Fish or Cut Bait in Afghanistan

by Reihan Salam

Though Afghanistan has faded from the headlines, the U.S. continues to spend vast sums of money to contain the Taliban insurgency. And as U.S. forces withdraw, it looks likely that Afghanistan will once again fall into a protracted civil war, wiping out almost all of the gains the U.S. and its allies have made in over a decade of fighting. To keep Afghanistan from descending into lawlessness, Biddle calls for a negotiated settlement with the Taliban. But throughout his essay, he acknowledges the political hurdles:

Any viable settlement will take years to negotiate and require the West to make real concessions, and such a process will offer ample opportunities for members of Congress to embrace demagoguery and act as spoilers. The Obama administration’s initial experience on this score is instructive: as an early confidence-building gesture, last year the administration offered to free five Taliban detainees at Guantánamo in exchange for the release of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, the Taliban’s only American prisoner. But U.S. lawmakers howled in outrage, the detainees were not released, the Taliban charged bad faith (both on the detainee issue and on the addition of new conditions from Karzai), and the negotiations collapsed. Serious negotiations toward a final peace settlement would provide countless opportunities for such congressional outrage, over much larger issues, and if legislators play such games — and if the administration lets itself be bullied — then a viable settlement will be impossible. Likewise, if Congress defunds the war too soon, unfinished negotiations will collapse as the Taliban seize victory on the battlefield with no need for concessions.

For talks to succeed, Congress will thus need to engage in two acts of selfless statesmanship: accepting concessions to the Taliban and prolonging unpopular aid to the Afghan military. The latter, in particular, would require bipartisan compromise, and achieving either or both goals may prove impossible. If they are going to happen, however, one prerequisite will be a sustained White House effort aimed at building the congressional support needed. The president will have to make a major investment in garnering political backing for a controversial Afghan policy, something he has not done so far.

If Congress can’t engage in these acts of selfless statesmanship, Biddle maintains that a clean break would be preferable to slow-motion disengagement.

The U.S. military presence in Afghanistan will soon shrink to perhaps 8,000–12,000 advisers and trainers, and U.S. aid might decline to $4–$5 billion a year for the ANSF and $2–$3 billion in economic assistance, with the advisory presence costing perhaps another $8–$12 billion a year. This commitment is far smaller than the 100,000 U.S. troops and over $100 billion of 2011, and it offers some chance of muddling through to an acceptable outcome while discreetly concealing the United States’ probable eventual failure behind a veil of continuing modest effort.

Only in Washington, however, could $14–$20 billion a year be considered cheap. If this yielded a stable Afghanistan, it would indeed be a bargain, but if, as is likely without a settlement, it produces only a defeat drawn out over several years, it will mean needlessly wasting tens of billions of dollars. In a fiscal environment in which $8 billion a year for the Head Start preschool program or $36 billion a year for Pell Grant scholarships is controversial, it is hard to justify spending another $70–$100 billion in Afghanistan over, say, another half decade of stalemated warfare merely to disguise failure or defer its political consequences.

And leaving the fiscal costs aside, Biddle ends on the important note that “even an advisory mission involves risk,” and that slow-motion disengagement will mean more loss of American life than a faster withdrawal. 

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.