The Debate on Strategy and Purpose in Afghanista​n

I spent the better part of the day on Wednesday at a Conference sponsored by the Afghanistan Study Group and the New America Foundation at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. The meeting was a result of a number of recent studies on the issue of American purpose and strategy in Pakistan. One of those studies was the report by the Afghanistan Study Group (ASG). That group was a part of the Center for International Policy and our director for the Afghanistan Study Group is Matthew Hoh, who was a speaker at the meeting. The findings of the report paint a skeptical view of future success and raise serious questions about our current strategy. A copy of the report can be found at It is worth your attention. I do not propose to either summarize the ASG report or other papers. Nor shall I report on the very long meeting and the many viewpoints, but you can find an audiovisual of the meeting on C-SPAN.

I would simply add that there was a wide consensus that we should at least try the negotiating path even if it is not likely to end in success.

What I do want to do here is repeat some of the key issues/questions that the report and the speakers addressed at the meeting. I need to add that there was not full simple consensus except that most speakers at the meeting shared the view that the current U.S. approach in Afghanistan is not working and changes are required. One speaker provided a more upbeat assessment, but with caveats.

The meeting was opened by one of our wisest and most experienced diplomats, Amb. Thomas R. Pickering, who co-chaired another report “Afghanistan: Negotiating Peace” and I strongly recommend your attention to his presentation on C-SPAN and to the report.

The key questions that were asked and which I recommend for all of our readers to think about and comment on were:

– Is our strategy working and what will likely be the outcome? Will it suffice to achieve out goals? What should be our objectives in Afghanistan and are they achievable?

– Should we change our goals in Afghanistan? Should we limit or expand our efforts both in military terms and in terms of civil development, development, and governance? How long will America support a long war in a place most Americans can’t identify on a map?

– What is the cost of completion of our present mission and goals. Can we afford those goals and what would it take in terms of human lives and cost and to alternative needs of our country? In short, is there “sustainabilty” by us and others?

– What should we do about Al Qaeda verses the Taliban? Should the U.S. focus on former rather than the latter?

– How can we have success in Afghanistan with a corrupt and incompetent, and with an often non-existent authority in most of the country? What are our options? Do we have any options? What should we do about the illegal drug trade that permeates the entire system and is the source of much of the funding for the Taliban and Al Qaeda?

– Can we negociate with the Taliban and to what end? Who else should be at the table – Pakistan, China, opposition parities, the UN, others?

– How do we deal with Pakistan? They are key to any solution but how can we, or even can we, make them part of a lasting solution? What are the implications of its nuclear program to our policies and can we change their duplicity in support of the Taliban while still being our supposed ally? Is a solution to the Pakistan issue a requirement to a solution in Afghanistan or vice versa?

– What is the China-Pakistan-China game and its impact on our chances of success in Afghanistan.

There were many other questions raised at the meeting and in the various reports. But in the end the questions all come down to what really does the U.S. want and is it possible?

We welcome your comments and any additional questions and answers to these issues!

2 thoughts on “The Debate on Strategy and Purpose in Afghanista​n

  1. Harry C. Blaney III April 25, 2011 / 10:12 AM

    Richar Wright has made a valid point and in the conference and in many other comments by experts the Afghanistan, Pakistan, India relationship has been a key factor in the actions by all the parties concerned. We also should not forget China and America. The Russians and Iran also have a stake in this as well.

    But one key factor is that both India and Pakistan have nuclear weapons and this impacts American strategy and policy. It is a key restraint on what we can do and how we have to tread in the region. America has made mistakes in dealing with both but the region is a complex and dangerious one and finding the right approach is not easy. On the other hand, Afghanistan remains also a key element and thus the need to get that right.

    Afganistan alone is, frankly, not as important as finding a solution to the India/Packistan stand off and this will likely take some time perhaps decades. But key is getting solutions started and getting both sides to look towards some kind of useful peacemaking and setting the long-term direction that both can live with. As Richard has noted in both the bilateral context and regarding Afghanistan neither side can end with an “advantage” at the serious cost to the other. But All sides will in any solutionj gain some and lose some.

  2. Richard Wright April 21, 2011 / 2:38 PM

    Among this list of rather provocative questions, those that deal with Pakistan are certainly key to sorting out Afghanistan, however there is a missing element concerning Pakistan. It must not be forgotten that whatever else is driving Pakistani Policy, its ongoing and dangerous existential game with India has to be taken into account. Such regional experts as Bruce Riedel (“Deadly Embrace”, Brookings 2011) imply that Pakistan sees Afghanistan in terms of its rivalry with India and the Taliban Movement and the U.S. for that matter as pawns in this game. Put it another way India has a very real stake in how the Afghan issue is resolved.
    What ever settlement is reached in Afghanistan it must avoid the appearance of giving the advantage to either of these two sub-continent rivals.

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