Experts Call for Lowered Expectations in Afghanistan

My colleague Ryan Powers spoke to international relations scholar Steven Walt earlier this week (i.e., before Obama’s mini-surge of forces into Afghanistan was announced) and their conversation touched on Afghanistan policy. I think the most important part is this:

Out ultimate objective is basically not allowing that part of the world to be used as a haven for people to plan attacks on the American homeland. That’s our only really vital strategic interest . . . I think one of the things we’re going to have to do is lower expectations . . . what we shouldn’t be is in the business of trying to govern Afghanistan ourselves. And you just see some hints in the debate, including some hints from Secretary Gates that he gets this. That lowering our goals is going tobe necessary.

Video of a longer swathe of Walt on Afghanistan is here:

This is also an important theme in the National Security Network’s new set of principles on Afghanistan:

Larger than Iraq, with a population close to 32 million, Afghanistan suffers from one of the world’s lowest development levels, scant economic opportunity, crude infrastructure, and a dependence on the opium trade — interrelated problems that go beyond the near term issue of worsening security. Humanitarian and governance goals to which Afghans and many Americans rightly aspire will be better-served by a smaller-scale effort which can enable local, regional and non-governmental efforts than a massive one which cannot be sustained. […] Any strategy must make a clear break with the past by announcing our intentions and objectives. It must place direct responsibility for Afghanistan’s future with its people and their government. It must clearly differentiate between many goals we might like to work toward in the long term and the relatively few foundational steps that the US must take along with its allies to secure our safety in the short term.

To some extent, I would even resist the idea that this constitutes “lowering” goals or expectations for Afghanistan. Rather, I would say it involves realigning expectations with initial goals. I think that when U.S. forces initially engages in Afghanistan, people understood clearing out al-Qaeda and creating a situation where Afghanistan wasn’t being actively governed by an entity that was proudly hosting anti-American terrorist activities was the goal of the operation. If the Bush administration hadn’t held back crucial military and intelligence resources during the first six months of the war in order to lay the groundwork for Iraq, perhaps we could have swiftly killed or captured the top al-Qaeda leadership as well as booting the Taliban from Kabul, people would have deemed that a success. But because Bush failed in the war’s basic aims, he started redefining the war in terms of our alleged nation-building successes.

Thus, what initially became a kind of moral obligation to be helpful to the people of Afghanistan as a sideline to our strategic objectives, became the strategic objective. But we didn’t commit a proper level of resources to that, either. So we wound up not doing a particularly great job of being helpful. And Afghan public opinion has no become much more skeptical about us, to a point that calls into question how helpful it’s realistic for us to be. It’s one thing for a foreign military to help people who want its help, and another thing entirely to “help” people who want it to leave. Under the circumstances, and unconstrained by the need to pretend that the winter of 2001–2002 didn’t constitute a major screw-up, we can refocus on core aims.