Transition vs. Talk on Afghanistan

March 21, 2012

Yesterday Marine General John Allen, the top military commander in Afghanistan, told the House Armed Services Committee that transitioning to Afghans is the “linchpin of our strategy, not merely the way out.” That transition should — as prominent Americans and Afghans have suggested — move foreign troops to a less visible role and put Afghans in the lead. This will allow U.S. troops to continue to redeploy out of the country and reduce the number of painful and fatal incidents like those we have seen in recent weeks. It also reflects the need to focus on political solutions, as it is politics, not troop numbers, that can secure and sustain gains in Afghanistan. Finally, as policymakers debate the complexities of the mission in Afghanistan, conservatives — most prominently Mitt Romney — have shown again that behind their political attacks they have no solutions for securing U.S. goals in the country at a reasonable cost.

Transition is part of the strategy; moving foreign troops to a less-visible role, then out of the country, is the right approach. As General Allen told Congress yesterday, “In the long run, our goals can only be achieved and then secured by Afghan forces. Transition, then, is the linchpin of our strategy, not merely the way out.” Putting Afghans in the lead starts with reducing the role of foreign troops sooner rather than later. As Caroline Wadhams, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, writes, “The United States and its NATO partners should continue reducing their military and financial investments in Afghanistan. Troops have already begun to withdraw, with significant reductions anticipated through the summer and beyond. Also moving the foreign troops into a less visible role more quickly — away from combat operations, off the streets, and out of the villages — is the right approach, as indicated by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta in February as he traveled to NATO consultations in Brussels.” [John Allen via AP, 3/20/12. Caroline Wadhams, 3/13/12]

Going forward, the mission should focus on sustainability of gains and political solutions. Continued investment in Afghanistan can only be justified if there’s a reasonable hope that gains can be sustainable. For that, a focus on political solutions is essential. Steve Coll, president of the New America Foundation and New Yorker writer, explains what a focus on politics would look like: “One possible direction, for example, would involve a much more determined accommodation of the declared, broadly based political goals voiced by Afghan leaders, including but not limited to President Karzai. These goals include an end to night raids, greater and faster sovereignty over international military operations, and a review of the arming and supervision of militias. Even the announcement of such a direction might arrest the despair and contention that surrounds the American-Afghan partnership, bogged down for months in increasingly implausible negotiations over a strategic partnership accord.”

Coll continues: “It might also be possible to turn, much more energetically, to the 2014 election plan, and the related institutions, personalities, and civil-society groups that will be involved, if the election comes off. According to the Afghan constitution, President Karzai must leave office then — or else, Karzai will decline to leave, and provoke a crisis. In 2009, Afghanistan almost miraculously dodged a meltdown after a fraudulent election — because the incentives for holding on as Obama poured money into the country trumped factional interest. That is unlikely to happen a second time. Focusing directly and creatively on Afghan constitutional politics and the civil society necessary to bolster a successful transition (the parliament is also supposed to be up for election) might be more useful, in terms of promoting unity and cohesion among Afghan groupings, than the provocative talks with Taliban leaders have so far been. Currently, American political strategy is heavily located in these talks. They are valuable, should be continued, and might bear fruit, but they haven’t produced much so far. Their relevance on the road to 2014 and beyond is uncertain.” [Steve Coll, 3/14/12]

Conservatives have no serious solutions for Afghanistan. As policymakers grapple with the complexities of the mission in Afghanistan, conservatives continue to view the war through a political lens. As Dan Amira writes in New York Magazine, this approach should call into question Mitt Romney’s credibility on foreign policy, especially. “One of the many, many flaws of Herman Cain’s presidential candidacy was his complete lack of foreign policy credibility, and the most egregious example of which was, arguably, his refusal to spell out any kind of plan for the war in Afghanistan. ‘I’m not privy to a lot of confidential information since I’m not in government and I’m not in the administration,’ he explained at one debate. Right … but this is the longest war in American history — surely you’ve had enough time think about how you’d want to handle it as commander-in-chief, broadly? He didn’t, but it never really mattered because Herman Cain was never going to become president. But Mitt Romney could very well become president, and he has about as much of a plan for American’s largest ongoing military effort as Herman Cain did.” On Fox News Sunday, Romney explained his latest policy on Afghanistan, saying: “Well, before I take a stand at a particular course of action, I want to get the input from the people who are there.” Amira concludes, “If there’s any difference between Herman Cain’s approach to Afghanistan and Mitt Romney’s, it’s subtle. Both seem to boil down to ‘Don’t worry about it, I’ll let you know when I’m president.’”

As Dan Balz of the Washington Post pointed out last October, Romney has yet to explain “what progress is being made, what challenges remain and what kind of timetable he would recommend for bringing the troops home. Most important, he has not explained what he thinks the U.S. mission in Afghanistan is at this point and what would constitute success… Romney said at the Citadel that the next president will face many difficult and complex foreign policy decisions. ‘Few will be black and white,’ he said. No doubt he is correct, but greater clarity on a decade-long conflict that has cost so much in lives and dollars is something he owes the voters soon.” Voters are still waiting. [Dan Amira, 3/20/12. Mitt Romney via New York Magazine, 3/20/12. Dan Balz, 10/8/11]

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