A Far Cry From Failure in Afghanistan

Michael E. O’Hanlon

Editor’s Note: In a letter to the editor following Foreign Affairs articles by Stephen Biddle and Karl Eikenberry, Michael O’Hanlon argues both authors convey excessively negative assessments of the Afghanistan war and the country’s future prospects. While O’Hanlon concedes that some of the lofty initial hopes of policymakers have not been met, he also notes the United States can still achieve its core strategic goal there.

Stephen Biddle and Karl Eikenberry are outstanding public servants and scholars, but their respective articles on Afghanistan (“Ending the War in Afghanistan” and “The Limits of Counter­insurgency Doctrine in Afghanistan,” September/October 2013) convey excessively negative assessments of how the war is going and of Afghanistan’s prospects. Their arguments could reinforce the current American malaise about the ongoing effort and thereby reduce the odds that the United States will continue to play a role in Afghanistan after the current NATO-led security mission there ends in December 2014. That would be regrettable; the United States should lock in and solidify its gains in Afghanistan, not cut its losses.

Biddle argues that the U.S. Congress and other donors are unlikely to keep funding the Afghan government after 2014. Based on this conclusion, he states that the only other viable options for Washington are to broker a power-sharing deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban or to end its mission immediately.

This argument hinges on Biddle’s assessment of U.S. politics more than any military or strategic analysis. His reference to U.S. policy in Vietnam in 1973–75 is overdone. A more relevant historical precedent for Afghanistan is the fact that Washington has maintained long-standing security and economic commitments to partners such as Egypt, Greece, Israel, South Korea, Taiwan, and Turkey. These cases belie the contention that the United States has too short an attention span to sustain aid to important allies over a protracted period. Future U.S. commitments to Afghanistan would probably incur only ten percent of the cost and casualties of the war to date. If the mission succeeds, moreover, Congress is likely to continue to provide funding. It is a curious and circular argument to say that because the mission might fail in the future — due to Washington’s undependable staying power — the United States should throw in the towel and concede defeat now.

Eikenberry makes some reasonable points about the excessive hopes placed in comprehensive counterinsurgency doctrine over the past decade or so, including in Afghanistan. Many of his specific critiques ring true. But Eikenberry underrates how far Afghanistan has come — in part due to his own efforts as U.S. military commander in Afghanistan and then U.S. ambassador to Kabul. The Afghan security forces have many good leaders and dedicated troops; they now lead 99 percent of all combat operations and sustain 200 or more fatalities a month without cracking. That represents a partial success of the counterinsurgency policy that Eikenberry criticizes. So does the community of Afghan reformers that Eikenberry and others personally helped nurture in recent years. It is true that counterinsurgency strategy may have fallen short of its proponents’ aspirations and may require an overhaul before being applied to future conflicts. But that fact does not make the overall concept or its application in Afghanistan a failure.

Even if political reforms and counterinsurgency have not achieved the loftier goals that U.S. policymakers once imagined for Afghanistan, the United States can still achieve its core strategic goals there by building up a state that is at least resilient enough to fend off the Taliban in most population and economic centers. The situation in Afghanistan today is a far cry from failure, and the case for pulling up stakes and coming home now is strategically unpersuasive.