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Little consensus on how to move forward in Afghanistan

From NBC's Jason Seher
Although panelists at an Afghanistan conference last week presented visions containing little consensus on how to move forward in the war-torn nation, they all agreed on one thing: something needs to change.

"A great power can’t leave a country like Afghanistan a great deal worse than it found it,” said Thomas Pickering, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

Headlining the panel in D.C. -- which was hosted by The Afghanistan Study Group, a creation of both the liberal-leaning New America Foundation and the Center for International Policy -- Pickering repeatedly called on policymakers to abandon the current counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan and reaffirm their commitment to staying the course in the former Taliban stronghold.

"We can only leave if leaving in a way that at least establishes some stability, some openness and some safety," he said.

But most indicators reveal Afghanistan is becoming less safe.

Since President Obama's Dec. 2009 speech announcing he would send 30,000 more troops into Afghanistan, casualties for both U.S. military personnel and Afghan civilians have risen dramatically -- though the surge was always expected to see increased violence . According to Defense statistics, 436 U.S. soldiers died fighting in Afghanistan in 2010, making last year the deadliest on record since Operation Enduring Freedom began in October 2001.

And this year promises to be just as deadly. So far, 74 U.S. military personnel have been killed in Afghanistan this year. The civilian numbers, while harder to measure accurately, paint a much starker picture of the Afghan reality. A March Congressional Research Service Report said that nearly 2,800 Afghan civilians died in 2010, almost double the number of civilians killed by the Taliban and other anti-government elements in 2007.

Pickering -- who also served as a former U.S. ambassador to India and Russia -- argued that Afghanistan's instability continues to rise, because the president did little to course correct President Bush's counter insurgency model when he remapped the Afghanistan-Pakistan mission. With only 100 active al-Qaeda operatives left inside Afghan borders, Pickering questioned the utility of devoting 30,000 additional ground troops to hunting such a small number. And while he agreed on Obama needed to follow through on his other promise -- to open the door to negotiations with the Taliban -- Pickering said the military objectives reinforce the total victory ideology that dominated the first years of the Iraq war.

A vital interest?
To diplomats like Pickering and longtime Foreign Service professionals like Paul Pillar, the current U.S. strategy only proves that the Obama administration and the military view the counter insurgency as an end in itself -- a far different goal than the original mission.

"We've had a nine-and-a-half-year-long mission creep where we've lost sight of why we initially went there," Pillar, director of Georgetown's Center for Peace and Security Studies, said. "A U.S. military victory in Afghanistan is not going to determine whether or not the U.S. is safe from international terrorism."

A former national intelligence officer for Near East and South Asia, Pillar said the United States accomplished most of its progress in Afghanistan during the first few months of Operation Enduring Freedom and has made little headway since. Though neither President Bush nor President Obama made a “Mission Accomplished”-like blunder in Afghanistan, Pilar said Obama's "we keep at it mentality" and his rallying cry against quitting on the Afghan people, mostly explains why the current strategy is so disconnected from what is actually achievable on the ground. Since the United States entered Afghanistan in 2001, Pillar explained, the military has bombed so much of the country that terrorists have little incentive to leave their strongholds in northwest Pakistan.

But that assertion is a point of contention within the foreign policy community. While Pillar firmly believes the lynch pin of U.S. foreign policy should NOT be preventing Afghanistan from once again becoming a terrorist safe haven, others argue it is a vital American interest.

"When Afghanistan was ruled by the Taliban, every Muslim insurgent group was headquartered there," Peter Bergen, director of the New America Foundation’s National Security Studies Program, said.

A terrorism analyst for CNN and author of The Longest War: The Enduring Conflict Between America & Al-Qaeda, Bergen said the Afghanistan mission is more than a moral obligation to produce a somewhat stable state and still has real implications for American security. The rise in casualties over the past few years has given a renewed credibility to the danger a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan allied with Islamic terrorists. Citing the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Bergen argued that preventing the Taliban from returning to power in Afghanistan would directly impact the number of global terrorist attacks.

"The Taliban are the Taliban," he said. "The idea that they will turn into a group of Henry Kissingers over time is ridiculous."

Managing the Afghan future
That raises another question: Are Afghans ready to manage their own future?

Yet Joshua Foust, author of Post-Soviet Central Asian Interests in Afghanistan, argues that’s the wrong question altogether. "We should be asking if this is the right government," he said. "Afghans know how to run themselves. They're illiterate but they're not stupid."

Foust expressed his hope in the in the country's progress, despite its deteriorating security. Since 2001, Afghanistan's Gross Domestic Product has increased 300%, and seven more million children, including two million girls, attend school than when the war began.

Afghans, Foust added, are more optimistic about their future because they are much better off now than in the recent past. While admitting "it's not perfect," he insisted conditions in Afghanistan have improved enough that Afghans are now capable of running their own affairs. But the current government could present an obstacle to continued improvement.

Though a recent Washington Post/ABC News poll showed that 62% of Afghans approve of Hamid Karzai's government, Foust argued the current constitutional system is the wrong government for Afghanistan. Beyond the reported corruption, the district level elections promised in 2005 have been indefinitely postponed. This not only prevents a large portion of rural Afghans from having a stake in the new government (Afghanistan has 398 provincial districts); it also centralizes power in a country where strong governance is completely foreign. This has Foust and Pickering trying to shift the conversation in Afghanistan from asking when Afghans are ready to govern to a separate -- and maybe more important -- question: If the current government is right for Afghanistan.

"We cannot substitute western paradigms like federalism," Pickering said.

A trust deficit?
This question of legitimacy complicates the U.S. position, especially when it comes to negotiating the transition of power that will ultimately need to take place. Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress, claimed the president and the Pentagon continue to struggle producing a viable economic plan for Afghanistan operations, because they remain unsure of how long the U.S. will need to stay. While the Obama administration has said it wants to hand over all security responsibilities to Afghans by 2014, in those three years, according to Katulis, there are a whole host of objectives American strategists need to achieve -- and have no idea how.

"We need to check our American exceptionalism at the door," Katulis said. "We can't do it all. We simply cannot do a lot of things and were going to keep running in circles in Afghanistan if we don't realize that."

Katulis argued those inside government failed at the strategic level by allowing the military to clear areas of Taliban and other anti-government elements, only to let those sectors fall back under opposition control because U.S. forces lack the necessary troop levels required for population protection. Now, as the Karzai government continues to press American diplomats to agree to a long-term strategic partnership or leave Afghanistan, Katulis believes this bullish attitude of all or nothing creates an ideological block to negotiating a U.S. exit.

"Negotiations can only succeed if they don't have to succeed," James Dobbins, director of RAND Corporations International Security and Defense Policy Center, said.

Author of After the Taliban, Dobbins said leaving Afghanistan is so difficult, because a majority of policymakers still view America's withdrawal as an admission of defeat in a war vital to U.S. interests. In Dobbins’ view, United States diplomacy in Afghanistan has a credibility problem. Even though the U.S. military officials and diplomats have been negotiating with both the government and the Taliban since the latter days of 2001, defeat is still not an option.

And then there are the U.S. attitudes about the war. “Nobody gives a hoot about it around here," Richard Vague, co-founder of the Afghanistan Study Group, said. "The only time Afghanistan comes up is in campaigns and someone is saying cut and run or inciting votes against it. The rest of the time it’s on autopilot,” costing the U.S. a significant amount of money.

A co-chair for the New America Foundation, Vague reasoned most lawmakers remain mum on Afghanistan because they do not want to rile public sentiment at home by advocating abandoning the cause abroad. The human toll of the Afghanistan mission makes speaking out against the war a risky political proposition, he said. Because so many troops have given their lives fighting the Taliban, politicians fear coming out against the war now would desecrate the American sacrifice in the minds of voters and create considerable blowback in the next election.

Republicans quiet at home
This is especially true in Republican ranks. Grover Norquist, the conservative president of Americans for Tax Reform, said Republicans and conservatives in general do not engage in a substantive discussions on leaving Afghanistan.

"You have this caucus of Republicans," Norquist said, "who don't feel like they have permission yet to speak out against this."