America’s political debate has turned to government spending, debt and the country’s long-term economic health. Many rightly view the military budget as an important ingredient in any deficit-reduction plan. But some have extended this logic to the war in Afghanistan, with even administration insiders telling The Post that spending has gone too high and that costs will influence President Obama’s decision about how quickly to start withdrawing troops next month. Their ranks are bolstered by outside strategists who argue that spending so much on distant, poor Afghanistan leaves us unable to invest properly in other areas.
This is an understandable but incorrect way of viewing the Afghan war. Regardless of Obama’s choices this summer, total costs of the war will exceed half a trillion dollars. Those favoring a more rapid drawdown than do most field commanders would be able to save at most 15 percent in total costs, while jeopardizing the campaign’s future. Losing the war could give al-Qaeda its largest sanctuary — an undesirable development even after the demise of Osama bin Laden — and also provide sanctuaries for groups such as the Pakistani Taliban and Lashkar i-Taiba. Moreover, we tried fighting this war on the cheap, from 2002 to 2005, and the result was a revival of the insurgency.
True, the war’s course has been extremely difficult. Many news reports focus on suicide bombings or government corruption. Even relative success, defined as a future Afghan government that can control most of its territory with little outside help, is not guaranteed. But evidence is mounting that our military strategy is working — and rapid troop drawdowns this summer and fall are not consistent with the plan.
That plan, in a nutshell: In 2011, consolidate increasingly secure areas in Afghanistan’s south while fending off an expected Taliban counteroffensive that, while likely to be hamstrung by the NATO/Afghan government progress of the past year, could still be potent. Assassination campaigns and spectacular bombings can be expected to pose particular threats even if overall battlefield dynamics are turning the way of coalition forces from Kabul to Kandahar to Helmand. In 2012, increasingly turn over responsibilities for security in the south to rapidly improving Afghan army and police forces while bolstering U.S. efforts in the east. In 2013 and 2014, accelerate foreign troop drawdowns as Afghan forces reach full capability and as the insurgency has been considerably weakened. Throughout all this, continue work on Afghan economic development and government capacity while supporting President Hamid Karzai’s efforts at realistic peace talks with the Afghan insurgency.
The strategy has weak points, especially at the political level. Washington is having a hard time motivating Pakistan to go after insurgent sanctuaries on its soil, and we lack an adequate plan for supporting Afghan political development as the country moves toward presidential elections in 2014. But the military effort increasingly shows results. In the country’s south, for instance, at least 10 percent more Afghans consider roads secure than did a year ago; most government officials in the south now travel by road rather than NATO helicopter; the number of schools open in Helmand province has increased by 50 percent since late 2009; Afghan army and police contributions to recent offensives in the south have been about half of all necessary coalition forces; and poppy production is down by half over the past three years.