A Risk-Management Approach to Afghanistan?
August 19, 2009
Q1: What is current conventional wisdom on the Afghan war?
A1: The short answer? Either we are “losing,” or we “won” by some definition a while ago. How you view the issue depends on your answers to four questions.
First, how do you see the contemporary terrorist problem? Is it a “war” with a beginning and an end? Or, is it a persistent and violent “management” challenge? Second, how did you define the Afghan mission circa October 2001—disruptive and punitive or transformational? The former assumes we will be in the business of counterterrorist interventions for the foreseeable future. The latter assumes that wholesale Afghan transformation would irrevocably impact terrorism worldwide. Third, relative to your 2001 view, where do you think we are now vis-à-vis Afghanistan, al Qaeda, and the Taliban? Transformed enough (or not)? Disrupted and punished enough (or not)? Finally, fourth, where does a modestly functioning Afghanistan (which all agree is still a distant and uncertain prospect) fit in the stratum of U.S. interests—vital, important, or unimportant? Vital means that a failed Afghanistan poses fundamental and unmanageable threats to U.S. security. Here, there is no alternative but an open-ended, resource-intensive commitment. Important means that a failed Afghanistan poses modest but manageable threats—largely from the potential regeneration of terrorist sanctuaries. Here, avoiding outright Afghan failure merits some continued but limited commitment focused mostly on risk mitigation, not risk elimination. Finally, unimportant means there is no consequential threat from a failed Afghanistan. Any continued U.S. commitment is wasted.
Current policy implies that senior decisionmakers answered these four questions in the following way. First, the contemporary terrorist threat and our response to it is a war that we can definitively win in the most traditional sense, given sufficient effort and investment. Second, Afghan transformation is essential to that victory (and to justify the cost to date in blood, treasure, and prestige). Third, we are nowhere near achieving any of our transformational goals in Afghanistan. And finally, fourth, a modestly functioning Afghanistan is a vital interest. Its future failure would represent a grave threat.
The prescription among those holding these views? Go “all in.” Indeed, all indications point toward a major civil-military surge in Afghanistan in the coming year. In reality, going all in may not be the fruit of rational strategic decisionmaking. Instead, it might just be a product of steadily accumulating small decisions about a war deliberately left on simmer for the last six years. Regrettably, in the aggregate, most suggestions about how to bring the Afghan intervention to a satisfactory conclusion still confuse stateless terrorists with more conventional threats relying on geography for some of their strength.
Q2: Is there an alternative view?
A2: There certainly is. It sees the terrorist threat emanating from Afghanistan in 2001 and lingering on the margins there today through a different risk and interest lens. It also suggests something substantially less than going “all in” as a solution. This view is arguably more strategic and risk informed. And it certainly is not—as some will argue—“losing” in Afghanistan more creatively.
The Afghan intervention was not a choice. Whether one agrees with the methods adopted after October 2001, all agree that excising al Qaeda’s Afghan sanctuary was an important statement about our tolerance for terrorism and its sponsors and our likely approach to the threat of future catastrophic attack. Afghanistan embodied “sanctuary” in the most literal sense. Al Qaeda enjoyed unrestricted access to its territory, operating with impunity from a constellation of training camps and safe houses. There was no more appropriate candidate for a punitive counterterrorist campaign. Yet, at both the strategic and operational levels, the Afghan intervention never enjoyed a clear and unambiguous purpose. In the rush to do something, we never actually agreed to do anything specific. Indeed, the 2001 concept of operations seemed to be punctuated with a question: Now what?
Eight years on, we are at the same conceptual crossroads. Now what? We have alternatives. Yet, the dominant policy direction suggests otherwise. It argues that we are losing and need to do more of everything to win. Fight an intense counterinsurgency. Produce more and better Afghan soldiers and police. Rebuild nonexistent infrastructure. Raise local-to-national government capacity and legitimacy. Actively fight official corruption. Combat narcotics trafficking. And limit the flow of aberrant political forces north and south across the “AfPak” frontier. Defend everywhere, against everything. And, by implication, defend nowhere effectively against anything.
There are under-considered alternatives. We can define and pursue more limited strategic objectives in Afghanistan, dramatically changing the terms under which we stay, what we do while we remain there in force, and finally, when and under what circumstances we leave or substantially reduce our profile. Hyperbolic discussions about winning and losing are unhelpful now. We need to look at Afghanistan now as a “risk-management” problem. Lower our sights. Focus on a clear set of minimum, essential risk- and cost-informed objectives. And, finally, posture ourselves to manage (and not eliminate) hazards associated with continued Afghan instability.
Going forward, the best alternative to going all in originates in different answers to the four questions above. On the question of defining the contemporary terrorist challenge, terrorist violence will persist on some level and remain a management challenge for the diplomatic, intelligence, law enforcement, and military communities well into the future. It is not a war with a beginning and an end. This will be true regardless of outcomes in Afghanistan. An active and discriminating defense against terrorism can limit its intensity and impact. No amount of U.S. energy and effort, however, can eliminate it entirely.
On the second question—what was the mission going in—according to the Interagency Policy Group’s 2009 report on U.S. policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan, the core U.S. goal remains disrupting, dismantling, and defeating terrorists and terrorist sanctuaries. This is a surprisingly consistent goal across two administrations—Bush and Obama—that enjoy very little in common philosophically. It clearly falls under the “disrupt and punish” rubric. Yet corporately, our current approach to Afghanistan suggests more expansive transformational designs.
With respect to the third question—how do we view the issue now—we have already successfully disrupted al Qaeda in Afghanistan and dismantled its sanctuaries. Now the region’s al Qaeda problem resides across the border in Pakistan. In truth, we are doing more in Afghanistan because we cannot do more in Pakistan. Further still, some time ago we meted out the ultimate punishment on al Qaeda’s Taliban sponsors—regime change. Though we can and should help the Afghans contain the resurgent Taliban, we should do so under steadily decreasing terms. Afghanistan’s political and security future is now in the hands of an immature but increasingly independent Afghan government. The Afghan sanctuary challenge is now manageable at modest cost by nimbly blending aid, pressure by proxy, persistent surveillance, and precise and discriminating force. To the extent we do these successfully, we will enjoy more regional and global freedom of action.
This leads to an alternative view on the fourth and final question—how important is Afghanistan strategically. To be frank, we cannot make either Afghanistan or an ideal outcome there more important than it is in reality. There is nothing inherently strategic about Afghanistan. The 2001 al Qaeda threat from it was strategic. It is now disrupted, dismantled, and defeated. Pakistan is a different and more complicated question. While you cannot divorce the two, the hazard associated with Pakistan dwarfs that associated with Afghanistan. Addressing it requires wholly different solutions than the direct approach taken in Afghanistan.
In the end, Afghanistan will never fully be at peace. Its inherent instability can, however, be less threatening through judicious and deliberate employment of U.S., allied, and local resources focused on persistent suppression of resurgent terrorist sanctuaries. Unfortunately, revolutionary transformation of chronically troubled Afghanistan is an unnecessary and unreachable luxury for an increasingly crowded U.S. defense and national security agenda.
Nathan Freier is a senior fellow in the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C., and a visiting professor at the U.S. Army War College’s Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute.
Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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