U.S. policy towards Afghanistan

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See also: Afghanistan War (2001-)
See also: Afghanistan War (1978-92)

Realistically, the core of U.S. policy towards Afghanistan is the prevention of it being used as a base for terrorism and limiting its contribution to the illicit drug trade. Humanitarian concerns certainly are present but are secondary from a strategic standpoint. There are two broad approaches, with various intermediate options. Until recently, policy has been defined by relations with other states and non-state actors, but nation building has become part of that mission, in cooperation with the NATO International Security Assistance Force, with the approval of the United Nations. Nevertheless, Afghanistan remains a failed state,[1] a source of much of the world's opium, and a potential sanctuary for trans-national terrorists.

There is no single U.S. mission chief in Afghanistan. Karl Eikenberry, a retired lieutenant general, is the Ambassador, while General David Petraeus heads both United States Forces-Afghanistan and the NATO International Security Assistance Force. President Obama, after considerable review, granted part of McChrystal's request for additional troops, authorizing 30,000 of the requested 40,000. Messages obtained by the New York Times, in January 2010, before Wikileaks disclosures, show much stronger disagreement between the two.[2] Shortly afterwards, he fired McChrystal over leaks of policy disagreements. Petraeus, to which the U.S. military in Afghanistan had reported when he headed United States Central Command, replaced his nominal subordinate to take a more hands-on position, and Petraeus was replaced by a colleague, James Mattis. Further disruption came with the December 2010 death of special envoy to the region, Richard Holbrooke.[3]

In December 2010, Robert Gates, speaking at a press conference with the President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, the U.S. Secretary of Defense, said the military aspects of strategy were working well. Gates said that the U.S. and NATO expected to be able to turn over security, in 2014, to Afghan Security Forces, a goal first articulated by Karzai. [4]

During President Barack Obama's visit with Hamid Karzai in March 2010, the U.S. had five major requests:[5]

  1. Reduce corruption
  2. Give provincial and local governments more power
  3. Clarify his plan for reintegrating Taliban fighters into Afghan society
  4. Ensure that two international observers maintain seats on Afghanistan's two main elections oversight commissions.
  5. begin adopting a "merit-based" appointment system to fill jobs in his government and at the provincial and local levels. "Karzai has filled 14 of 25 cabinet posts, and Obama would like the remaining 11 to be filled based on merit -- that is, outside family or tribal ties."

With respect to terrorism, al-Qaeda today has sanctuaries in other countries, including Somalia, Yemen, and the tribal areas of Pakistan. Even if U.S. troops were to withdraw, it is not a given that new terrorist attacks would be staged against the U.S. More of concern is whether Afghanistan-based groups could destabilize nuclear-armed Pakistan.[6]


In the Afghanistan War (1978-92), the U.S. conducted a proxy war with the Soviet Union, as a foreign policy goal of the Reagan Administration. After the Reagan administration, but before the 9-11 Attack, the Clinton and Bush administrations conducted some clandestine and covert actions against Taliban and al-Qaeda forces in Afghanistan, but at relatively low risk. s

Cordesman said that the George W. Bush Administration had given priority in resources to the Iraq War, both for security and humanitarian purposes, and did not respond to problems of corruption in the government of Hamid Karzai. "It treated Pakistan as an ally when it was clear to U.S. experts on the scene that the Pakistani military and intelligence service did (and do) tolerate al-Qaeda and Afghan sanctuaries and still try to manipulate Afghan Pashtun to Pakistan's advantage." Aside from political considerations, reinforcement has been questioned as possibly provocative to Afghan culture. One of McChrystal's advisers, Frederick Kagan, wrote that the sensitivity to the Soviets had little to do with force size. [7]

George W. Bush ordered the original attacks into Afghanistan to deal with the perpetrators of the 9-11 Attack. Barack Obama termed the continuing involvement a “war of necessity” to prevent it from being used again by terrorists. Richard Haass, who called the Gulf War a "war of necessity" but the Iraq War a "war of choice", said "the focus on going after terrorists [in Afghanistan] was understandable and necessary but insufficient. The United States could and should have done more to assist the post-Taliban government, particularly in the way of providing security and extending the reach of the central government.".[8] Stephen Biddle has described the risk of al-Qaeda reestablishing itself in Afghanistan as relatively low, but still a concern: “It’s like buying life insurance for a 50-year-old,...The odds of a 50-year-old dying in the next year in America are substantially less than 1 percent. And yet most Americans buy life insurance.” The two schools are:[9]

  • Population-centric counterinsurgency: Make Afghanistan a viable state such that it will take over responsibility for security, preventing it from being used as a terrorist base and also ensuring human rights and economic development. Economic development would also give an alternative to the drug trade.
  • Enemy-centric counterterrorism: Conduct operations principally directed against terrorist groups that present an external threat, which use Afghanistan as a staging area

President Obama began review immediately after taking office, and made reliminary policy statements in March 2009,[10]but the situation has continued to present a challenge. In October, the President had not finalized a decision, although the situation has been complicated by leaks and by a strong public statement by the subsequently fired military commander in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal. [11] His statements have been argued as too strong for a field commander by some, and frank discussion by others, but they unquestionably complicated political decision making by the Obama Administration.

Vice President Joe Biden consistently argued for a more limited counterterrorism strategy than had McChrystal and other senior military personnel associated with a more counterinsurgency strategy. Ironically, much of McChrystal's career had been in counterterrorism.

Current disputes

One of the challenges is whether the policy can realistically address Afghanistan in isolation, or needs to be directed at a combined "AF-Pak" policy. There are arguments in both directions. The challenge comes from the somewhat different attitudes of the Afghan population toward its government, and the more complex cross-border insurgency. In the first category, many experts believe that an Afghan perception of its government is legitimate is a sine qua non for anything else, and irregularities in the 2009 Afghanistan presidential election are the most urgent things to correct. David Kilcullen wrote of this,

Only a legitimately elected Afghan president can enact reforms, so at the very least we need to see a genuine run-off election or an emergency national council, called a loya jirga, before winter. Once a legitimate president emerges, we need to see immediate action from him on a publicly announced reform program, developed in consultation with Afghan society and enforced by international monitors. Reforms should include firing human rights abusers and drug traffickers, establishing an independent authority to investigate citizen complaints and requiring officials to live in the districts they are responsible for (fewer than half do).

Other steps might include a census and district-level elections (promised since 2001, but never held), fair and effective taxation to replace kickbacks and extortion, increased pay to diligent local officials, the transfer of more budgetary authority to the provinces and the creation of local courts for dispute resolution.

If we see no genuine progress on such steps toward government responsibility, the United States should “Afghanize,” draw down troops and prepare to mitigate the inevitable humanitarian disaster that will come when the Kabul government falls to the Taliban — which, in the absence of reform, it eventually and deservedly will.[12]

Electoral issues

For more information, see: 2009 Afghanistan presidential election.

There is wide western acceptance that there were irregularities in the August 2009 Afghanistan presidential election, but no consensus on how to fix them, certainly not in the U.S. Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA).[13] Peter Galbraith, an American and the second-ranking official, left UNAMA after calling for major recounts and disagreement with UNAMA chief Norwegian Kai Eide who supported a more limited recount; Eide has said he will not renew his contract, and his replacement is expected to be named at an international conference in January 2010.

Allegations that supporters of President Hamid Karzai stuffed ballots and committed voting fraud have marred the election, delaying a result that the Obama administration expected to strengthen the political credibility of the government in Kabul. The voting did justify a runoff between Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah, but Abdullah refused to participate and Karzai continues as president.

Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the Afghan government’s legitimacy is a “huge, huge issue.” The U.S. needs a legitimate and popularly mandated partner for a stepped-up fight against the Taliban, he said.

Government corruption

Even if the election results do not change, another aspect of increasing legitimacy is decreasing corruption. Nader Nadery, commissioner on the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, wrote

Despite all the problems with our recent election, the incoming government will have a chance to start fresh, and a proper vetting of all new officials is the place to begin. This means establishing strict accountability mechanisms for high officials in the districts and provinces as well as in the ministries and directorates in Kabul. Simply shuffling abusive and incompetent officials among offices — as has been the norm over the past eight years — keeps the public from getting the governmental services it needs...While the corruption in Kabul is well known, the alliances that American and other foreign forces have made at the local level with abusive officials and influential figures have emboldened those Afghans and alarmed the Afghan public. These alliances must be examined and stopped. The next government should make a statement by quickly clearing out some of the most blatantly corrupt officials." [14]

Issues among India, Pakistan and Afghanistan

Paul Pillar observed that Pakistan sees the relationship as a way of hedging its bets in Afghanistan, an asset in its confrontation with India, which the Pakistanis deny. "But let us consider it to have ended or gone into remission if, a year from now, six consecutive months have gone by with no credible reporting of the sort that underlay the general’s observation...The significance of this benchmark is threefold. First, Pakistani patronage is an impediment to subduing the Taliban. Second, it is an excellent gauge of how well or poorly NATO’s campaign in Afghanistan is going. Continued Pakistani dealing with the Taliban would reflect Islamabad’s judgment that it is going poorly enough that bets still must be hedged. Third, an end to the relationship would eliminate one of the biggest paradoxes in the rationale for the counterinsurgency: the Pakistani government that our efforts in Afghanistan are supposedly helping to save is assisting the forces from which we are trying to save it.[9]


Nathaniel Fick and John Nagl summarized a point not always considered in the counterinsurgency discussions: "Afghanistan is not Iraq." One counterinsurgency plan cannot cover both situations: [15]

  • Iraq: "mostly urban, largely sectarian, and contained within Iraq’s borders.
  • Afghanistan: "intrinsically rural, mostly confined to the Pashtun belt across the country’s south and east, and inextricably linked to Pakistan.

Iraq was a conventional war with no significant support of Saddam Hussein. Although foreign fighters later infiltrated, they had no sanctuary, as in the Vietnam War or as with several countries surrounding Afghanistan, most importantly Pakistan. A Iraq War, Surge will not solve a regional conflict. Two myths permeate the view of Afghanistan:

  • "the notorious border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan is ungovernable." It may be ungovernable in the sense of a Western central government, but "the Pashtun tribes along the border have a long history of well-developed religious, social, and tribal structures, and they have developed their own governance and methods of resolving disputes. Today’s instability is not the continuation of some ancient condition; it is the direct result of decades of intentional dismantling of those traditional structures, leaving extremist groups to fill the vacuum."
  • Afghans are committed xenophobes, obsessed with driving out the coalition, as they did the British and the Soviets." They wrote that Afghans want security, but they "cannot understand why the coalition fails to provide the basic services they need. Afghans are not tired of the Western presence; they are frustrated with Western incompetence."

Nagl and Fick insist the U.S. needs to follow, in Afghanistan, what may be paradoxical guidance from the manual:

  • Paradox 1: "Some of the best weapons do not shoot." Economic development and infrastructure, of roads above all, is the most important factor in stabilizing Afghanistan
  • Paradox 2: "Sometimes the more you protect your force, the less secure you may be."
  • Paradox 3: "The hosts doing something tolerably is often better than foreigners doing it well."
  • Paradox 4: "Sometimes the more force is used, the less effective it is."
  • Paradox 5: "Sometimes doing nothing is the best reaction."

Before the August 2009 Afghanistan presidential election began, U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry reflected on the policy elements announced by President Obama in March, involving both additional civilian and military personnel, plus financial resources, for work, in partnership with the new elected government, to:[16]

  • field capable and sufficient Afghan National Army and police units
  • support effective government personnel systems
  • help combat corruption
  • provide financial assistance to key Afghan institutions
  • promote agricultural development
  • address detention issues
  • support Afghan-led reconciliation efforts
  • fix contracting practices

The effort must be accountable on both sides.

Considerable changes in policy, if not operations, came with the Obama administration and the change of commanders to GEN Stanley McChrystal. Anthony Cordesman, after a visit in August 2009, wrote

The United States cannot win the war in Afghanistan in the next three months -- any form of even limited victory will take years of further effort. It can, however, easily lose the war.[17]

Another view came from a Pakistani infantry officer studying at the U.S. Command and General Staff College. He writes that "Afghanistan is not a case of ‘success or failure’... It’s a challenge (still quite surmountable) aggravated by ditching smart choices and contracting wrong compulsions. The current US approach to fixing Afghanistan is impressive in detail but seriously flawed in design...It is historically incorrect to call Afghanistan a country or even a place. It has always been and is a people. Afghanistan represents a people who have always been divided and loosely managed; never properly ‘governed’ at any level even in the loosest sense of that word. Any effort to reverse that historical trend or reality will be a terribly misdirected investment of blood and money." [18] He argues for what he calls an "archipelago" of pacified areas, which recalls the "oil spot: metaphor of pacification in South Vietnam, but, to paraphrase Fick and Nagl, Afghanistan is not Vietnam.

Humanitarian assistance

When President Obama presented initial strategy towards Afghanistan in March, he said civilian experts would be as critical as the tens of thousands of additional U.S. military personnel being sent. "We need agricultural specialists and educators, engineers and lawyers," he said. "That's how we can help the Afghan government serve its people, and develop an economy that isn't dominated by illicit drugs. That's why I'm ordering a substantial increase in our civilians on the ground." It was proposed that 450 civilians from several branches of the government by March 2010, and then by December 2009. By September, however, only a fourth had been sent. [19]

Corruption and foreign aid

A new anti-corruption partnership was announced, described by Assistant Ambassador and Coordinating Director for Development and Economic Affairs E. Anthony Wayne as the first under the "Afghan First" principle. It joins the Afghan Independent Administrative Reform and Civil Service Commission with U.S. and U.N. assistance. [20]. U.N. envoy Kai Eide participated in the plan to train Afghan civil servants in governance.


In the counterterrorism strategy, the American military would concentrate on eliminating the al-Qaeda leadership, primarily in Pakistan, using Special Operations forces, Predator missile strikes and other tactics of limited area, not holding land except as needed for force protection. The Americans would also accelerate training of Afghan forces and provide support as they took the lead against the Taliban.

This strategy, sometimes called "Pakistan first", reportedly backed by Vice-President Joe Biden, is predicated on the theory that the real threat to American national security lies in Pakistan, not Afghanistan. Sen. John Kerry (D-Massachusetts) and chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, said “Pakistan is the critical focus, the greatest security risk for the United States... And all of this exercise, after all, is about our security.”[9]

GEN David McKiernan, who had been commanding US forces and ISAF, was relieved, somewhat abruptly, with GEN Stanley McChrystal. McKiernan was a distinguished combat arms officer, having successfully led the conventional attack in the Iraq War, while McChrystal's background is in special operations.

McKiernan's approach had been "enemy-centric", pursuing the Taliban and al-Qaeda, where McChrystal is believed to be taking a more "population-centric" counterinsurgency approach.


  1. Foreign Policy (magazine) and Fund for Peace, The Failed States Index 2009
  2. Eric Schmitt (26 January 2010), "U.S. Envoy’s Cables Show Concerns on Afghan War Plans", New York Times
  3. Jayshree Bajoria (14 December 2010), After Holbrooke, New Afghan Tests, Council on Foreign Relations
  4. John D. Banusiewicz (8 December 2010), "Afghanistan Strategy is Working, Gates Says", American Forces Press Service
  5. Joshua Partlow, Scott Wilson and William Branigin (2 April 2010), "White House calls Karzai accusations 'genuinely troubling'", Washington Post Staff Writers
  6. Stephen Biddle (16 September 2009), Prepared Testimony to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations by Stephen Biddle: "Assessing the Case for War in Afghanistan", Council on Foreign Relations
  7. Frederick Kagan (21 August 2009), "We're Not the Soviets in Afghanistan, And 2009 Isn't 1979", The Daily Standard
  8. Richard Haass (2009), War of Necessity, War of Choice, Simon & Schuster, ISBN 978141654902-4, p. 199
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Peter Baker and Eric Schmitt (1 October 2009), "Several Afghan Strategies, None a Clear Choice", New York Times
  10. Barack Obama. (27 March 2009), Remarks by the President on a New Strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan
  11. Stanley McChrystal (1 October 2009), Special Address, International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS)
  12. David Kilcullen (4 October 2009), Reform or Go Home, "Op-Ed Contributors; 10 Steps to Victory in Afghanistan", New York Times
  13. Ed Johnson (16 September 2009), "UN Mission Split Over How to Deal With Afghan Election Fraud", Bloomberg
  14. Nader Nadery (4 October 2009), Kick out Corruption, "Op-Ed Contributors; 10 Steps to Victory in Afghanistan: Reform or Go Home", New York Times
  15. Nathaniel Fick, John Nagl (January/February 2009), "Counterinsurgency Field Manual: Afghanistan Edition", Foreign Policy (magazine)
  16. Karl W. Eikenberry (3 August 2009), In Afghanistan, a Time to Debate and Decide, Embassy of the United States, Kabul, Afghanistan
  17. Anthony Cordesman (31 August 2009), "How to Lose in Afghanistan", Washington Post
  18. Mehar Omar Khan (October 2009), "Don’t Try to Arrest the Sea: An Alternative Approach for Afghanistan", Small Wars Journal
  19. Jackie Northram (20 September 2009), "'Civilian Surge' Plan For Afghanistan Hits A Snag", NPR
  20. Ambassador Wayne Announces Partnership with Independent Administrative Reform and Civil Service Commission, Embassy of the United States, Kabul, Afghanistan, 31 August 2009