There's another way forward in Afghanistan.
Call it Plan B.
An ad hoc group of disillusioned foreign policy experts is offering President Obama a serious, well thought-out alternative to his current failing strategy there.
Their Plan B entails a dramatic reduction in the American troop presence, a mission focused on the minimal Al Qaeda threat rather than on trying to defeat the Taliban, and a peace process that leads to power-sharing.
"[T]he way forward acknowledges the manifold limitations of a military solution in a region where our interests lie in political stability," says the forthcoming report from the Afghanistan Study Group. The group of 40 scholars, former officials and activists was assembled by Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation.
"The United States should by no means abandon Afghanistan, but it is time to abandon the current strategy that is not working," the report concludes. "Trying to pacify Afghanistan by force of arms will not work, and a costly military campaign there is more likely to jeopardize America's vital security interests than to protect them. The Study Group believes that the United States should pursue more modest goals that are both consistent with America's true interests and far more likely to succeed."
Patrick Cronin, a South Asian expert at the Center for a New American Security and a member of the study group, calls the report an antidote to mission creep.
"There's no significant Al Qaeda presence in Afghanistan today, so the original purpose has largely dissipated," Cronin told the Huffington Post. By contrast, he said, American interests do not require the military defeat of the Taliban. Worse than that, "this strategy is actually being counterproductive for our interests."
Paul R. Pillar, a Georgetown University professor who formerly served as the CIA's chief intelligence analyst for the Middle East, wrote in an email to the Huffington Post: "For me, the most important part of this exercise is explicit recognition that: (1) there is a disconnect between waging a counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and the professed goal of keeping Americans safe from terrorism; and (2) the costs to the United States of this war are all out of proportion to what is at stake in Afghanistan and how it affects U.S. interests."
"The report's main argument is that U.S. Interests in Central Asia are limited, and do not justify the costly and open-ended commitment in which we are currently engaged," Stephen M. Walt, a Harvard international relations professor and a group member, e-mailed HuffPost.
"Instead of trying to build a unified central state in Afghanistan -- a task for which the United States and its allies are unqualified -- the United States and its partners should reduce their military footprint, focus on devolving power to local leaders and institutions, and concentrate on economic development. Our combat and intelligence effort should focus on the small number of Al Qaeda members remaining in Afghanistan or northwest Pakistan."
Plan B has five major points:
1. Emphasize power-sharing and political inclusion. The U.S. should fast-track a peace process designed to decentralize power within Afghanistan and encourage a power-sharing balance among the principal parties.
2. Downsize and eventually end military operations in southern Afghanistan, and reduce the U.S. military footprint. The U.S. should draw down its military presence, which radicalizes many Pashtuns and is an important aid to Taliban recruitment.
3. Focus security efforts on Al Qaeda and Domestic Security. Special forces, intelligence assets, and other U.S. capabilities should continue to seek out and target known Al Qaeda cells in the region and be ready to go after them should they attempt to relocate elsewhere or build new training facilities. In addition, part of the savings from our drawdown should be reallocated to bolster U.S. domestic security efforts and to track nuclear weapons globally.
4. Encourage economic development. Because destitute states can become incubators for terrorism, drug and human trafficking, and other illicit activities, efforts at reconciliation should be paired with an internationally-led effort to develop Afghanistan's economy.
5. Engage regional and global stakeholders in a diplomatic effort designed to guarantee Afghan neutrality and foster regional stability. Despite their considerable differences, neighboring states such as India, Pakistan, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia share a common interest in preventing Afghanistan from being dominated by any single power or being a permanently failed state that exports instability to others.
Specifically, the report urges Obama to stick to his pledge to begin withdrawing U.S. troops in July 2011 -- or earlier. There will soon be 100,000 American troops in Afghanistan; the report calls for that number to decrease to 68,000 troops by October 2011, and 30,000 by July 2012.
Among the report's central arguments:
• Al Qaeda sympathizers are now present in many locations globally, and defeating the Taliban will have little effect on Al Qaeda's global reach. The ongoing threat from Al Qaeda is better met via specific counter-terrorism measures, a reduced U.S. military "footprint" in the Islamic world, and diplomatic efforts to improve America's overall image and undermine international support for militant extremism.
• Given our present economic circumstances, reducing the staggering costs of the Afghan war is an urgent priority. Maintaining the long-term health of the U.S. economy is just as important to American strength and security as protecting U.S. soil from enemy (including terrorist) attacks.
• The continuation of an ambitious U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan will likely work against U.S. interests. A large U.S. presence fosters local (especially Pashtun) resentment and aids Taliban recruiting. It also fosters dependence on the part of our Afghan partners and encourages loser cooperation among a disparate array of extremist groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan alike.
So what happens next? "I hope the report helps foster a more open and informed debate about our various efforts there, and to consider better ways to secure core U.S. Interests," Walt wrote.
But he has no illusions about the pressures to keep going. "It is almost always easier to get into a war than it is to get out, and the main obstacle to either strategic innovation or retrenchment is politics back home. The Obama administration doesn't want to leave until it can claim some sort of victory, and neither does the U.S. military. Even if prospects for success are slim, therefore, it will be difficult for Obama and his advisors to chart a radically different course."
Dan Froomkin is senior Washington correspondent for the Huffington Post. You can send him an e-mail, bookmark his page; subscribe to RSS feed, follow him on Twitter, friend him on Facebook, and/or become a fan and get e-mail alerts when he writes.