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Altered Consciousness: Shifting gears in Afghanistan

Six steps to policy change

Published: September 23, 2010
Section: Opinions

Approximately nine years ago, the United States invaded Afghanistan to topple the Taliban government that was providing Al Qaeda with a safe haven. Today, the American military still occupies the country and little visible progress has been made there. Therefore, President Obama needs to fundamentally alter his Afghanistan strategy.

Currently, the large military presence in Afghanistan is, in certain respects, counterproductive. It is perceived by large segments of the Afghani population as an invading force that is encroaching upon Muslim lands and affairs. The collateral damage that it has caused to Afghan civilians has undermined its ability to win them over to its side. It fuels the “clash of civilizations” narrative—in which the West is at war with Islam—that Al Qaeda and similar extremist groups use to their advantage. Additionally, it is interfering with and arguably exacerbating a civil war between the Taliban in the Pashtun south and the Karzai Government in the north. The fact that this past year was the bloodiest yet in Afghanistan, and that the Taliban is resurgent, is testament to these facts.

This is not to mention the enormous toll that this war has had on the United States domestically. The federal government spends approximately $100 billion each year to maintain this operation, driving up the deficit, increasing its reliance on its creditors and inhibiting its ability to invest back home. Hundreds of American lives have been lost, and political support for the war has waned considerably during the last several years.

However, the United States still has legitimate strategic objectives in the country. The casus belli for this conflict was to deny Al Qaeda a safe haven that they could use to launch terrorist attacks like those committed on 9/11; this remains true today. Additionally, America seeks to avoid destabilizing the region and particularly Pakistan, whose nuclear weapons stockpile can potentially come into the wrong hands.

Therefore, while the United States should remain in Afghanistan, it ought to play a more modest and restrained role. Specifically, I advocate that the American military shift solely to a counterterrorism strategy, as opposed to an extensive nation-building and counterinsurgency exercise, and adjust its troop levels in the country accordingly. This requires that the United States act on the following:

First, it should downgrade its objective from completely defeating the Taliban to merely containing it to the south. It can accomplish this by empowering and protecting local nodes of stability apart from the centralized government, encouraging power sharing, and clearly and credibly deterring the Taliban from overreaching territorially.

Second, continue negotiating with more pragmatic elements of the Taliban that are less bound to its radical Wahhabist ideology. Additionally, try to separate the Taliban, which is focused more on domestic concerns, from Al Qaeda, which is the real national security threat, either through diplomacy or the threat of force.

Third, increase the use of drone attacks to pick off any remaining Al Qaeda within the country as well as in Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. In order to do so, bolster intelligence-gathering operations to provide accurate information and reduce potential collateral damage.

Fourth, augment domestic security to decrease the ability of Al Qaeda and similar groups to initiate another attack on American soil.

Fifth, maintain efforts to strengthen the Karzai government, expand its jurisdiction in the country, reduce corruption and restore the rule of law. Also, provide the Afghan National Army with necessary training and resources, as well as work to increase its troop morale levels and reduce its troop desertion rates.

Sixth, improve relations between Pakistan and India and focus more attention on the Kashmir issue. Doing so will allow Pakistan to devote more resources toward fighting extremists in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, and will provide it with less incentive to support the Afghani Taliban as a buffer against India, as it did before the United States invasion.

And finally, continue to improve Afghanistan’s economic capacity, especially in areas other than drug trafficking, to decrease the appeal of the Taliban. Also, encourage further multilateral investment, particularly from other countries in the region, such as China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, India and Pakistan, which seek stability in the region.

The Afghanistan war has become a futile, onerous and seemingly endless endeavor. Perhaps the shift of policy I have described will ultimately alter this frustrating dynamic.