More than a decade after we invaded Afghanistan to retaliate for 9/11, American troops remain committed and we continue to pay dearly in blood and treasure. Last year we spent more than $100 billion on Afghan operations, though Afghanistan’s total GDP is only $14 billion. While those billions are spent in Afghanistan, we are told that we can’t afford to invest in our schools, roads, jobs, or safety net.
The question we clearly need to ask is this: why are we still in Afghanistan?
Our troops long ago succeeded in their counterterrorism mission. By 2009, fewer than 100 members of al Qaeda remained in Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden, who masterminded the attacks, was killed last year. Yet the war continues.
It appears that we are now engaged in trying to quell Afghanistan’s ongoing civil war. Afghanistan has very real problems, including tremendous poverty, a high illiteracy rate, a weak and corrupt central government, and cultural traditions incredibly hostile to women and girls. All of those problems require solutions other than guns and soldiers. The ongoing presence of our troops, according to Robert Pape at the University of Chicago, escalates the violence and attacks. In short, US led operations tend to be destabilizing. What is needed to end their civil war is not troops but internal political reconciliation and external regional coordination to achieve a stable Afghanistan.
The public is tired of this war and ready to bring our troops and our money home: 72 percent of us oppose the war and 60 percent believe it has not been worth the costs.
The framework laid out in 2010 by the Afghanistan Study Group, an ad hoc group of national security policy experts, former government officials and other stakeholders, provides a roadmap to end the war. According to that report, “U.S. strategy in Afghanistan should aim at realistic and attainable objectives. The strategy should become less reliant on military force in favor of a focus on political inclusion, economic development, and regional diplomacy.” Adoption of such a strategy would save billions while making a viable solution in Afghanistan and the region much more likely.
President Obama’s announcement at the NATO summit just concluded outlines a rapid reduction in US led combat operations between now and mid 2013 with transfer of security functions to Afghan security forces. This process is already well underway in much of Afghanistan. The residual force in Afghanistan will be a small counter-terrorist unit and a modest international training support element designed to manage the responsible transfer of the security function to the government of Afghanistan.
Darcy Burner is a principal in the Afghanistan Study Group and candidate for Congress in Washington's 1st District. Major General Paul Eaton (ret.) was a commanding general in Iraq and is a resident of Washington State.