Critiquing The Afghanistan Study Group's Report

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A rather large group of progressively-minded academics and pundits from think tanks put together a report suggesting that there was a need to develop a "new way forward" in how the US government is addressing the Afghanistan civil war. The Afghanistan Study Group, as they title themselves, proposed a five-point plan that changes the dynamic of how the US military would operate, largely by reducing the troop strength and reorienting the civil approach. These points included:

  • Emphasize Power-Sharing and Political Reconciliation.
  • Scale Back and Eventually Suspend Combat Operations in the South and Reduce the U.S. Military Footprint
  • Keep the Focus on Al Qaeda and Domestic Security
  • Promote Economic Development
  • Engage Global and Regional Stakeholders

The Afghanistan Study Group developed this short (16-page) report primarily because its members don't see the current Bush/Obama strategy as really working (and I don't think you'll get much argument about that). My personal opinion is that they also recognize that neither the Dems nor the Repubs in Congress intend on letting our troops pull out of that region completely, regardless of the relative insignificant strategic interest that the United States has in that country. So they offer this "new way forward" as a way to transition our combat forces out of that country. But the more amazing thing is how the report has been savaged, not by the right wing, but by the left. Bernard Finel describes it as a "circular firing squad," and I have to agree with him.

I'll leave it to you as to whether you want to pick through the critiques by Joshua Foust and Michael Cohen and the counter-points made by Bernard Finel and Michael Hoh. It's good to have a discussion on this issue, but I have to agree with Michael Hoh that Foust and Cohen (and Exum) all miss the point of the paper. They all rather deliberately focus on the need to address operational and tactical issues rather than the adequacy of the US grand strategy that put forces into Afghanistan to begin with. Says Hoh:

This column, and the critique it responds to, discuss much more the operational and tactical involvement of the United States in Afghanistan than I would like. Unfortunately, those aspects seem to drive our policy and strategy rather than the other way around; producing a policy and a strategy that does not hew to our interests, make us safer or deliver benefits in accordance with our expenditures in lives and dollars.

The goal of the Afghanistan Study Group is to foster debate regarding America's purpose in Afghanistan, particularly what our vital interests there are, and to develop a path forward to produce a strategy commensurate with those vital interests.

The consistent failure of US policy (and these critics of the Afghanistan Study Group's report) is that it tends to take a myopic focus on a particular country's issues without first determining a regional strategy, and when it comes to dedicating national resources, it fails to consider America's strategic interest in that country against all the other strategic interests. And in taking that myopic focus, our civilian leadership has this really bad habit of (at least publicly) professing the need to have our military leaders define the strategy, when they really need to be executing what the civilians say is the plan.

There isn't anything particularly new or revolutionary in the report's five-point plan. Critics suggest that it ignores "political realities" and that it isn't timely enough. Cohen says, for instance, that no one really believes that the current strategy is working, which drives one to think, so why shouldn't we consider alternatives? But the critics have a hard time countering the report's point that policy makers need to be more realistic about their dreams of eliminating all extremist groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan, of dictating Afghanistan's political future, and of rebuilding Afghanistan's government into some idealistic stable and flourishing society inside of the next decade.

Afghanistan's situation isn't going to improve, with or without US military troops, until the US government gets serious about addressing the challenges in Pakistan, Iran, and the northern 'stans of the former Soviet Union. And the US government has unfortunately lost its recognition as an impartial broker of international deals, given its inability to seriously address the Israel-Palestine conflict. We know that the current Bush/Obama strategy for Afghanistan is broke, and we know that there are alternatives. When are the Very Serious People in Washington DC going to act in a responsible fashion that recognizes these realities?

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