November 3, 2014
TSG IntelBrief: The Problem of Buying Time: Post-2014 Afghanistan
After 4,737 days of an extensive and expensive foreign combat mission in Afghanistan, insurgent violence has returned to unacceptable levels and is still climbing; corruption and ineffective governance remains widespread and crippling; opium-production is at an unprecedented high; and what divided the country 14 years ago—warlords, no truly national popular movement, ethnic tensions, extremism, abject poverty both in money and education—continues to divide the country today. These negative trend-lines will not improve in the 59 days left before the end of the U.S.-led combat mission: the critical question facing policymakers is whether they will improve by adding more days to the same equation.
Afghanistan is not Iraq, and so it would be inaccurate to say that the internal conditions tearing the former apart are identical to those at work in the latter, but they are worryingly similar: decades upon decades of strife and division have resulted in consistently poor governance and inconsistently loyal militaries. The respective international coalitions have thrown hundreds of billions of dollars and the heroic efforts of tens of thousands of its soldiers and technicians building up the vital capacities of both countries, and at every test those capacities have proven fatally insufficient.
That said, the decision facing policy makers as it relates to post-2014 Afghanistan is less about the internal conditions destabilizing Afghanistan and more about whether the continuation of a sustained foreign military presence can do anything positive to address them. What will be different in the next 365, or 1,000, or 4,737 days of foreign combat missions that will prove more effective against these conditions than in the days past? The metrics used to measure progress in 2015 should become uncomfortably simple, as opposed to the numerous ways in which progress was measured before. Increases in overall cell phone coverage and paved roads will still be important but the most important metric will be whether the Afghan government can hold ground and build support.
Arguments for a continued significant foreign military combat presence beyond 2014 point to the current chaos in Iraq as what happens when foreign troops leave “too early.” There is merit to this argument but only to a degree. It contends that the absence of foreign troops is more hurtful than the presence of these troops is beneficial by presuming a calming effect on the host government and insurgents that only seems to appear in hindsight. Violence in Iraq in 2009, 2010, and 2011 was still unacceptably destabilizing, and the politics were still unacceptably divisive, even with the alleged stabilizing effect of tens of thousands of U.S. troops garrisoned in large bases. Those years seem like successes only because what came before and after was so horrific.
Why Iraq matters to Afghanistan is important not because the two troubled countries are the same but because the foreign military approach is—in both there is the presumption of stability from future military effort that runs in the face of past military efforts. There might be tremendous benefit in maintaining foreign combat troops in Afghanistan, and their presence might indeed keep the situation from total free-fall. However, the past 4,737 days suggest that maintaining such a presence without addressing the underlying conditions that necessitated foreign military engagement in the first place is nothing more than an expensive way to buy more time.
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