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Is COIN in Afghanistan Realistic?

By Taylor Marvin

What are the stakes in America’s decade-long gamble in Afghanistan?

Costs of Withdrawing from Afghanistan:

  1. Taliban Control — If the US dramatically reduced the number of troops occupying Afghanistan most of the country would revert to Taliban control. Currently Hamid Karzai’s government is only able to exercise real authority within the capital; without American support the central Afghan government would immediately fall. What would happen next is uncertain. The Taliban would continue their domination of the Pashtun majority south while portions of the country’s north would probably revert to rule by a mix of independent warlords. It’s possible that an invigorated Taliban would be able to establish dominance over the entire country but here a perpetual low-level civil war seems to be the most likely outcome. This is obviously undesirable — a Taliban controlled Afghanistan would once again become a safe haven for terrorists and extremist and be an enormous loss in basic human right for both Afghanistan’s women and ethnic minorities.
  2. Instability in Pakistan — A Taliban victory in Afghanistan would certainly strengthen extremists in Pakistan’s volatile northwest. Much as Afghan fighters have used Pakistan as a safe haven Afghanistan under Taliban control would function as a secure base for anti-government and tribal rebels in Pakistan. While it is unlikely that Taliban-supported forces would be able to overthrow the Pakistani government (despite its many civic failings Pakistan still fields a large and modern, if unreliable, military whose leaders have powerful incentives to preserve their place in society) it would inject a dangerous element into an unstable country whose young, largely underemployed population is highly anti-American.
  3. Loss of Credibility for the US and NATO — A defeat in Afghanistan would be a serious loss of credibility for the United States and NATO, especially after President Obama’s public escalation of the conflict. This is especially important for NATO: Afghanistan is the first foreign deployment of the security organization and defeat there would crush aspirations of its potential to grow into a body able to, unlike the UN, bring real military force to global peacekeeping operations.

These costs are contrasted with the real problems of remaining in Afghanistan. First is the actual cost of continuing the war. The conflict in Afghanistan, the longest in American history, consumes $100 billion dollars a year. If the US does eventually succeed in ensuring a stable, pro-American government it will take many more years (by most reasonable guesses at least until 2014) and hundreds of billions of dollars more. These monetary costs are bearable but the human toll may not be: nearly 2,000 coalition troops have died since the 2001 invasion.

Additionally, America does not seem to have reasonable odds of succeeding in Afghanistan. All wars involve an element of chance but ever since the invasion the US has lacked any clear path to victory. Today’s preferred counter-insurgency strategy still faces formidable and arguably insurmountable obstacles. Karzai’s central government is corrupt, negligent and, with its history of fraudulent elections, completely lacks legitimacy. This lack of legitimacy may be fatal — in the absence of any real government authority many Afghans have come to appreciate the Taliban for their reliable, if brutal, justice, and to look to tribal leadership for the stability and social order the government cannot provide. Because all counterinsurgency strategies rest on providing the population with a legitimate alternative to the ideology and social structure of the insurgency this lack of central government popular legitimacy and basic governing ability is a serious problem, and one that the US has no real means to fix.

The key to both social stability and political control is economic growth. If the central government could demonstrate only it offered Afghans a future of rising incomes and increasing opportunities the allure of the Taliban’s social order would disappear. However, no one can really offer this future to Afghans. Afghanistan is an isolated mountainous nation with extremely low levels of social stability and human development that faces even worse prospects for growth than its other Central Asian counterparts. Even the vast mineral deposits recently discovered in the country don’t change this — not enough companies will invest in such a dangerous area to make a real difference in Afghanistan’s fortunes and even if they did the rent-seeking behavior that mineral resource extraction encourages would probably still retard basic Afghan human development. Social turbulence and economic stagnation are a mutually reinforcing cycle that the US has little potential to overcome.

These problems don’t necessarily make COIN in Afghanistan impossible. However, it is worth acknowledging just how low America’s chances of succeeding in Afghanistan really are. It only makes sense to fight a war if the rewards of victory multiplied by the chances of success are greater than the costs of failure. That’s why it’s important to clearly acknowledge both the costs of leaving Afghanistan and of continuing our gamble there. Sometimes war is rational, but only when the costs of continuing the status quo are so great they dwarf the actual cost and uncertainty of the conflict. Whether failing in Afghanistan would harm America’s national interests enough to justify the harsh price of fighting is a debate worth having.

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