In a July 2009 essay about the war in Afghanistan, I asked: “Is It Worth It?”1 My answer then was yes, but only barely. Because the case for war was a close call on the merits, I anticipated that it would be controversial and hard to sustain politically, with the possibility of a left-right antiwar coalition forming against a pro-war center. It is now two years later. Has anything important changed since then?
Some things have. Many now point to Osama bin Laden’s death as a possible turning point, given al-Qaeda’s prominence in the Obama Administration’s case for war in Afghanistan. This could, in principle, tip the calculus toward accelerated withdrawal. But neither the effect of bin Laden’s death on al-Qaeda’s future nor the Administration’s own strategic assessment of its implications is yet clear.
For now, the biggest change since 2009 is the massive increase in American troops beginning in the spring of 2009 and finishing by the fall of 2010. The 30,000 soldier “surge” announced in the President’s December 2009 West Point speech was actually just a part of this increase. Between the time the President took office and the end of September 2010, U.S. troop strength tripled, from about 30,000 on Inauguration Day to about 100,000 now. This buildup was designed to reverse a trend of increasing Taliban political control, especially in Afghanistan’s south and eventually in the east. It has indeed reversed that trend, and may create a meaningful prospect for a negotiated settlement of the war on acceptable terms as a result.
Security, however, is only part of the strategic picture. General Stanley McChrystal’s famous assessment report of June 2009 argued that governance reform was co-equally necessary for success—security improvements without serious changes in Afghan governance would be unsustainable. Yet governance has lagged behind security since then, as have most of the non-kinetic efforts to put the country on its feet. One can argue that security must come first, but unless the political side of the strategy eventually catches up, the result will likely be hollow and temporary. Worse, it could actually make ultimate success less likely. Security progress could well enable a settlement, but any deal would probably legalize the Taliban as a political actor and grant them some role in the government. If the rest of that government remains as corrupt as today’s, the Taliban could easily expand their influence from within in ways more dangerous than today’s military threat from without.
Some have hoped that a “civilian surge” of diplomats, advisers and aid officials would enable the needed governance reforms. The real problem with Afghan governance, however, is not a lack of technical capacity but a surplus...