President Obama has yet to convene his December review of the Afghan War strategy, but when he does, a group of thinkers hope he will consider what they propose as a 'Plan B' for what its director calls a "failing and counterproductive strategy in Afghanistan."
"Instead of toppling terrorists, America's Afghan war has become an ambitious and fruitless effort at 'nation-building.' We are mired in a civil war in Afghanistan and are struggling to establish an effective central government in a country that has long been fragmented and decentralized," the group writes in a new report called, "A New Way Forward: Rethinking U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan."
Members of the group, called the Afghanistan Study Group, include around 50 former government officials, prominent Afghanistan experts, scholars, journalists, activists and business professionals.
The group's director is Matthew Hoh, the former State Department official and Marine who served in Iraq and Afghanistan before resigning September 2009 over what he believed was a failing strategy.
While not all group participants endorsed the report or came to the same conclusions, they coalesced around the idea that the war in Afghanistan -- now the longest war in U.S. history -- needs an alternate strategy than the one being implemented now by Gen. David Petraeus.
That alternate strategy includes five main recommendations for the U.S.: 1) Downsize its military presence in southern Afghanistan; 2) Lead and fast-track a peace process that would decentralize power in Afghanistan; 3) Shift from a counterinsurgency to counterterrorism strategy; 4) Join an internationally-led effort to develop Afghanistan's economy; and 5) Engage Afghanistan's neighbors in fostering regional stability and neutrality in Afghan politics.
"Our current path promises to have limited impact on the civil war while taking more American lives and contributing to skyrocketing taxpayer debt," the report reads. It cites the cost of the war as nearly $100 billion per year.
Most of the recommendations have been already proposed.
For example, the shift from a counterinsurgency to a counterterrorism strategy echoes Vice President Joe Biden's recommendation last fall, during the administration's last major review.
Also, there have been multiple international conferences geared towards developing the Afghan economy, though investors have been hesitant to commit funds without political stability and security in the country.
The report also recommends that the United Nations engage the U.S. and Afghanistan's neighbors in a diplomatic effort to foster regional stability and guarantee their neutrality in Afghan politics, including India, Pakistan, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
The White House outlined this idea as new policy in a March 2009 statement: "Together with the United Nations, the Administration will forge a new Contact Group for Afghanistan and Pakistan that brings together all who should have a stake in the security of the region – our NATO allies and other partners, the Central Asian states, Gulf nations, Iran, Russia, India and China. All have a stake in the promise of lasting peace and security and development in the region."
An informal coalition of those states under the aegis of the United Nations did exist for a few years prior to 9/11 towards those ends, call the Six Plus Two Group on Afghanistan. However, there has not been any renewed effort since then.
But other recommendations are original, such the U.S. fast-tracking a peace process that would decentralize power among Afghanistan's "principle parties."
The Afghan government already has begun a reconciliation and reintegration effort with anti-government insurgents willing to put down their arms, abide by the Afghan constitution, and renounce al Qaeda, but the group recommends the U.S. take a larger role in leading peace talks.
"There has to be much firmer efforts by the United States government at both internally to Afghanistan as well as externally to Afghanistan, to lead these efforts," said Hoh at a recent launch event for the report at Washington think-tank New America Foundation.
"We're the ones with leverage in the region," Hoh said. "We're the one with troops, with the money, with the clout. We should be the ones to tell the other nations in that region, 'It's in your best interests to have a negotiated settlement to only get 70 percent of what you want in Afghanistan as opposed to continuing this proxy war for another several decades.'"
New Afghanistan Study Group Urges Political Reconciliation
On domestic Afghan political matters, U.S. officials have tried to stay behind the scenes to avoid damaging President Hamid Karzai's legitimacy among Afghans. Also, counterinsurgency theory calls for partnering with a credible central government.
The group's recommendation that the U.S. take the lead in political reconciliation challenges the assumptions that it is possible to improve Karzai's credibility and legitimacy and that a credible and strong Karzai is necessary to Afghanistan's and America's national security interests, regardless of whether Afghans perceive him as corrupt.
Indeed, a U.S.-led political solution may be in the works -- some news outlets have reported U.S. talks with Taliban leadership over the past month -- but if underway, such talks have not been announced publicly and details are unclear.
Drawing Down Troops from Southern Afghanistan
Another original recommendation is drawing down U.S. troops from southern Afghanistan. Hoh and some members of the group believe the expansion of U.S. and NATO military operations in southern Afghanistan over the summer has caused Afghans in the area to take up arms. Thus, rather than clearing an area of insurgents, they argue that the presence of troops is creating insurgents and compelling them to fight.
Although a conditions-based July 2011 drawdown is part of the current strategy, top international military commander in Afghanistan Gen. David Petraeus could recommend to postponing the date or slowing the pace.
"This report is willing to ask the tough question: Could it be possible that our current military strategy is part of the problem?" asked Robert Pape, a panelist and director of the Chicago Project on Security and Terrorism.
Pape said statistics on suicide attacks in southern Afghanistan showed that violence spiked after coalition forces moved in.
"This is not some global jihad floating around the world. This is local opposition to American and Western military presence of the Pashtun homeland," Pape said. "We are growing anti-American suicide terrorism with this ink-spot theory of how to fight counterinsurgency. ... This is producing more terrorists than it's killing."
The recommendation to drawdown troops from the south challenges the assumption that in order to have security, anti-government insurgents need to be weakened on the battlefield.
Hoh argues that instead of focusing on battlefield gains first, the U.S. should instead focus on a political solution. He argues that once anti-government insurgents feel part of the political process and don't have to worry about political exclusion, they will give up supporting the Taliban. Counterinsurgency theory says the government and pro-government forces should clear, hold, build and transfer. What Hoh is suggesting practically the opposite.
"You won't have any growth in capacity, you won't have any successful development work until you achieve some degree of political stability," Hoh said.
Critics have responded vigorously online to the report, questioning its authors' expertise on Afghanistan, evidence for the report's recommendations and assertions, and the feasibility of its recommendations. The study group members have responded back just as vigorously, most notably on columnist Joshua Foust's website, www.registan.net.
Some panelists at the launch event made it clear they did not support all the reports' conclusions and added caveats.
But New America Foundation's Steve Clemons -- one of the group's founding member and host of the event -- said that although the group's discussions were materialized in a report, it was only the start of an ongoing dialogue they hope to spark among Americans looking for a new way forward in Afghanistan.
Clemons is also hoping the report will spark dialogue among U.S. officials.
"We have many friends in the administration. Richard Holbrooke and I have talked a great deal. I've been invited to talk with his team," he said, referring to the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
"What we're trying to do is enhance serious dialogue and debate," Clemons said. "It is in the absence of success that we're trying to say it's time to basically come back and begin thinking about other inputs in that debate and discussion."
The report can be read online HERE.