Dr. Steven Metz on Afghanistan: “…America’s Afghanistan strategy, with its flawed assumptions, is badly out of balance.”

[The following is the contribution to our Roundtable discussion by Dr. Steven Metz, of the Strategic Studies Institute, United States Army War College. Dr. Metz is the author of Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy. ChicagoBoyz thanks Dr. Metz for his participation. ]

I’m currently reading Andrew Bacevich’s new book Washington Rules: America’s Path to Permanent War. He contends that at the end of Vietnam, there was a moment when the United States could have veered away from the “Washington rules” which had developed since the 1940s–militarism, the definition of instability anywhere as a threat to American security, a poor understanding of non-Western cultures, and so forth. But it didn’t.

I truly believe that Afghanistan, coming on the heels of Iraq, will provide another such moment. And I hope we take it.

Current U.S. strategy in Afghanistan is, I believe, built on strawmen and flawed assumptions. Both the Bush and Obama strategies assume that al Qaeda needs state support or sanctuary. That, after all, is the fundamental rationale for continued American involvement in Afghanistan. But throughout the “war on terror,” no one has made a persuasive case that the September 11 attacks would not have happened had al Qaeda not had bases in Afghanistan. While it may take meetings and phone calls to plot terrorism, these can be done from nearly anywhere. Al Qaeda’s Afghanistan sanctuary was a convenience, not a necessity. Destroying the sanctuary has not stopped bin Laden and his henchmen from plotting new attacks.

Why, then, should the United States devote billions of dollars fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan if doing so has little effect on al Qaeda’s ability to launch terrorism? The answer says more about the way Americans think than it does about how terrorists operate. The United States has expended great effort to eradicate al Qaeda’s bases and training camps less because they were important than because we are effective at it. There is an old saying that, “when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” America has an amazing hammer–its military–which is very good at seizing and controlling territory. So, we reasoned, eradicating bases and training camps will cripple al Qaeda. Yet there is no evidence to validate this idea.

The Obama strategy also assumes that without U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, the Taliban will regain control. But the Taliban came to power in 1996 because the warlords opposing it had little outside support and, more importantly, because Afghans did not understand just what Taliban rule would mean and thus did little to resist it. Now they do know and will resist, at least outside Afghanistan’s Pashtun areas. Simply funding the Afghan government and providing it with training and advice can prevent an outright Taliban victory without a large U.S. military presence.

The Obama strategy then assumes that if the Taliban regains control of Afghanistan, it will again provide bases and sanctuary to al Qaeda. The Pentagon’s newly released Quadrennial Defense Review warned of al Qaeda “regaining sanctuary in Afghanistan.” In his December 2009 speech at West Point, President Obama stated that al Qaeda would “operate with impunity” if the region “slides backward.” This is only true if the Taliban is remarkably stupid. Before September 11, the Taliban allowed al Qaeda to train and plot in Afghanistan because it was profoundly ignorant of American intentions and power. The United States, Taliban leaders believed, understood enough history to not intervene in Afghanistan. Now they know better. If the Taliban somehow returned to power, it would face enemies enough without provoking another American assault or intervention by giving al Qaeda a free hand.

Finally, the Obama strategy assumes that if the Taliban regained control of some or all of Afghanistan and did, for some reason, provide support and sanctuary to al Qaeda, this would increase the threat to the United States and the other NATO countries. Again, this overlooks history. Al Qaeda was able to plot terrorism from Afghanistan because the United States was unaware of the impending danger. Had America known what was coming, it certainly would have rendered al Qaeda’s Afghanistan bases useless even without a full scale invasion. There is no reason to believe that if al Qaeda somehow recreated its pre-September 11 Afghanistan sanctuary that the United States would not quickly destroy it.

Ultimately, then, the basic rationale of American strategy in Afghanistan is questionable. Certainly America cannot ignore that country as it did before September 11 and should continue supporting the national government and other Afghans opposed to the Taliban. But in strategy, balance is the key–the expected security benefits of any action must justify the costs and risks. Today America’s Afghanistan strategy, with its flawed assumptions, is badly out of balance.

The question is whether we will use the problems that arise to examine the fundamentals of our strategy, or decide that if only a few tweaks–more language training for the military, a few more PRTs, etc–will suffice.