The official results of Afghanistan’s presidential elections won’t be known for weeks. The ballots cast around the country need to be brought to Kabul — some by donkey and helicopter — and counted. Nevertheless, U.S. officials have rushed to celebrate the process, and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen heralded the elections as "a testimony to the determination of the Afghan people to build democracy." This, despite more than 75 reported incidents of violence throughout the country, an estimated 26 civilians and security forces dead, reports of more than a handful of districts where no one voted, and complaints about impermanent ink, intimidation, and other irregularities.
As we continue to watch and wait for the final results, this focus on Afghanistan should provoke a reconsideration of means and ends in what the world is now calling "Obama’s War." The military won’t defeat al-Qaeda and the Taliban. Nor will elections in an occupied country solve this problem. We have to start looking at different solutions.
Can’t Get There from Here
In a primetime speech before the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) in Arizona last week, President Barack Obama recommitted himself to the war in Afghanistan, saying that "this is a war of necessity" that is "fundamental to the defense of our people." And repeated what he characterized as a "new strategy" with a "clear mission" and "defined goals," namely to "disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda and its extremist allies."
This strategy does sound less grandiose than President George W. Bush’s articulation of the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan from 2002. "We know that true peace will only be achieved when we give the Afghan people the means to achieve their own aspirations," Bush said. "Peace — peace will be achieved by helping Afghanistan develop its own stable government. Peace will be achieved by helping Afghanistan train and develop its own national army. And peace will be achieved through an education system for boys and girls which works." After enumerating the ills of the Taliban, Bush concluded: "By helping to build an Afghanistan that is free from this evil and is a better place in which to live, we are working in the best of traditions of George Marshall."
But whether the goal is an Afghan Marshall Plan that turns Herat into Heidelberg or Obama’s more limited but still sweeping goal, the fact of the matter is — as they say in Maine — you can’t get there from here.
In the VFW speech, Obama did acknowledge that "military power alone will not win this war" and he has dispensed with the Bush-moniker ‘Global War on Terror." But he continues to rely on slightly upgraded (and very costly) versions of the same set of tools used by the Bush administration — troops on the ground, military training for Afghan security forces, and technology (especially drone strikes in Pakistan) — to "win" in Afghanistan.
Defining what success looks like is proving just as difficult in the 44th White House as it was in the 43rd. As Af-Pak Special Representative Richard Holbrooke said, "We’ll know it when we see it." That is not an acceptable matrix for success — not when the price-tag is $177.5 billion and counting. Historic elections or no, Obama finds himself just as lost as any other would-be conqueror.
Disrupting, dismantling, and irrevocably defeating al-Qaeda and the Taliban cannot be done with remote-controlled drones, counter-insurgency forces, NATO troops, and private contractors training the Afghan security forces. It cannot be accomplished through increasing the number of doctors, dentists, and nutritionists in the country, or sending more city planners, engineers, and communication experts — all during an occupation and a war. Democracy, education for girls, development — none of these laudable and critical goals can be achieved through military operations or external efforts protected by military operations. They can be temporarily delivered. Elections can be held, schools can be built, and girls can be protected on the way to school. But this is no more than photo-op, fleeting kind of change.
Rick Reyes, a retired Marine corporal who served as an infantryman in Iraq and Afghanistan, recently wrote in Roll Call magazine: "As a Corporal in the U.S. Marines — who served in both Afghanistan and Iraq and who remains willing to give my life for this country — let me say from experience that our current strategy will not bring security to Afghanistan or to America." U.S. military efforts, he continued, have created "too many civilian casualties, too many children without food and women without husbands, too many innocent Afghans becoming anti-American because of our action."
Being effective means beginning from a different position. We need to start by saying that the Taliban and al-Qaeda do not represent an existential threat to the United States. They are not large, they are not powerful, and they are not unified in anything except their opposition to the intervention of the United States and NATO. These adversaries need to be isolated, delegitimized, and undermined, not confronted as an equal on the battlefield.
"Al-Qaeda consists of a few hundred people running around Pakistan, seeking to avoid detection and helping the Taliban when possible. It also has a disjointed network of fellow travelers around the globe who communicate over the internet," writes John Mueller, a professor at Ohio State University and author of Overblown. "No convincing evidence has been offered publicly to show that al-Qaeda Central has put together a single full operation anywhere in the world since 9/11. And, outside of warzones, the violence perpetrated by al-Qaeda affiliates, wannabes and lookalikes combined has resulted in the deaths of some 200 to 300 people per year and may be declining. That is 200 to 300 too many, of course, but is scarcely suggests that ‘the safety of the people around the world is at stake,’ as Obama dramatically puts it."