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Joshua FoustBack to OpinionJoshua Foust

Defining victory in Afghanistan

A suicide car bomber detonated a truck of explosives covered in wood at a government compound in Musayi district, about 40 miles south of the Afghan capital last April. Six members of the Afghan national security forces were injured. Photo: AP Photo/Musadeq Sadeq

On Monday, a roadside bomb exploded in northwestern Afghanistan, killing 11 people. The incident was unremarkable in most aspects: insurgents hid among civilians, targeted Afghans instead of the international troops nearby and managed to cause a shocking amount of bloodshed.

Areas like Baghdis province, where that bomb exploded, fly under the radar of many pundits and pop-analysts of the war. Part of the supposedly safe northern regions of the country, Baghdis has never benefitted from the largesse slathered on more problematic provinces like Kandahar or Helmand.

Nevertheless, northern Afghanistan has undergone possibly the most drastic change of fortune over the last two years or so. It has gone from being a relatively quiet, unremarkable place to the scene of increasingly violent bloodshed. Despite this transformation, much of the popular discussion of the war focuses on the southern region, where a massive influx of troops and an even more massive influx of money have supposedly reduced violence.

Max Boot is one of the most visible of these boosters. In a cover story for the Weekly Standard, he argues that if only the troops are given enough time and money, they can turn the change in southern Afghanistan into victory for the war. The only thing between the troops and victory, he argues, are naysayers in Washington, D.C., who think things are hopeless.

It’s an enticing argument: The country blames Washington for everything else that is going wrong in the country, so why not blame Washington for the war as well? But in reality, Boot misdiagnoses the problem, and thus misassigns blame.

Looking at Afghanistan only through the prism of Kandahar and Helmand would leave one with the impression that the war is winnable, because blanketing a region with Marines and lots of cash actually will dramatically affect the environment. But the current method of “pacifying” the south is unsustainable: According to The Washington Post, over the course of one year the military spent $1.3 billion on a single district of 80,000 people in Helmand province. That’s $16,250 per person in that district, well above Afghanistan’s per capita GDP of $900 (and above that of most other countries on the planet). Worse still, a Senate Foreign Relations Committee report noted that 97 percent of Afghanistan’s GDP comes from foreign aid. The current path is too expensive and too unlikely to work to keep up for much longer.

Realistically, the United States cannot spend that much money forever, in the hopes that somehow along the way Afghanistan will fix itself. This is the weakness of the case that war boosters like Boot put forward: they assume that if only the military is given enough time to do whatever the military does –  killing bad guys and handing out unfathomable sums of money to impoverished farmers – then victory, however nebulously defined, will happen.

The sad reality of Afghanistan is that victory is not achievable with our current strategy and policies. Last month, I released a report with my think tank, The American Security Project, which tried to assess President Obama’s goals for the war. The current strategy boils down to three broad goals: deny al Qaeda safe haven, prevent the Taliban from overthrowing the government and build up the Afghan government so it can function on its own.

From these goals, we can derive what the victory analysts like Boot don’t define might look like. The challenge is that this victory is defined mostly by absence – things that must not happen, like al Qaeda not returning. But a big part of the strategy is actually political: preventing a Taliban takeover, building up a sustainable and functional government, creating the rule of law, and so on.

A political conflict does not necessarily require a huge number of troops. But when pundits talk about “victory” in Afghanistan, the discussion invariably centers on arbitrary troop numbers and not on the politics of the conflict. There is no sense of allowing Afghans to chart their own course, make their own decisions, and yes, even disagree with American policymakers along the way.

The real challenge in Afghanistan is that the American effort (as measured by money, people and attention) has focused almost exclusively on the military, while the Taliban has focused on politics. That is why they target the Afghan police with their IEDs – they are sowing uncertainty, trying to show the people of Afghanistan that their government is worthless, and that international forces are toothless to stop them. The Taliban is winning the war for hearts and minds.

Looked at this way, the war in Afghanistan doesn’t need a bunch of troops lumbering across the countryside. It needs a political strategy that might have a military component but would be primarily focused on Afghanistan’s politics: balancing local needs with national needs, establishing a collaborative relationship between Kabul and the further-flung regions of the country, and cutting deals with local power brokers to establish peace and a measure of economic activity.

Unlike the seemingly endless number of troops and aid money needed to execute our current military strategy in Afghanistan, a politically oriented strategy would be achievable at a low cost, and would not require 65,000 troops to make it work. Rather, a political strategy requires patience, savvy and the understanding that politics are difficult and messy – sometimes almost as messy (if not as bloody) as warfare itself.

Afghanistan is not a lost cause if we change our strategy. But debating how many troops should stay on a certain date, which still dominates the discussion in Washington, misses the point. The number of troops doesn’t matter; the strategy does. And the strategy is not working. It’s time for change.