Finding a way out of Afghanistan
Team B efforts have long played an influential role in determining the outcome of intra-elite debates on critical national security issues. In the 1970s, the CIA's Team B report on Soviet military capabilities, together with the work of the Committee on the Present Danger, encouraged the Carter administration away from détente and toward an arms race with Moscow. And the Project for the New American Century, led by William Kristol and a passel of neo-cons, was influential in swaying the Bush administration toward the invasion of Iraq.
A Team B report to be formally released tomorrow by the Afghanistan Study Group -- an ad hoc group of former government officials, well-known academics and policy experts assembled by the New America Foundation -- has the potential to be similarly influential. At a moment when the administration and too many members of Congress have failed to explore alternatives to Gen. David Petraeus's counterinsurgency strategy, the importance of this clear and cogent report can't be understated.
The report offers a thorough analysis of why and how we must dramatically reduce America's footprint in our nation's longest and most expensive war. Although the war is justified by its proponents as an effort to eradicate al-Qaeda, the report notes that "there are only some 400 hard-core al-Qaeda members remaining in the entire Af-Pak theater, most of them hiding in Pakistan's northwest provinces."
Meanwhile, the war costs U.S. taxpayers approximately $100 billion a year -- about seven times Afghanistan's annual gross domestic product of $14 billion and more than the cost of the Obama administration's health-care plan. Considering that price tag alongside the number of troops killed or seriously wounded, the report concludes that "the U.S. interests at stake in Afghanistan do not warrant this level of sacrifice."
Matthew Hoh, a former U.S. Marine and Afghanistan-based State Department official who resigned his post in protest last year and now serves as director of the study group, elaborated on the flawed strategy in a conversation with me. "Since 2005, as we put more troops and money into this effort, the U.S. and NATO have been expanding their presence throughout Afghanistan and trying to expand the reach of the Afghan central government," Hoh said. "But since then, all we have seen is more casualties, more combat, increased support for the Taliban and decreased support for the Karzai government."
The study group encourages policymakers to reconceptualize the conflict. Rather than a struggle between Hamid Karzai's central government and a Taliban/terrorist insurgency, it is in fact a civil war about power-sharing across ethnic, geographic and sectarian lines. With that in mind, the report recommends a strategy that downsizes and eventually ends U.S. military operations and keeps the focus on al-Qaeda, while at the same time encouraging political power-sharing, economic development and diplomatic engagement by other countries in the region.
Rep. Michael Honda (D-Calif.), chairman of the Congressional Progressive Caucus's Afghanistan Taskforce, told me this report is critical, "given Washington's near-silence on alternatives to" the current strategy. Honda and his taskforce colleagues have called for the creation of a congressionally mandated Af-Pak Study Group.
Indeed, Hoh said the goal of the report is to lay the groundwork for funding of a bipartisan congressional study group by March, ensuring that an alternative to the Pentagon's strategy is available when the administration's flexible deadline to begin withdrawing troops arrives in July 2011. In these next critical months, the study group will focus on establishing itself as a counterpoint to the status quo approach to the war, reaching out to legislators across party lines in an effort to develop a bipartisan consensus. Members will also make themselves available to news media, which have in their coverage of the war too often failed to include the views of experts who oppose the White House/Petraeus strategy. I hope this report will also be used as an organizing vehicle by peace and justice groups who have been calling for a similar change in course.
It seems certain that Petraeus's December report to Congress and the administration will argue that his counterinsurgency strategy is new and must be given time. The study group's members challenge that notion.
"People have to understand this is not a new strategy from Gen. Petraeus," Hoh said. "We don't 'finally have it right.' We've been saying that for years now. All we're doing is adding more troops, which is just making the problem larger. Just because Gen. Petraeus got there a couple months ago doesn't mean the clock should be reset."
The administration's strategy is flawed and is costing too much in treasure and lives. This report offers a clear alternative that is in our national security interest.
Katrina vanden Heuvel is editor and publish of the Nation and writes a weekly column for The Post.