High-level doubts on Afghanistan


Our 9-year-old war in Afghanistan has long had its critics. But now, a number of former officials who once supported the war — or were at least willing to give the U.S. military time to see if it could be won — are questioning whether the benefit of stabilizing Afghanistan is worth the daunting cost.

Troops: A photo caption accompanying a Sept. 12 Op-Ed column about Afghanistan policy identified the pictured troops as Americans. The photograph also includes Afghan troops. —

The doubters include Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, the closest thing the United States has to an official “foreign policy establishment”; Leslie H. Gelb, his predecessor; and Robert D. Blackwill, a former aide to President George W. Bush.

“The current strategy isn’t working, and it’s costing roughly $100 billion a year,” Haass, a former aide to then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, told me last week. “It’s time for a major recalibration: not an immediate withdrawal but a significant scaling down of our ambitions.”

And last week, a group of 46 foreign policy experts issued a joint report arguing that the goal of building a unified, stable Afghanistan is beyond the ability of the United States, and unnecessary to boot. The panel, the Afghanistan Study Group, included both longtime critics of the war and some who supported U.S. policy until recently.

“A U.S. military victory over the Taliban is simply not necessary to protect U.S. interests,” said one of its members, Paul R. Pillar, a former CIA counter-terrorism official.

In the general public, of course, support for the war in Afghanistan has been declining for at least four years. In a CNN poll this month, 57% of respondents said they opposed the war; only 41% said they favored it. But that was to be expected as the war dragged on and casualties rose.

“Elite” opinion is harder to measure. Who counts as a member of the foreign policy elite anyway? But looking only at people who have held, or might soon hold, foreign policy jobs in Republican or Democratic administrations, you find increasing skepticism about whether the war is winnable.

Haass, for example, worked for two Republican presidents, Gelb for two Democrats. “I do think opinion is shifting that way,” agreed Haass, who favored a robust military intervention in Afghanistan in his Bush administration days. (In 2001, he argued for sending more troops to Kabul to do nation-building; Bush and then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld sent them to Iraq instead.).

They cite three main reasons for their escalating pessimism. The first: setbacks (including a major offensive in Kandahar that was scheduled to be in full swing by now but is only getting underway). Next: Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s failure to support a U.S.-sponsored anti-corruption campaign. And finally, there’s that $100-billion annual price tag.

Why do the views of these mandarins matter? Not because they are “opinion leaders,” as they are sometimes called; their opinions are lagging behind most of the public, which has already gone sour on the war.

Where the foreign policy intellectuals make a difference is when they offer not mere opinions but full-blown policy proposals — in this case, to explain how a different, less ambitious strategy in Afghanistan might work. That gives proponents of change something to work with.

Advance copies of the 12-page report of the Afghanistan Study Group, for example, went to the White House earlier last week, where they were being read by at least some of the officials who will be running President Obama’s official review of his Afghan strategy in December.

The report proposes ending U.S. military operations in southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban is strongest, and seeking a power-sharing deal with the Islamist militants. Blackwill, the former Bush aide, has proposed a more radical variation of that scheme: dividing Afghanistan in two and allowing the Taliban to rule the south as long as it doesn’t allow Al Qaeda back into the country. Haass proposes a softer “decentralization,” giving U.S. aid to local leaders who agree to fight Al Qaeda but abandoning the effort to build a strong central government. Gelb makes a similar proposal, including a two-year troop drawdown from the current 100,000 to about 15,000.

None of these new ideas is obviously right, of course, and none of them has won the debate yet. There are still plenty of supporters for Gen. David H. Petraeus’ counterinsurgency strategy, which calls for training thousands of Afghan troops and holding off the Taliban until they are ready to take over — although, in the face of setbacks, some counterinsurgency boosters have sounded distinctly tepid recently about the chances of success.

But as Obama approaches a December review of his strategy in Afghanistan, the debate is noticeably opening up, driven in part by the weight of that $100-billion cost.

Obama has said he will begin drawing down U.S. troops in July 2011. Petraeus has agreed to the drawdown in principle but says his strategy needs time if it is going to succeed. The general often decries the burden of working against “the Washington clock” — the pressure to wrap the war up as soon as possible.

As Obama’s next decision approaches, that clock is ticking ever louder.