Afghanistan Policy Outlook 2009

Largely overshadowed by the high death tolls and the large U.S. presence in Iraq, much of the U.S. public forgot about the war in Afghanistan. Now, after eight years of war, what was all too commonly referred to as “the good war” has grabbed the attention of the public once more.

In part, the increased attention has come now, two decades after the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan, and almost eight years since President Bush attacked and invaded the country, when President Obama issued the order for an additional 17,000 troops to “surge” into Afghanistan. Much like the Iraq War, many in the United States support the surge even though numerous officials — including NATO and U.S. military officials and more — have recognized that there is no military solution. Perhaps more significantly there is little support in the nation where the war is being waged. Just as the military presence is increasing, so too is the vestiges of increased politically involvement as the U.S. is expanding its embassy. However, it remains unlikely that these new military and political efforts will go very far in improving the lives of Afghanis.

In 2008, civilian casualties climbed 40%, topping 2,100. Public awareness of those casualties brought heightened anger at and opposition to the U.S. military presence, even beyond opposition to the specific attacks. Challenges grew around U.S. supply lines, and war objectives were increasingly recognized as unclear. As in Iraq, the use of roadside bombs and suicide bombers significantly increased. The Afghan military is weak and hampered by the lack of a strong central government. Outside of Kabul there is no clear plan on how to address the various military strongmen dominating much of the countryside.

Though severe challenges exist on the military and social fronts, the biggest challenge for Afghanistan is political. The Karzai government is very weak and is unable to provide either security or development. This weakness, along with the rise in anti- U.S. and anti-NATO sentiment, is providing space for the Taliban and rogue elements to gain more support. Economically the state isn’t viable, with the drug economy and the corruption associated with it filling the void.

When the Soviets retreated from Afghanistan, many Afghans expected that Western powers would come to their aid and assist with reconstruction, reconstituting democratic structures, and implementing a rule of law. Mostly this didn’t happen. Today, these vital steps for helping Afghanistan escape the violence it is trapped in are once again missing — and it is unlikely any of these obligations to the people of Afghanistan can be met as long as the military occupation continues and even escalates.

The pressure is on from the U.S. public and the growing international community for a quick fix. However, the “surge” approach further undermines the democratic principles needed for Afghanistan to stand up over time. Increasing troop numbers and escalating a military occupation are not going to help Afghanistan rebuild its shattered society, and won’t keep Americans safer by undermining the Taliban; its real impact, unfortunately, is likely to be exactly the opposite.

Legislative Openings

1) Stop the Surge: With several strategy reviews currently underway, the surge of troops into Afghanistan should be halted until they are complete. Legislation should be proposed to revoke the 2002 authorization to go to war.

2) Set a Timetable for Withdrawal: Under the Bush presidency, Congress demanded exit strategies, timelines, and regular progress reports. Similar legislation should be tied to war spending to hold the President, Pentagon, and the State Department accountable for the conduct of this war.

3) End Torture and Secret Detentions: Bagram airbase in Afghanistan serves as a detention center similar in scope and nature to the facilities in Guantánamo. Just like Guantánamo, legislation should be enacted to close the detention facilities there.

4) Contractor Reform: In Iraq, Congress created the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR), to monitor and report on billions of tax dollars lost on fraud and abuse. Legislation should be enacted to expand SIGIR to include Afghanistan, especially in light of the increase in demand the surge will place on the contracting oversight workforce.

Key Dates & Events

March: Obama Administration submits war funding supplemental ($75-82b)
March 31: International Meeting on Afghanistan
Late March: Joint US-Afghanistan Strategic Review Complete

April 3-5: NATO 60th Anniversary Summit

May 21: President Karzai’s term expires

June: Pentagon Progress Report Due

August: Surge of 17,000 U.S. troops complete
August 20: Presidential & provincial elections scheduled
Other Events, Dates Unknown:

FY2010: Defense/State Authorizations
FY2010: Defense/State Appropriations (includes $130b for war funding)

Erik Leaver is the Policy Outreach Director for Foreign Policy In Focus and is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies.


Erik Leaver is a research fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and the policy outreach director for Foreign Policy In Focus.