Preempting a Progressive Split on Afghanistan

February 18, 2009 | Last updated: July 31, 2020

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As the Obama administration spends the next two months reviewing strategy options for Afghanistan, a progressive organization is attempting to cobble together a liberal consensus around basic principles for the future of the seven-year-old war — thereby fending off a progressive split over Afghanistan early in the Obama administration’s term.

The National Security Network, an organization that seeks to bring together policymakers, experts and Democratic activists, plans to release a document, titled “Principles for an Afghanistan Strategy,” later today. Assembled in consultation with Afghanistan experts from the development, diplomatic and defense communities, the two-page document urges the Obama team to create “a comprehensive strategy that recognizes the limits of military power.” It is agnostic on the question of deploying additional troops for the war, and its drafters hope to reach out to progressives who object to military escalation. On Tuesday, the Obama team announced it would deploy 17,000 additional troops to Afghanistan.

Illustration by: Matt Mahurin Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

“The ultimate goal here is for the Obama administration to come out with something 50-plus days from now that most people can live with,” explained National Security Network executive director Heather Hurlburt, referring to the progressive community. If a progressive consensus can be reached, Hurlburt said she planned on taking the consensus document to the Obama team’s review committee, which is headed by former CIA official Bruce Reidel, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy and Richard Holbrooke, the special administration envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Mirroring the stated goals of the Obama team’s policy review, the National Security Network document seeks to address Afghanistan policy from the perspective of first-order concerns. It endorses the war, contending that “Afghanistan’s continuing deterioration would allow al-Qaeda central, which intelligence agencies identify as the greatest national security threat to the United States, to operate with impunity under a resurgent Taliban.” But the document also echoes recent recognitions by members of the Obama team, like Defense Secretary Bob Gates, that the war’s humanitarian and governance components “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.”

As for the strategy to achieve those goals, the National Security Network urges the U.S. to support an effort to help the Afghanistan government “satisfy baseline economic and security requirements of its citizens” in order to win and hold popular allegiance. It supports “vigorous diplomacy” with all of Afghanistan’s allies “from India and Iran to Russia and the other Central Asian states”; tying Pakistan policy to Afghanistan policy; and to supplement military force by cracking down on both government corruption and the “stranglehold of the opium trade” which helps fund the insurgency.

Perhaps most controversially, the document endorses a counterinsurgency strategy against the Taliban-led coalition seeking to overthrow the U.S.-allied government in Kabul. Noting that counterinsurgencies are historically won by those who “outgovern …rather than outgun” their opponents, the National Security Network urges military leaders to make decisions “with an eye to meeting Afghan security concerns,” bolstering Afghan security forces and “phasing out tactics that have increased civilian casualties with questionable payoffs.” A United Nations report released this week found that civilian casualties have risen significantly in Afghanistan in 2008 , and over 60 percent of civilian casualties linked to U.S. military activities have been caused by airstrikes.

Hurlburt explained that consultations taking place over the past two weeks with experts rejected a strategy that focused narrowly on counterterrorism activities like specifically targeting Al Qaeda or Taliban leadership, out of fear that a strategy that neglected the concerns of the Afghan people wouldn’t work. “The counterinsurgency and development people together make the point the you can’t achieve your counterterrorism objectives without a modicum of government functionality,” she said. But what she said her “friends in the development community,” who urge a robust construction and humanitarian effort, “are not fully recognizing is how shallow the domestic pool of support is [for such efforts] at this point. That’s what the progressive advocacy community, like Get Afghanistan Right, understands.”

Get Afghanistan Right is a coalition of progressives that rejects military escalation in Afghanistan. Hurlburt said that she wanted to work out a sense from the “expert community” of what was achievable and realistic for Afghanistan before taking the document to “progressive advocacy” organizations like Get Afghanistan Right to secure buy in. She conceded that there would be disagreements that probably can’t be fully resolved.

“In my wildest dreams, if we could agree to disagree on troop numbers but get the other pieces right, and ask hard questions on those troop numbers” Hurlburt said she would consider the effort at consensus-building successful. “The other thing I’d really like to see is greater familiarization, so the expert community can see advocacy community has valid concerns, and the advocacy community can see the expert community are good people with serious concerns and not, to use an overused word, ‘war mongers.’”

Jason Rosenbaum, a blogger at the Seminal and a leader of Get Afghanistan Right, said he welcomed the National Security Network’s efforts. “We think there’s a lot of common ground among progressives on Afghanistan, especially when you get the around the question of the war-fighting part,” he said. “I would love to be on board that discussion as much as possible.” He said he considered “NSN an ally, and we consider VoteVets an ally in some senses,” referring to a progressive veterans’ organization that has pushed for an increase of troop levels in Afghanistan.

Get Afghanistan Right also released a statement of principles on Tuesday for the war, reacting to President Obama’s announced troop increase. “Without a clear strategy, benchmarks for success, and a plan to bring our troops home, this escalation will only prolong the American-led occupation — increasing anti-American sentiment throughout the region — while failing to make America any safer,” the organization wrote in a statement signed initially by 15 academics.

Hurlburt was optimistic that progressive consensus is possible. She said that the network’s role was “to turn down temperature of rhetoric enough to see the truths that the other [progressive] side is offering them.” And she called the Afghanistan strategy review a test for progressives. “This is a great experiment in asking, can the progressive community do a better job with these types of challenges than [it did] in 1993 or 1977 or whatever. We’ve never done this successfully as a community — shape war policy, and shape policy of own [progressive] governments when we manage to elect them.”