In case of fire: Head toward the American Exit Strategy for Afghanistan

Our Nation is at a moment of transition. Thanks to the extraordinary sacrifices of our men and women in uniform, we have responsibly ended the war in Iraq, put al-Qa’ida on the path to defeat – including delivering justice to Osama bin Laden – and made significant progress in Afghanistan, allowing us to begin the transition to Afghan responsibility.

– President Barrack Obama, January 3, 2012, Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense

According to Kare DeYoung, President Obama has three key points to the U.S. military’s Afghanistan exit strategy, and they include transitioning security responsibilities to Afghan military forces, achieving a peace deal with the Taliban, and negotiating a long-term security deal with the Afghan government that allows some sort of U.S. military presence beyond 2014.1 These points, and the exit strategy itself, have become what the Administration would call “victory” in Afghanistan.

All of these key points to this “victory” may not be achievable. Arguably, attaining all of three of them may not be necessary to declare “victory.” Victory in Afghanistan may be nothing more than a national government that: (nominally) controls the major urban areas, maintains constant military pressure on the Taliban and terrorist organizations, participates in the international community at a level that matches its limited ability, and provides enough stability that a limited economy is maintained and grown. Victory in Afghanistan is not one that results in a country that matches a Western Civilization model, but a country that matches its reality and location.

Ten years of hunting down terrorists, removing the Taliban from power, establishing a quasi-democratic government, and attempting to nation build has resulted in continued U.S. military combat operations and an Afghanistan that looks more like its historical self than one that is moving into the 21st century. The Taliban, and its ability to provide a safe haven to terrorists, is no longer the governing force. Afghans, through the typical storyline of intrigue, bribery, and free/coerced cooperation, elect its government leaders (who are more often than not corrupt… but hey they aren’t the Taliban). The U.S. military is both training and assisting Afghan forces in hunting and killing Taliban and terrorist forces. One could argue that the Taliban’s establishment of control following the retreat of the Soviet Union, and then the Taliban’s defeat at the hands of a combined force of Afghan warlords (with competing interests) and U.S. special operation forces is just an extension of Afghanistan history of one group or individual gaining control to be eventually replaced through conflict, rebellion, alliances, intrigue, and foreign intervention. Victory doesn’t have to be a modern nation-state or what the Administration claims it wants.

Other views of victory are stated as being the continued degradation of al-Qaeda (and other terrorist organizations) and death of Osama bin Laden, or a Afghani nation that is stabilized and a government that controls all its territory. Michael O’Hanlon and Paul Wolfowitz argue for a third route to “victory” modeled on Columbia. Basically, the idea is that the Afghan government and its forces control the major urban areas and most of its territories with foreign assistance. Areas of Afghanistan, primarily the south and east, would be partially insurgent (Taliban) controlled, but government forces would continue to battle for these regions. One could almost argue that this is also the Pakistan model, where the “democratically” elected government cedes control of certain areas to tribes, drug/war-lords, and terrorists but applies pressure when necessary to maintain an equilibrium.

Negotiating a peace with the Taliban, though a positive desire, is not necessary for the U.S. to declare victory. If the Afghan government and its forces are capable of maintaining the status quo, then the Taliban does not have to cease hostilities… it just can’t be allowed to gain battlefield successes that result in it returning to power. These battlefield successes can be achieved through U.S. military assistance that is more surgical than blunt.

There are two key points identified in the Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense that define (arguably) how the U.S. intends to assist the Afghans specifically, and address Afghanistan-style situations generally. One is “counter terrorism and irregular warfare,” and “conduct stability and counterinsurgency operations.”

 – Counter Terrorism and Irregular Warfare. Acting in concert with other means of national power, U.S. military forces must continue to hold al-Qa’ida and its affiliates and adherents under constant pressure, wherever they may be. Achieving our core goal of disrupting, dismantling, and defeating al-Qa’ida and preventing Afghanistan from ever being a safe haven again will be central in this effort. As U.S. forces draw down in Afghanistan, our global counter terrorism efforts will become more widely distributed and will be characterized by a mix of direct action and security force assistance. Reflecting lessons learned of the past decade, we will continue to build and sustain tailored capabilities appropriate for counter terrorism and irregular warfare. We will also remain vigilant to threats posed by other designated terrorist organizations, such as Hezbollah.2 

– Conduct Stability and Counterinsurgency Operations. In the aftermath of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States will emphasize non-military means and military-to-military cooperation to address instability and reduce the demand for significant U.S. force commitments to stability operations. U.S. forces will nevertheless be ready to conduct limited counterinsurgency and other stability operations if required, operating alongside coalition forces wherever possible. Accordingly, U.S. forces will retain and continue to refine the lessons learned, expertise, and specialized capabilities that have been developed over the past ten years of counterinsurgency and stability operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations.3

Simply, victory is an Afghanistan that doesn’t have the Taliban sitting on the throne and insurgents/terrorists so pressured that they are incapable of exporting their violence outside the region. Whether you call it an exit strategy or victory, American end state means that there is no existential threat4 based or emitting from Afghanistan. Everything else is just icing on the cake.

1. Karen DeYoung, “White House looks to press on with exit strategy,” The Washington Post, March 13, 2012, p. A1.

2. U.S. Department of Defense, Sustaining U.S. Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense, January 2012, p. 4.

3. Ibid., p. 6.

4. “Existential threat” means a threat tha can eliminate the existence of an individual or group.

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