the Iraq War) won't be won militarily. It can be settled—if imperfectly—only through politics. And America's real political objective in Afghanistan is actually quite modest: to ensure that terrorist groups like Al Qaeda can't use the country as a safe haven for launching attacks against the West. Accomplishing that won't require creating a modern, cohesive nation-state.

U.S. officials tend to assume that power in Afghanistan ought to be exercised from Kabul. Yet the real influence in Afghanistan has traditionally rested with tribal leaders and warlords. Offered the right incentives, warlords can accomplish U.S. objectives more effectively and cheaply than Western combat battalions. The basis of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan should therefore become decentralization and outsourcing, offering cash and other emoluments to local leaders who will collaborate with us in keeping terrorists out of their territory.

This doesn't mean Washington should blindly trust that Afghan warlords will become America's loyal partners. U.S. intelligence agencies should continue to watch Afghanistan closely, and the Pentagon should crush any jihadist activities that local powers fail to stop themselves. But U.S. power—especially military power—is quite limited these days, and U.S. priorities lie elsewhere. Rather than sending more troops to the region, the new American president should start withdrawing them and devise a more realistic—and more affordable—strategy for Afghanistan.

Join the Discussion