Gen. David Petraeus took command in Afghanistan last week with President Barack Obama promising the nation that the change in leadership would not entail a change in strategy. In his remarks upon assuming command, Petraeus stated that "we are in this to win." This is about what one would expect of a commanding general, but just as Obama found it necessary to fire Petraeus' predecessor, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the national interest requires some deeper thinking about how many resources it makes sense to dedicate to Afghanistan.
Afghanistan is, at the end of the day, an extremely poor and remote country. The U.S. military, seemingly sensitive to this point, recently launched a substantial information operation designed to convince people that the country is full of valuable natural resources like lithium. This, however, was largely old news and ignored the remote prospects for actually exploiting these resources.
Of course the United States didn't invade Afghanistan in order to control precious metals. We did it for the pretty good reason that Osama bin Laden was operating openly there with the support of the country's de facto government. And had we succeeded in killing or capturing bin Laden back in the winter of 2001-2002, it strikes me as exceedingly unlikely that eight years later we'd have tens of thousands of American soldiers attempting to improve governance and resolve political instability in Afghanistan. That we failed back then, and that the distraction of Iraq prevented us from stabilizing the country when it might have been easier, doesn't change the fact that it's currently a strange mission we're undertaking.
The main national-security rationale for our involvement in Afghanistan is the notion that Taliban-held territory could be a safe haven for terrorists. This is true but incomplete. Plenty of other places from Somalia to Yemen to Pakistan and beyond could play that role. Unfortunately, the world does not suffer from a shortage of malgoverned locations. Nor, for that matter, is it strictly necessary to find a piece of chaotic hinterland in order to commit acts of terrorism. The main plotting for September 11 was undertaken in Hamburg, Germany, where the level of governance and political stability outpaces anything we'll see from Afghanistan in several lifetimes.
That's not to say we should be blithely unconcerned about the potential al-Qaeda threat from Afghanistan, but given that we're talking about a few hundred fighters, a massive counterinsurgency campaign waged by tens of thousands of American soldiers seems excessive.
We should, though, take a hard look at what our decisions in Afghanistan truly cost. But the way we're currently funding the war hides trade-offs. A cryptic process masks what we're spending. Congress votes on war appropriations separately from the rest of the budget, and centrist senators don't demand offsets as the price of avoiding a filibuster. Consequently, expenditures escape political scrutiny and even rudimentary efforts at cost-benefit analysis.
The problems with this are not merely budgetary. They actually cut to the core of national strategy. The process allows Congress and the administration to ignore a key question: How important is Afghanistan relative to other national priorities? Rather than quibbling over a precise time line for withdrawing American troops from Afghanistan, it would be better to debate the trajectory of overall spending. Then instead of mouthing platitudes about winning, the role of Petraeus and his staff would be making the best possible use of the resources they have. And the best way to open such a conversation, in specific terms, would be to force the Department of Defense to balance its overall budget and not treat war supplementals as monopoly money conjured up by Congress.
Back in December 2009 my colleague at the Center for American Progress Larry Korb outlined a strategy to offset the cost of a troop surge in Afghanistan by cutting the baseline military budget. It was a useful exercise, and one through which the administration would do well to actually put the Joint Chiefs. Not merely because of the budgetary savings it would involve but because it would force the military leadership to consider more seriously what they really think matters. How much is Afghanistan worth and for how long? It's easy to talk about "interests" and "threats" in general terms but much harder to look at real trade-offs in specific terms.
To get policy right in Afghanistan, we need more than a strategy that "works" or lets us "win"; we need one that's worth it.