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CNAS’s Exum Traces Three Afghanistan Scenarios

Andrew Exum, the Center for a New American Security scholar and adviser to Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s strategy review, has a new policy paper out on Afghanistan. No one at the Defense Department will pay any attention to it, just like no one paid any attention to the last one he wrote. But why not see what he says? Just to be nice?

After praising the Obama administration’s strategy review as healthy, Exum structures the paper into three scenarios that he presents as ways to view the direction of future Afghan policy. The “worst-case scenario” is one in which the Taliban overthrows the Afghan government and allows Afghanistan to become an expansive safe haven for al-Qaeda, after which the two organizations export terror. “It is hard to imagine U.S. and allied policies in Afghanistan that would allow such a nightmare scenario,” he writes.

More likely is a protracted stalemate that would follow “a limited and short-term ‘surge’ into Afghanistan” of additional U.S. troops that gives way to a restricted U.S. commitment over time, including a focus on counterterrorism instead of counterinsurgency. “In this scenario, President Obama’s policy of not allowing Afghanistan and Pakistan to be a safe haven from which transnational terror groups can plot attacks against the United States and other Western states will likely not be realized,” Exum writes. He assesses, free of euphemism, that this would amount to a policy of “liv[ing] with risks previously unthinkable, or admit[ting] policy failure” as the costs would be considered too great.

The best-case scenario is a “functioning Afghan state inhospitable to transnational terror groups.” Well, sure. How to get there from here? Exum advises continued pressure on President Hamid Karzai (who he assumes, evidently, will remain president of Afghanistan — I gather he wrote this before the news of the runoff broke, though that’s not to say Karzai will lose the runoff). “The United States has leverage over Karzai so long as he and his allies believe a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan remains a real possibility,” Exum writes. Another proposal is less intuitive:

Aid in Afghanistan, meanwhile, should be shifted away from large-scale development projects and toward those projects that address issues – such as irrigation rights and land disputes – driving conflict at the local level. U.S. military units in southern and eastern Afghanistan have already begun such efforts. But for this reason, conducting a census and building a land registry are more important in many areas than building schools and hospitals. It is difficult, in fact, to overestimate the degree to which these two measures would stabilize the country. Such efforts support the establishment of the rule of law and enable ISAF and Afghan units to resolve disputes the Afghan people currently rely on the insurgent “shadow” government to adjudicate.

I’m not ultimately sure what Exum means by labeling the “most likely scenario” to be the subpar one. Specifically, it’s unclear to me whether he’s forecasting Obama’s decision or whether he’s making a point about what, objectively, is more likely to play out even if the resources for an expansive commitment are provided. (I gather not the latter, as it wouldn’t really make sense for him to advocate such a course.) But his conclusion about what’s possible is clearer:

[A]n Afghanistan at peace with itself and its neighbors is not the ahistorical fantasy some critics would like the public to believe. Until the Marxist coup of 1978, Afghanistan was at peace for half a century – an anomaly among Asian states in the 20th century. Returning Afghanistan to a similar state of peace should remain a goal of the United States and the rest of the international community.

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