After almost 10 years of fighting in Afghanistan, it is time for U.S. and NATO forces to identify and enact an exit strategy.
The elimination of Osama bin Laden this past Sunday has been a cathartic experience for Americans, and yet his death and the circumstances surrounding it also deprive the "global war on terror" of its foundational rationale. In the wake of our triumph, we must ask ourselves what a post-bin Laden war on terror will look like, and whether an occupied Afghanistan is necessary for a successful world-wide counter-terrorism campaign. If the U.S. goal in Afghanistan is withdrawal, it will need to refocus its counter-insurgency doctrine on transitional operations that put the Afghan government at the helm.
As bin Laden's name slowly fades from the news cycles, will Americans start to lose what little patience they had left with regards to the war in Afghanistan? This war — this nation's longest — has already claimed the lives of 1,461 service members and has a price tag that currently tops out at over $400 billion. With bin Laden exterminated and Al-Qaeda reduced to carrying out hastily-planned attacks based in other countries such as Yemen and Pakistan, what is our goal in Afghanistan? If this question cannot be answered clearly then we risk being mired in Afghanistan for another decade.
Since the commencement of U.S. operations in 2001, we have refused to recognize a nuanced situation in Afghanistan. For one, the Taliban is not Al-Qaeda. For all their religious zealotry and draconian laws, Talibs are still rational actors acting in their own self-interest and have demonstrated a willingness to negotiate with the national government when it suits their interests. A definitive victory — one in which the Taliban is completely eradicated — is not a realistic goal. The best option for a viable peace is a brokered deal between Kabul and the Taliban.
Any metric by which we measure progress in Afghanistan — schools built, provinces held, the decrease in civilian deaths, the numbers of Taliban killed — is skewed due to the degree by which the U.S. and NATO inflate Afghan military and government capabilities. At some point, the Afghan government will have to learn to walk on its own two feet, without the assistance of foreign governments. The transition period between the present day and a fully autonomous Afghanistan could unfold in a myriad of fashions, but it would most assuredly involve a fair amount of violence between the Afghan National Army and the Taliban. As unfathomable as this might sound, it is a necessary process that will contribute to an end beyond the status quo and ensure long-term sustainability after the U.S. leaves.
Our primary goal in Afghanistan should be a shift away from kinetic operations — that is, kill/capture — and towards transition operations that will help facilitate long-term Afghan autonomy. Our original goal, to "disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future" will be better served by an autonomous Afghanistan supplemented by covert and drone-based operations by U.S. forces against Al-Qaeda elements.
There are no easy answers when it comes to the future of Afghanistan, but the status quo — at best, a stalemate — is not only unacceptable and unsustainable; it is detrimental to whatever viable solutions may still exist. With a majority of the American public against the war in Afghanistan, a Karzai government pushing for American withdrawal, and a price tag that rises tens of billions of dollars each year, an accelerated withdrawal from Afghanistan is an issue that should transcend political ideologies and receive the support of the public, Congress, and our president.
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