America needs a new way forward in Afghanistan. It is understandable that after a decade of combat operations in a distant land with limited discernible strategic interest to the United States, the American people and citizens in nations allied with our cause do not believe efforts in Afghanistan have been worth the sacrifice. The cost to the families of the fallen and in opportunities foregone has been great. Yet it is also important to remember that the very reason why American and allied troops went to Afghanistan in 2001 still remains valid - to punish those who attacked us on Sept. 11, 2001 and prevent such an attack from ever again emanating from that land.
American leaders began this decade of war with high hopes for the transformation of Afghanistan from a land shattered by a generation of war and characterized by grinding poverty into a modern functional state able to provide opportunity and security for all its citizens. The reality has been far different, and now is the time to align American security interests with reality.
The current plan of the Obama Administration is to maintain as many as 68,000 as late as 2014. We need a new plan that will refocus our role in Afghanistan to the sole goal of keeping al-Qaida from setting up bases from which they might launch attacks on the United States and our allies, and match our commitment of resources to the new mission. Western nations need to regain the confidence of their people and avoid growing momentum for a "rush to the exits" that could lead to victory for the Taliban and a new life for al-Qaida.
At the Center for National Policy we've launched a plan to accomplish these goals. The report can be viewed at www.cnponline.org
The main elements of our plan are:
• The primary military mission should focus on the intelligence and direct action campaign against transnational terrorist networks in the region. This can be accomplished with less than 25,000 U.S. troops with an additional 5,000 troops from NATO allies. U.S. Special Operations Component Command-Afghanistan would be in charge of the military mission by April 2013 and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) would be dissolved. This large drawdown will ensure that "ownership" is transitioned to the Afghan state.
• Continue transition plans to place Afghan government and security forces in the lead across the country by April 2013. "Transition," however cannot be a political fig leaf for home audiences, but an end to American combat operations against Afghan-oriented insurgents outside the scope of embedded mentoring and fire support.
• Full transition of governance and development efforts in Afghanistan to the United Nations by April 2013.
• The United States and NATO allies will provide enduring material and political support to the Afghan state in order to ensure sufficient stability around Kabul, the north, and west to prevent transnational terrorist networks from operating from Afghanistan.
In a time of reduced resources available for national security, this plan for NATO engagement in Afghanistan reduces costs associated with maintenance of a larger force. Such a drawdown would also preserve the lives and limbs of our brave men and women in uniform - too many of whom have perished for something less than victory.
As with any strategy, there are risks along this path. But they pale in comparison to the risks of the current strategy and the preferred plans of the Pentagon, which would see as many as 68,000 American troops in Afghanistan through the end of 2013. Moreover, slowing the drawdown of U.S. forces does nothing to avert or sufficiently mitigate them.
We likely cannot avoid a low-grade civil war in Afghanistan's rural south and some of the eastern provinces. This is regrettable, but unavoidable. Thankfully, NATO member states can still preserve their core interests in the region even if the Afghan state is unable to fully control these parts of the country.
We propose this course of action as the best way forward to protect American security interests, complete an allied mission with a level of strategic success and give the people of Afghanistan a chance to build a better future. This plan would be a clear signal to all that the United States and NATO allies have no interest in playing a dominant role in Afghanistan, yet will protect our own interests while providing sustainable support to the Afghan people.
Scott Bates, who lives in Stonington, is president of the Center for National Policy. He has worked in Afghanistan, Iraq and Kosovo on governance assistance projects. Ryan Evans is a research fellow for CNP. He recently spent a year in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.