The New America Foundation convened a conference this week to showcase the work of Robert Pape, in the hopes that his policy prescriptions will be picked up as an alternative to our current strategy in Afghanistan. This would be a terrible idea.
Pape's research shows that the majority of suicide bomb attacks occur in places occupied by U.S. military forces; from this he concludes that we should adopt a strategy of "offshore balancing." By which he means to remove U.S. forces and rely on military strikes into the countries, along with more effective political and economic engagement. Neither the research nor the prescriptions are sound bases for policy.
To say that attacks occur where U.S. forces are deployed is to say no more than Willy Sutton, who robbed banks because "that's where the money is." Pape's approach ignores the context in which deployment and stationing of U.S. forces occurs. We send troops to advance our interests, protect our allies, and contest the political and geographic space that groups like al Qaeda and the Taliban are operating in. Of course the attacks will stop if we cede those political objectives. But the troops are not the point, the political objectives are the point.