In a twist on the dilemma faced by Shakespeare’s Hamlet—“to be or not to be”—Americans now ask themselves the question in light of several recent setbacks in Afghanistan: to stay or to get out? If the United States stays, can the war be won? If it leaves, what will be the costs?
The ten-year Afghanistan war can be lost but it cannot be won in the conventional sense. The steps leading to an inevitable defeat include a rapid withdrawal of all American and other NATO military forces, abandonment of the Kabul government to its fate, and the passage of a handful of years before all or stretches of the mountainous country falls to the Taliban and their al Qaeda allies. From their newly retaken craggy redoubts, they would again mount terrorist attacks against Western targets and destabilize Pakistan, a nuclear-weapons nation and the next domino.
Victory, in the World War II sense, is nearly impossible to conjure up as a neat and tidy win by the International Security Assistance Force. The insurgency seems endless, and the timetable is on the side of our enemies. They can await the ISAF planned withdrawal of its combat troops at the end of 2014.
Frustrated and fatigued, Americans increasingly want their government to pull the plug on the Afghan war right away. Nearly 70 percent of those recently polled thought the United States should not be at war in Afghanistan and 57 percent now believe America should bring its troops home. Costs in blood and treasure have been steep. Afghanistan alone has taken the lives of nearly 2,000 U.S. troops and over $500 billion for nation-building enterprises along with establishing an Afghan army and police.
If the United States can neither win decisively nor exit painlessly, what can it do? It must fight on with a different strategy. America has little choice but to slash its financial largeness, shrink its military footprint, and narrow its inflated vision about what is possible. It cannot drag Afghanistan into the 21st century as a Silk Road Switzerland. Nor is a country-wide unchallenged dominance achievable.
To adapt we ought to look at other lands where terrorist networks exist but are checked by U.S. military forces. In the ungoverned spaces of the Philippines, Somalia, and Yemen, al Qaeda franchisees bomb and shoot. But Washington avoided duplicating the troop-intensive Afghan-type intervention with its New Deal projects. Small numbers of U.S. special forces have trained local security forces to combat insurgents in the Horn of Africa, Colombia, the Philippines, and elsewhere. The massive U.S.-paid-for Afghan infrastructure projects—hydroelectric dams, water treatment plants, rural electrification networks—are absent in these other theaters. America’s specialized fighters stage commando raids against jihadi chieftains, dispense modest medical care, and provide veterinary services, plus dig wells and clear soccer fields. Of all the American blessings, the bestowal of physical security for routine life is the most prized by local people. This realistic strategy accepts the protracted nature of terrorist violence in remote places. Quick decisive victories are unanticipated.
The specialized military and spooks paradigm is the workable alternative to the current flight response to the depressing Afghan news. This reality-based strategy matches ends to means. It is anti-terrorism implemented skillfully for the long haul. It aims not at an unattainable total pacification. Instead it strives to hold terrorism at bay in what the U.S. military calls the age of “indecisive conflicts” until it burns itself out.
It behooves Washington to bring its expectations into line with the reality of a decades-long slog ahead against Islamist terrorism. During the Cold War, the United States stood up defenses that allowed Americans to prosper, to innovate, and to get on with life. Now we face another patience-testing conflict. We need to husband our resources, to wage war effectively, and to outlast the threat. We must take up the right weapons against a “sea of troubles” so as the Prince of Denmark soliloquized “by opposing end them.”
Thomas H. Henriksen is a Senior Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and the author of the forthcoming book America and the Rogue States (Palgrave Macmillan)