US needs to implement new way forward in Afghanistan strategy

This month, as the United States begins its 10th year in Afghanistan, the newly formed Afghanistan Study Group published “A New Way Forward: Rethinking U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan.”

Composed of analysts from National Defense University, National War College, Harvard, Georgetown, CSIS, New America Foundation, the Congressional Progressive Caucus’s Afghanistan Taskforce and others, the report outlines alternative strategies for Afghanistan.

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The good news about “A New Way Forward”: It initiates a much-needed debate on strategy. Washington’s silence is shocking, given that this war breaks records: The longest war in U.S. history, at 107 months and the most expensive war in U.S. history (per soldier), at $1 million per-soldier per-year, totaling $100 billion annually. The bad news: Certain forces will prevent these recommendations from materializing.

Radical rethinking on warfare is rare. There are reasons for this.  Pentagon’s strategy often reflects the financial interests of the defense industry, a dangerous connection common in other countries, too. U.K.’s recent defense cuts left big-ticket projects favored by defense contractors, such as the $40 billion Joint Strike Fighter, untouched, reducing budgets for piracy and terrorism.

This is unsurprising. Big-ticket items are where the money is, irrespective of what is effective in undermining threats. Since 2000, America’s defense budget grew 7 percent annually, correlating positively with money spent by the defense industry lobby, which grew 7 percent in 2010. Defense Secretary Gates’s proposed savings of $100 billion, distributed over five years, is not radical. It is a one-time event and minor compared with projected growth. In 2016, when savings expire, defense spending will have grown to more than $1.3 trillion, not including the hundreds of billions of dollars in deficit-funded, war-related “emergencies.”

Cutting the defense industry’s grip on Washington is difficult, but necessary. Big-ticket items are ineffective in dealing with the threat of terrorist groups such as al Qaeda. RAND Corporation’s “How Terrorists Groups End” notes that terrorist groups end through intelligence, policing and negotiations, and “military force has rarely been the primary reason for the end of terrorist groups.” Similarly, big-ticket military items are ineffective as counter-insurgency implements if the population perceives foreigners as illegitimate and if the other legs of the counter-insurgency stool — political and economic stability — remain unaddressed.

On both counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency, we are failing Afghanistan. If we were serious about long-term, sustained investment in Afghanistan’s policing, intelligence and negotiations capabilities or political and economic development, our contractors would operate differently. No longer would big-ticket items in the tens of billions of dollars characterize defense contracts. Nor would development contracts in the hundreds of millions of dollars require quick spending. This led to war profiteering and waste, here and in Afghanistan.

Our footprint should be lighter, as outlined in “A New Way Forward.”  First, we promote Afghan power sharing and political inclusion processes that embrace all principle parties. Ethnic clans — Uzbek, Tajik, Hazara, Pashtun, Turkmen, etc. — have never fully reconciled.  To favor one exacerbates the rift. 
Second, we downsize the military footprint. Our 100,000-strong, combat-heavy presence alienates Pashtuns, aids in Taliban recruitment, incurs unsustainable costs to our economy and prevents prioritization of more effective, troop-light, counter-strategies. Troops are increasingly targeted: 2010 produced the highest U.S. military casualties to date.

Third, we focus efforts on al Qaeda. Amorphous, sophisticated and mobile, the CIA now notes al Qaeda’s new home in Yemen.  Irrespective of headquarters, however, the approach to al Qaeda must not be rudimentary. Their frontier is not on traditional battlefields; it is organized via satellite from places common and close, within America and without. Our post-9/11 war rhetoric would do well to remember this. 

Fourth, we encourage economic development. Poverty is an efficient incubator for extremism, terrorist activity and illicit trafficking. Our development strategy, however, remains U.S.-centric not Afghan-centric. Only 20 percent of U.S. aid goes to Afghan institutions. The remaining 80 percent funnels through foreign contractors, leaving little local capacity and infrastructure. 

Fifth, we engage stakeholders. Borders are porous. Spillover is prevalent. If we are serious about long-term stability in Afghanistan-Pakistan, then relations with India, China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and others become increasingly relevant. This is especially apparent as western allies withdraw and our dependence on regional stakeholders increases.

If we want good news on Afghanistan, we must free ourselves from the fetters of for-profit industry and boldly forge a new way forward. It will take longer to produce, be less profitable and less glamorous, but it will get us closer to the security and stability we seek. I urge Congress to own up to this task. Our lives, and the lives of Afghans, depend on it.

Rep. Honda is the chairman of the Progressive Caucus’s Afghanistan Taskforce and serves on the Appropriations Committee.