The U.S. is slowly and steadily losing the war in Afghanistan. It is not losing the war at the military level - although such defeat is possible in coming years if the U.S. does not provide the necessary funds, advisors, and partners. The U.S. is losing the war at the political level by failing to win (and merit) the support of the Congress, the American people, its allies, and the Afghans.
At one level, the U.S. is losing the war through a failure to provide credible leadership. It is losing the war through a combination of a lack of strategic realism, meaningful judgments about the cost-benefits of continuing the war, and a failure to develop credible plans.At another level, the U.S. is losing the war through delays, neglect, and a failure to lead at the top levels of the Obama Administration.
The Obama Administration does, however, face critical problems in providing effective leadership. It inherited a massive and unnecessary mess from the Bush Administration. It also inherited a major recession, and a crisis in federal spending that now forces major cuts in U.S. military capability and hard choices in terms of strategic priorities. The Congress has contributed to its own failures on a bipartisan basis. Rather than demand effective plans, accountability, and measures of effectiveness, it has simply accepted most funding requests in an effort to show it has supported the troops and the war.
At the same time, far too many outside government have become passive partners in the drift towards failure. They are unwilling to say they do not support the war, and they are waiting for the near total U.S. withdrawal that they now believe is inevitable without trying to find a workable solution.
At the same time, the U.S. lacks a credible Afghan partner. The U.S. does not need the Taliban or other insurgent enemies when its Afghan ally is guilty of so many failures and mistakes. President Karzai seems determined to exit having left the equivalent of a poisoned pill to his successor. He has never been willing to come to grips with the military realities shaping the war and the ANSF. He steadily and pointlessly alienates U.S. support for the war.
He continues to put power brokering before efforts to improve governance and the economy, before giving aid a credible level of freedom from corruption and chance of success. Almost every week, he creates a new and unnecessary problem in U.S. and Afghan relations, evidently based on the assumption that the U.S. really needs to back the Afghan government and has serious rather than marginal strategic interests in Afghanistan.
Uncertain Chances of Victory in a War and Country of Marginal Strategic Importance
No one can guarantee that the war will end in any form of success even with far better U.S. and Afghan leadership. At best, the odds of real, sustained success after 2014 are "acceptable" rather than "good."
Even the best U.S., Afghan, and allied partnership may not be able to hold the country together if the Taliban and other insurgents prove to be highly resilient and effective over time. They also include the real world burdens Afghanistan faces in dealing with the withdrawal of most U.S. and allied forces, and with massive cuts in military spending and civil and military aid. This may be more than the government in Kabul and Afghanistan's civil and military elite can deal with.
The most serious challenges, however, occur in governance, economics, and winning sustained outside aid. They include the lack of effective Afghan political and civil leadership, the level of corruption and waste in both outside aid and Afghan use of that aid. They also are the result of the failure of the U.S. and its allies to create effective plans to assist Afghanistan and set and enforce the conditions for Afghan reform and progress.
Better U.S. leadership, planning, and management of the transition effort will fail without far better Afghan leadership and realism and vice versa. The U.S. and its allies need to accept this and start putting real pressure on Karzai as well as start working with the full range of potential successors to develop an effective post-election set of partners rather than focus on the "purity" of the election rather than its aftermath.
They also include the need for a new level of U.S. strategic realism. Today's increasingly hollow mix of reassuring U.S. political rhetoric and leaks about a zero option need to be replaced with credible U.S. plans tailored to Afghanistan's limited strategic importance and priority. It is time that everyone began to be honest about the fact that the cost-benefits of a continued U.S. effort are limited.
The U.S. has some strategic interest in Afghanistan, but only a limited one. It is not the center of terrorism or even Al Qa'ida - which is now dispersed into Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen, North Africa and other areas. The U.S. has marginal interests in the rest of central Asia vital strategic interests in Asia and the Gulf, and far more important strategic interests in other areas in the MENA, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America. Continued - grossly exaggerated and oversimplified -- U.S. official rhetoric about Afghanistan's importance cannot disguise very different realities.In a time of global turmoil and limited U.S. resources, Afghanistan scores somewhere between 1 and 2.5 on a scale of 10 in terms of global strategic importance to the U.S..
The U.S. also faces few liabilities if it does not continue to support the war. The Afghan government offers many reasons to withdraw. Most of the world has already accepted and discounts the prospect of something approaching a U.S. "zero option" in the years after 2014.
Many of our allies now privately are moving towards that outcome, but are unwilling to make those views public and rely on time and the momentum of events to free them of any meaningful commitment. Like the U.S., they will leave embassies, troops, and aid workers in Afghanistan; make promises they hope never to have to keep, and wait for the end of 2014 and a future they believe will never force them to make serious further sacrifices.
Only sunk costs and moral and ethical obligations really keep the U.S. involved. To paraphrase Senator Aiken's famous comment about Vietnam, "The U.S. can declare that Afghanistan's leaders make success impossible and leave."