The Afghan-Pakistan tie is at the heart of U.S. policy and its limits. There is no way the United States will be able to persuade Pakistan to become a full partner in Afghanistan (and stop providing sanctuary to the Afghan Taliban) given Islamabad’s obsession with India and its view of Afghanistan as a critical source of strategic depth in its struggle with India. Even a solution to the Kashmir conflict would not change this – and there is no solution to Kashmir in the offing, certainly not in a time frame that would prove relevant to U.S. decision-making for Afghanistan.
At the macro or global level, Afghanistan is simply absorbing more economic, military, human, diplomatic, and political resources of every sort than it warrants. The $110-$120 billion annual price tag – one out of every six to seven dollars this country spends on defense – is unjustifiable given the budget crisis we face and the need for military (especially air and naval) modernization. The history of the 21st century is far more likely to be determined in the land areas and waters of Asia and the Pacific than it is on the plains and in the mountains of Afghanistan. We had also better be prepared for a number of future counterterrorist interventions (along the lines of Somalia, Pakistan, and Yemen) in Libya and elsewhere in the Greater Middle East and Africa. We also need to make sure we have adequate forces for possible contingencies on the Korean Peninsula and conceivably with Iran. Afghanistan is a strategic distraction, pure and simple. Secretary of Defense Gates’s recent West Point speech makes a case for avoiding sending a large American land force into places like Afghanistan. I agree. But less clear is why we should continue to deploy a large number of soldiers there for the present and near future.
Strategy is about balancing means and ends, resources and interests, and the time has come to restore strategic perspective to what the United States is doing in Afghanistan.
We should not kid ourselves, though: there is unlikely to be a rosy future for Afghanistan any time soon. The most likely future for the next few years and possibly beyond is some form of a messy stalemate, an Afghanistan characterized by a mix of a weak central government, strong local officials, and a Taliban presence (supported out of Pakistan) that is extensive in much of the Pashtun-dominated south and east of the country. Resolution of the ongoing conflict by either military or diplomatic means is highly unlikely and not a realistic basis for U.S. policy. Walking away from Afghanistan, however, is not the answer. Instead, this country should sharply scale back what it is doing and what it seeks to accomplish, and aim for an Afghanistan that is “good enough” in light of local realities, limited interests, and the broad range of both domestic and global challenges facing the United States.
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