The future of U.S. policy in Afghanistan

In my class this week my students and I discussed the future of Afghanistan. We reviewed a pair of recent remarkable articles in Foreign Affairs about the failure of U.S. policy, written by authors who served as principal architects and managers of that policy, Karl Eikenberry and Stephen Biddle.

Eikenberry was the former U.S. ambassador and senior military commander in Afghanistan. In his article he writes that the assumptions of U.S. policy were “spectacularly incorrect.” The counterinsurgency mission “failed” because of the inability of U.S. and other foreign forces to provide protection for Afghan civilians and because of the absence of any semblance of accountable and effective governance to serve as an alternative to the Taliban and the war lords. Eikenberry confirms what other analysts have argued: in counterinsurgency missions no amount of external military force or financial assistance can compensate for the lack of legitimate governance in the state for which one is supposedly fighting.

Biddle was an advocate of President Obama’s Afghanistan ‘surge’ policy and has been an advisor to U.S. commanders David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal. In his essay Biddle assesses the grim prospects for Afghanistan’s future and the limited choices available for U.S. policy. He outlines three options. One is to maintain a limited force in Afghanistan, as currently planned. The result he argues will be a “grinding stalemate” of continued war, paid for by U.S. taxpayers to the tune of at least $20 billion a year. The other options are to withdraw all U.S. forces, facing the inevitable defeat of the U.S. mission now rather than in the future, and to push for a negotiated power sharing agreement between the Kabul government and the Taliban.

When leading military commanders and advisers tell us that our policies have failed, we ought to pay attention. In my view the only viable option in Afghanistan is some combination of Biddle’s alternative options. Withdraw U.S. forces sooner rather than later, and negotiate a power-sharing agreement between the Kabul government and the Taliban.

Most important is the need for a fundamental change in U.S. foreign policy, away from military interventionism toward greater support for diplomacy, development and good governance as the key to building peace and stability and overcoming violent extremism.

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