Eleven years of costly war have confirmed that there is no military solution in Afghanistan. As one U.S. commander in Afghanistan retires and another takes his place, it's time to focus on a political and economic transition to Afghan rule. It's time to finally bring U.S. troops home.
In his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama announced that 34,000 American soldiers, airmen, and Marines will indeed leave Afghanistan this year. But he provided few details about the withdrawal strategy. As he weighs the options for transferring security responsibility to Afghans and decides on what form the U.S. presence will take beyond 2014, he and his advisors would do well to remember the Iraq war as a cautionary tale.
First, the U.S. experience in Iraq showed that focusing too narrowly on a military solution comes at a high cost. The United States prioritized the buildup of the Iraqi Army, often at the expense of funding for crucial civilian programs in areas such as infrastructure support, governance and democracy, agricultural development, rule of law, and anti-corruption initiatives.
Similarly, in Afghanistan, the United States and NATO have focused on creating a large and capable Afghan army. But insufficient attention has been given to nonmilitary initiatives, such as promoting political reconciliation among opposing factions and strengthening the rule of law.
This repeat of recent history is even more worrisome given that U.S. attempts at buildup of the Afghan National Army have met with mixed success at best. The Defense Department found in December that, despite years of training, only one of 23 Afghan brigades can operate independently.
On the other hand, however, Western investments in Afghanistan's civilian sector have had some notably positive results, particularly in education and health care. In the final phase of the transition, we must build on these successes by giving attention to nonmilitary initiatives, including promoting free and fair elections, fighting corruption, and protecting the rights of women.
Another lesson is that reconstruction efforts should focus more on sustainable investments than on short-term stabilization. In Iraq, American planners prioritized immediate results, while sacrificing development initiatives that would benefit Iraqis in the long run. The U.S. Institute of Peace's 2005 report on economic reconstruction in Iraq confirmed this, arguing that the U.S.-led coalition should have "immediately begun work on long-term projects to rebuild major infrastructure, restructure state-owned enterprises, create sustainable jobs, and promote private sector growth. But long-term development projects were not an initial coalition priority."