What Is Plan B in Afghanistan?

Written on March 15, 2012 by Ángeles Figueroa-Alcorta in Americas, Asia, Foreign Policy, International Conflict, Terrorism & Security

By Steve Coll

The sound coming from Afghanistan these days—painfully familiar to those who have travelled there over the past three decades—is of fabric ripping. Periodically, Afghanistan unravels. The country remains very weak after decades of continual violence, emigration, upheaval, return, clandestine war waged by neighbors, and overt war waged by international powers. A pair of horrifying events—the accidental burning of Korans and riots in reaction, followed by a rampage by an American sniper who killed sixteen villagers in rural Kandahar—have now called into question the Obama Administration’s exit strategy and the assumptions on which it is based.

Over the weekend, General John R. Allen, the Marine general who leads all NATO forces in Afghanistan, told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, “The campaign is sound. It is solid.” But saying so does not make it so. At the White House, according to the Times, there is talk of perhaps speeding up the rate of American troop withdrawal, so that another ten thousand or even twenty thousand troops might leave sooner than planned. But even these proposals sound only like speeded-up versions of the same plan that General Allen is now carrying out.

What if the NATO transition plan for Afghanistan is based upon faulty assumptions or has created fissures that are being ignored because they are unnerving or inconvenient? Does NATO or the Obama Administration have the capacity to honestly reassess the plan, identify its mistaken premises, and adjust? Or do politics, fiscal limits, and the sheer exhaustion of Western governments with Afghanistan’s intractable problems mean, in effect, that the choice comes down to the success or failure of a plan set in place several years ago, one that is still on a kind of automatic pilot?

The ebbing of political will and energy about Afghanistan is evident in Western capitals beset by economic troubles. The impulse is to blame the Afghans for taking up the corrupting incentives of massive international spending, and, equally, to blame Pakistan for allowing the Taliban to regroup—as if NATO were not complicit in both failures.

Afghanistan is not, in fact, being consumed, at the moment, by a raging fire; it only feels that way. There are some aspects of the war that are not going terribly. Territory taken by international military forces in the south is being held against the Taliban, although it’s not clear how durable those achievements are. Security for civilians in the big cities, even Kandahar, is generally better than it was a couple of years ago. The point is only that despite the shocks and despair of the past few weeks, it is at least conceivable that there is enough time and space to rethink the assumptions on which the current exit plan is based, with an eye toward making sure that it does not fail spectacularly. Read more…

Steve Coll is president of the New America Foundation, staff writer for The New Yorker magazine, and the author of Ghost Wars and The Bin Ladens.

As published in www.newyorker.com on March 14, 2012.


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