I write today about the ever increasing pressure to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. A vote last week drove home the point that this is becoming more and more of a contentious issue. In a bill that was expected to fail by a longshot, the vote actually came to a close failure vote of 215-204, with 26 Republicans joining in the effort with all but eight of the Democrats. This was a significant step for the Democrats to step out against the President in opposition to his public stance. This bill essentially called for the Obama Administration to establish a plan this summer to accelerate the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan and to pursue a negotiated settlement with “all interested parties”.
This is a substantial shift as just one year ago Congressman McGovern suffered a much greater defeat with 98 Democrats going against a similar piece of legislation. After the heightened coverage surrounding Bin Laden’s death, Americans are more aware that as Congressman Hoyer observed, “Many of the terrorists against whom we are fighting are no longer located in Afghanistan but are in disparate locations, from Yemen to Somalia to Southeast Asia.” This is one factual point that has provided a basis for the sentiment that the U.S. troop’s ongoing mission in Afghanistan is in part a futile waste of U.S. time and resources.
Although the situation in Afghanistan is complicated and may be hard for those without military experience much less inside intelligence information to fully understand or appreciate, there are a few basic observations that can be made. First, there multiple obstacles preventing the U.S. from making progress as intended. Second, Obama has failed to present a clear strategy that people, even those within his own party, can unify behind. For any issue in politics, messaging is always key to rallying support. The problem is that the Administration has not determined a clear exit strategy and therefore, they are unable to communicate a vision of a withdrawal method to the taxpayers who are funding these efforts. It is natural for Americans to grow anxious about an exit strategy when it is clear our troops are not making significant progress in regards to the stated purposes of the mission, namely “nation building”. The white elephant in the room is the fact that the U.S. Government is conceivably not revealing the true purpose for remaining in Afghanistan. This of course is the geographic proximity to a growing threat to the U.S., Pakistan. This is a country in which the core leadership of al-Qaeda is now located in addition to their develop nuclear weapons. The U.S. would not want to vocalize this purpose as it would further strain the delicate relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan. However, there is logic in positioning ourselves in the region in a way that prevents the terrorist groups from growing in size and power. Since this purpose is still only hypothetical, I will just address the current challenges the U.S. faces in Afghanistan which are delaying an immediate exit.
Fist, the U.S. has stated that our troops would be withdrawn when Afghanistan has a permanently stable and well-resourced government. After the fall of the Taliban in 2001, the Bush Administration made the decision to try to rebuild a relatively strong central government and to assist Afghanistan’s economy. Even at the January 28, 2010 “London Conference” and the July 20, 2010 “Kabul Conference”, two international conferences on Afghanistan, the focus was still on expanding and reforming the Afghan convernance.The problem with using this measurement as a prerequisite to exiting, is the fact that Afghanistan may never meet this objective. Current President Hamid Karzai’s failure to forcefully confront corruption within the government has caused a great loss of support by the people. The rife corruption has caused the Afghan citizens to even resent the Karzai government; completely undermining any faith they may have held that America could be trusted in their strategy of rebuilding stable governance. The two more recent corruption stories were that involving the Kabul Bank, and the U.S. sanctions imposed on the money trading firm New Ansari Money Exchange on February 18, 2011. In response to this, the Obama Administration and Congress have begun strategically urging Kazai to publicly confront government corruption. Karzai has in turn resisted these efforts and has become more suspicious of the U.S. motivations.
Secondly, there are several factions of conflicting governance currently controlling this country in various regions and capacities. Amidst the more organized, legitimate bodies, there are also individual “warlords”, local strongmen who wield personal militias and functionally destabilize the progress between the U.S. and Afghan officials. In newly released Defense Department reports in May 2011, they recognized the fact that our security efforts are being challenged by multiple armed groups. Until the U.S.-led offensives launched in 2009, the Karzai government was estimated to control about 30% of the country, insurgent’s controlled 4% officially and were considered to heavily influence or operate in another 30%, and finally local tribes and groups controlled the remainder. As of 2009, the Taliban had named shadow governors in 33 of 34 Afghan provinces. It is incredibly difficult for the U.S. to make progress when the citizens have such varied and divided loyalties to difference governing bodies. Certain regions continue to be potential safe havens for al-Qaeda forces, and therefore General Patraeus has stated the U.S. will not leave these areas. These threatening areas include Kandahar and Helman in the South and Kunar and Paktika in the East, along the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. However, he U.S. has stated it would hand-over security responsibilities to Afghan Security Forces for seven areas of the country in July, even though there is no apparent solidified Security Force to hand off the baton to. The U.S. has failed to strengthen a central governing body that the citizens could coalesce behind. Unless a strategy to accomplish this is formed, the U.S. progress will continue at a sluggish pace at best.
Thirdly, there is the instability that is created by way of their drug creation and distribution, an issue that gets little media coverage. However, some consider the narcotics trafficking to be a core impediment to the U.S. missions. The trafficking of narcotics undermines the rule of law and provides large sums of money to the insurgency, which often times goes untraced. The Taliban makes between $70-$100 million per year off the trafficking of poppy or opium. As the Obama Administration has focused on developing and promoting alternative agricultural crops, the Afghans have turned away from the U.S. and instead to the Taliban for protection of their ability to earn income in what is one of the top industries for Afghans. This counter-narcotics approach has severely back-fired on the U.S. and given the Taliban more control among the locals.
The stated U.S. policy thus far has been to ensure that Afghanistan will not again become a base for terrorist attacks against the United States. The Obama Administration has asserted that it is pursuing a well-resourced and integrated military civilian strategy intended to pave the way for a gradual transition to Afghan leadership that is to be completed by 2014. To support this mission, an additional 51,000 U.S. forces were authorized in 2009 reviews to increase U.S. troop levels to 99,000. However, Obama has also said we intended to have a relationship with Afghanistan that will include military involvement long after 2014, an indication that the administration sees no foreseeable end to our presence.
Amidst the tension over this issue, is the continual increase in Government funding for expanded efforts. The House Appropriations Defense subcommittee just released their Pentagon budget bill for FY 2012 which contained $119 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. government continues to spend a substantial portion of our defense budget in a country where there is a lack of clear vision for efforts moving forward. It is now time for the Administration to communicate their intentions to the American people, in a way that is nonthreatening to our security. At some point we will have to determine whether it is worth the billions of dollars and other resources spent to remain in a region when we continue to take one step forward, two steps back.