“Obama’s War” has increasingly come under fire in the media and the American public. Like Iraq, Afghanistan has become the war that cannot be won. While American political focus fixated on Iraq, Afghanistan became the forgotten war. Now, as the Pentagon slowly moves away from Iraq and looks back at a conflict that should have been over years ago, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has found a mess of a conflict that seems increasingly more complicated and difficult than the one in Iraq. Many voices have called for a withdrawal of American forces, but very few have considered what an Afghanistan without International Security Assistance Force troops will look like, or at the way American forces might transition to peacetime. All of these questions are more important when we look at the future of a conflict that might soon be considered a lost cause.
Of course, to call Afghanistan an unwinnable war is an overstatement. Just like any counterinsurgency operation, Afghanistan simply requires more funds and more troops. But the Department of Defense is unwilling to pour these necessary elements into the mix for economic and political concerns that are, of course, quite real. Winning would require more than just more money and more boots on the ground- but a list of all the necessary needs would take far more space than this column is allowed. Victory would require at least border security, if not full cooperation, from Pakistan. Success would be grounded in building an entirely new lifestyle for the Afghan people- building infrastructure, creating outlets for education, and building an economy where a little more than just poppy fields flourish. And this completely ignores the role of the Afghan government. It should be apparent to Washington policymakers that one cannot build a state around a government as porous and corrupt as President Hamid Karzai’s.
President Obama’s proposed timetable for Afghanistan – itself doomed to failure by widely accepted counterinsurgency theory – does not allow for such a massive overhaul even under the best conditions. Gen. David Petraeus is a tactical genius, but when the time comes for American forces to withdraw, Afghanistan will not be chalked up as a coalition victory. 2013 is simply coming too soon.
So, with all of this established, what will Afghanistan look like when I, and all of my sophomore classmates, graduate from Georgetown?
Afghanistan will still be a war-torn country. Just as it is now, mostly moderate, American coalition supporters will dominate the northwest. The south will be wracked by violence as weak Afghan military and police forces fight against a resurgent Taliban. Insurgents will pour over the border with Pakistan from Jalalabad to Kandahar in the east. The embattled government will slowly capitulate to the Taliban, and Afghanistan will look much like it did in January 2001. The only change will be increased interest from China, for while the United States and her Western allies have been bogged down fighting a drawn-out war, the Chinese have increased their economic ties to the country in an effort to reap the value of Afghanistan’s natural resources. Just as the Chinese have made significant inroads into the war-ravaged eastern territories of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, they will work with the lowest bidder in Afghanistan to mine their precious and semi-precious metals.
The United States, however, will be fundamentally changed. The War in Iraq polarized America. Afghanistan, combined with the Great Recession, will have deflated her. The DOD budget, grown to an almost absurd size, will shrink. Tactically speaking, much of the American military’s institutional changes, necessary for fighting two counterinsurgencies, will be rendered obsolete as strategists refit the military to prepare for an ever more belligerent China. It will be a good time to work for Raytheon and Lockheed Martin. Above all else, just like after Vietnam, Americans will be forced to remember that we are not invincible and we are not the world’s only power. We will become more insular, more isolationist. In the long run, our wounds will heal and we will return to the world stage even more powerful than before, but we will no longer live in the era of Bill Clinton, no matter who is in office.
When all is said and done, historians will remember Afghanistan, America’s war there, and this stage of that war as a turning point. Afghanistan will not be easily forgotten by anyone involved. For although Iraq has a high chance of success, Afghanistan will, at least for the near future, remain a failed state. If American policy doesn’t change, and it almost certainly will not, the die has already been cast. American forces will pull out of Afghanistan having spilled considerable blood and spent considerable treasure, all for a negligible change.
Andrew Mullikin is a sophomore in the School of Foreign Service. He can be reached at mullikinthehoya.com. Behind the Wire regularly appears every other Tuesday.