On Wednesday April 20, the New America Foundation hosted a daylong event, entitled “Afghanistan War: Containing or Leveraging U.S. Power” which I attended.
There were four panels, but the difficult-to-sit-on-chairs got to me after two. Okay, I’ll admit, the last panel was with Ann Coulter, who is both not an expert on Afghanistan and extremely stressful. I made a conscious decision to skip it. However, the first two panels were excellent (see end for a list of the panelists and their affiliation).
At this event, I came to grips with a sad realization: the more I learn about Afghanistan, the more hopeless the situation seems. I can better appreciate the range of consequences no matter what the U.S. decides to do, and find every proposed less-than-perfect.
I’m sure I’m not the only one; it just took me longer.
The first panel at the event tackled the cost of the Afghan war. The cost is too high, in dollars and lives, and the war does not advance our national interests, the panelists said. At a time when the U.S. Congress is quibbling about cutting $60 billion from the Fiscal Year 2011 budget, the war in Afghanistan will cost $108 billion this year alone. If Obama pulled the troops out, we could save hundreds of billions of dollars a year, and the U.S. public would not notice, Richard Vague argued.
Only Peter Bergen said that the cost of the war was worth it. He said that the U.S. has a moral obligation to remain and ensure security because “we overthrew their government.”
Bergen’s argument is one that I used to subscribe to, but as the years have gone on, our continued presence in Afghanistan has only caused more U.S., Afghan and Pakistani casualties, served as a recruiting tool for the insurgency and created great instability rather than security, as Matthew Hoh said.
Even though I was put off by Vague’s depiction of how unaffected most Americans are by the war (because the Afghans would notice American troops leaving), he is right that the costs are too high for a war with little benefit. Ours is a basic strategic mistake, Katulis explained, we are not able to recognize what we cannot achieve.
We cannot “succeed” in Afghanistan because we are in a military stalemate, as the panelists on the second panel discussed. The only realistic next step for Afghanistan involves a political solution.
Panelist Ambassador Thomas Pickering co-chaired the Century Foundation’s report, “Afghanistan: Negotiating Peace,” which proposed a negotiated a settlement with all interested Afghan parties, including the Taliban, the Northern Alliance, the Karzai government and civil society.
Their proposal is controversial for several reasons. Previous negotiations with religious extremists have not gone well (Paul Bergen); the Taliban will be allowed to return to politics; and a settlement could roll back human rights. Additionally, if you believe, as Ambassador James Dobbins does, that the U.S. has improved the situation in Afghanistan and that the Karzai government and U.S. troops are popular, negotiations are unnecessary or at least premature. Dobbins’ rosy view of Afghanistan comes from public surveys that may be questionable.
I have my own misgivings about a negotiated settlement. I agree that negotiations with religious extremists historically do not go well. But neither do wars of attrition.
More worrisome to me is the likelihood that Afghan women will be excluded from these negotiations, judging by the track record of U.N. and U.S. negotiations and the role of women in Afghan society.
Joshua Foust, also a member of the Century Foundation’s task force, did not ease my fears when he said that Afghans do not want the West dictating their values. This belittles and denies the work of many Afghan human rights advocates and ignores the fact that pre-Taliban, Afghan women were fully integrated into public society. I worry that through negotiations, we might unintentionally perpetuate and codify the exclusion of women, who are victims in this war and deserve a seat at the table.
The real problem with ending this war is that the solutions are not perfect; all have political and social costs. However, the current situation is untenable and unbearable. There may still time to promote solutions and make a political settlement work. The time for any military success though has run out, so let Obama bring the troops home as promised.
Panel 1 “The Afghanistan War: A-Cost benefit analysis” panelists:
• Thomas R. Pickering, Co-Chair, Century Foundation International Task Force on Afghanistan, former Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Department of State and former US Ambassador to the United Nations
• James C. Clad, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for South & Southeast Asian Affairs
• Joshua Foust, Fellow, American Security Project
• Richard Vague, Co-Founder, Afghanistan Study Group
• Paul R. Pillar former National Intelligence Officer for Near East and South Asia, National Intelligence Council Member, Afghanistan Study Group
Panel 2 “Next Steps in Afghanistan: What are the Options?” panelists:
• Matthew P. Hoh, Director, Afghanistan Study Group (Council for a Livable World board member)
• James Dobbins, Director, International Security & Defense Policy Center, RAND Corporation
• Peter Bergen, Director, National Security Studies Program, New America Foundation
• Brian Katulis, Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress
• C. Christine Fair, Assistant Professor, Center for Peace & Security Studies