Other states and cities should pay heed, not because they might end up like Detroit next year, but because the city is a flashing warning light on America's fiscal dashboard. Though some of it's woes are unique, a crucial one is not. Many other state and city governments across America have made impossible-to-keep promises to do with pensions and health care. Detroit shows what can happen when leaders put off reforming the public sector for too long.
---"America's Public Finances: The Unsteady States of America," The Economist, Leaders Section (7.27.2013)It's not a new story, but it remains an important one. There have been other municipal bankruptcies in California, Rhode Island and elsewhere, but much smaller in scale than Detroit. It was not so long ago a Detroit bankruptcy was unthinkable to most people. But there are now many other municipalities, and some states, where the same problems threaten the same result. It's worth reading more about it, and this article in The Economist is a good place to start.
But the war will not end in 2014. The U.S. role may end, in whole or in part, but the war will continue--and its ultimate outcome is very much in doubt.
Should current trends continue, U.S. combat troops are likely to leave behind a grinding stalemate between the Afghan government and the Taliban. The Afghan National Security Forces ["ANSF"] can probably sustain this deadlock, but only as long as the U.S. Congress pays the multibillion-dollar annual bills needed to keep them fighting. The war will thus become a contest in stamina between Congress and the Taliban. Unless Congress proves more patient than the Taliban leader Mullah Omar [and patience, never America's long suit, is fast running out with Afghanistan GH], funding for the ANSF will eventually shrink until Afghan forces can no longer hold their ground, and at that point, the country could easily descend into chaos. If it does, the war will be lost and U.S. aims forfeited.
[The author later refers to this and variations like President Obama's current middle ground of "muddling through" as "failure on the installment plan." And so it appears to be.]
A policy of simply handing off an ongoing war to an Afghan government that cannot afford the troops needed to win it is thus not a strategy for a "responsible end" to the conflict; it is closer to what the Nixon administration was willing to accept in the final stages of the Vietnam War, a "decent interval" between the United States' withdrawal and the eventual defeat of its local ally.
There are only two real alternatives to this, neither of them pleasant. One is to get serious about negotiations with the Taliban. This is no panacea, but it is the only alternative to outright defeat. To its credit, the Obama administration has pursued such talks for over a year. What it has not done is spend the political capital needed for an actual deal. A settlement the United States could live with would require hard political engineering both in Kabul and on Capitol Hill, yet the administration has not followed through.
The other defensible approach is for the United States to cut its losses and get all the way out of Afghanistan now, leaving behind no advisory presence and reducing its aid substantially. Outright withdrawal might damage the United States' prestige, but so would a slow-motion version of the same defeat -- only at a greater cost in blood and treasure. And although a speedy U.S. withdrawal would cost many Afghans their lives and freedoms, fighting on simply to postpone such consequences temporarily would needlessly sacrifice more American lives in a lost cause.
---"Ending the War in Afghanistan: How to Avoid Failure on the Installment Plan," by Stephen Biddle, Foreign Affairs (September/October 2013)Of course, what Professor Biddle refers to as the price in political capital both in Washington and Kabul is likely more than the essential parties are willing to offer for an agreement the Taliban would nonetheless be loath to accept. And that assumes that many other realities and problems can be overcome with a multiplicity of interested parties, including a corrupt and inept Afghan government in Kabul (which, in itself, is fatal to a successful plan) and a fragmented Taliban that probably would not trust any one group, even Mullah Omar's, to fairly represent all. And even if they could, why would they? With the U.S. fighting forces soon leaving, with the period of their continuing financial support of advisors, trainers and the ANSF very much in question, why wouldn't the more patient Taliban just wait out the withdrawal of U.S. fighting troops, and then test the resolve of the ANSF to fight this unending war, and the U.S resolve to continue financing them in it?
Since outlasting the Taliban is unlikely, the only realistic alternative to eventual defeat is a negotiated settlement. [Realistic, really?] The administration has pursued such a deal for well over a year, but so far the process has yielded little, and there is now widespread skepticism about the talks.
Many, for example, doubt the Taliban are serious about the negotiations. After all, in late 2011, they assassinated Burhanuddin Rabbani, the head of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's High Peace Council and the Kabul official charged with moving the talks forward. Since the Taliban can wait out the United States and win outright, why should they make concessions?
[And there is more to read in his article about the contours of such an agreement , a settlement, with the Taliban, Kabul, and the U.S. that might be possible, and more to read about serious players with serious objections to any such agreed role for the Taliban, notwithstanding the well-intentioned, humanistic concerns, interests and hopes of Professor Biddle--concerns interests and hopes many of us may share with him.]
[...] Yet despite these concerns, there is still a chance for a deal that offers more than just a fig leaf to conceal policy failure... There may be good reasons for the Taliban to explore a deal. Mullah Omar and his allies in the leadership have been living in exile in Pakistan for over a decade -- their children are growing up as Pakistanis -- and their movements are surely constrained by their Pakistani patrons. Afghans are famously nationalist, and the Afghan-Pakistani rivalry runs deep; exile across the border surely grates on the Afghan Taliban. Perhaps more important, they live under the constant threat of assassination by U.S. drones or commando raids: just ask Osama bin Laden or six of the last seven al Qaeda operations directors, all killed or captured in such attacks. And a stalemate wastes the lives and resources of the Taliban just as it does those of the Afghan forces and their allies. While the Taliban are probably able to pay this price indefinitely, and while they will surely not surrender just to stanch the bleeding, this does not mean they would prefer continued bloodletting to any possible settlement. The conflict is costly enough that the Taliban might consider an offer if it is not tantamount to capitulation.Still, on balance, the author articulates more realistic and powerful political and practical reasons that negotiations are unlikely to take place, and if they do, will nevertheless likely fail. In fairness--and in the interest of completing both sides of the ledger--he does his best to be positive about some circumstances that could influence the Taliban to look favorably on a negotiated settlement (e.g., as suggested above, having their families back in Afghanistan after so many years in Pakistan, where they are not fully free or welcomed, or remaining subject to the many deadly risks of continuing war, including drone attacks). But all that is very much within their way of life and accepted as necessary to achieving their goals. Those points ring weak, and the author more or less acknowledges it.
As daunting as the obstacles to a negotiated settlement are, such a deal still represents the least bad option for the United States in Afghanistan. If the White House is unwilling to accept the costs that a serious settlement effort would entail, however, then it is time to cut American losses and get out of Afghanistan now.
Some might see the Obama administration's current policy as a hedged version of such disengagement already. The U.S. military presence in Afghanistan will soon shrink to perhaps 8,000-12,000 advisers and trainers, and U.S. aid might decline to $4-$5 billion a year for the ANSF and $2-$3 billion in economic assistance, with the advisory presence costing perhaps another $8-$12 billion a year. This commitment is far smaller than the 100,000 U.S. troops and over $100 billion of 2011, and it offers some chance of muddling through to an acceptable outcome while discreetly concealing the United States' probable eventual failure behind a veil of continuing modest effort.
Only in Washington, however, could $14-$20 billion a year be considered cheap. If this yielded a stable Afghanistan, it would indeed be a bargain, but if, as is likely without a settlement, it produces only a defeat drawn out over several years, it will mean needlessly wasting tens of billions of dollars. In a fiscal environment in which $8 billion a year for the Head Start preschool program or $36 billion a year for Pell Grant scholarships is controversial, it is hard to justify spending another $70-$100 billion in Afghanistan over, say, another half decade of stalemated warfare merely to disguise failure or defer its political consequences.
It is harder still to ask Americans to die for such a cause. Even an advisory mission involves risk, and right now, thousands of U.S. soldiers are continuing to patrol the country. If failure is coming, many Afghans will inevitably die, but a faster withdrawal could at least save some American lives that would be sacrificed along the slower route.
It would be preferable for the war to end a different way: through a negotiated compromise with the Taliban. Talks so complicated and fraught, of course, might fail even if the United States does everything possible to facilitate them. But without such efforts, the chances of success are minimal, and the result is likely to be just a slower, more expensive version of failure. Getting out now is a better policy than that.And then, most recently, there is our poorly attended-to interest and reduced focus on China and the pivot to the East. Important negotiations on nuclear capability are going on in Iran, and chemical weapons in Syria. But it is difficult to remain properly focused on critically important foreign policy priorities when narrow-minded, politically self-protective, radical Republican ideologues--political anarchists, really--would place America, its economy, and its international interests at risk without apparent concern for the implications in China and Asia, in Afghanistan, the Middle East, the subcontinent, and the world economy.
Of course, all we folks with common sense know there is no such thing as climate change and global warming--after all, someone is always crying wolf about something. And naturally, we keep listening closely to the TV and radio people who keep telling us the truth about that. We know all the pointy-headed scientists are smoking something. I mean, they get the rocket-to-Mars stuff right, and all the medical and technology stuff, too, but they just refuse to tell the truth about this climate change stuff. They have their own agenda.
But even if there were such a thing, and even if it were getting worse, it's not our fault. We’re Americans, and we have a right to satisfy what we think our needs and wants are at a price we can afford. We’ve earned it. And ridiculous efforts and costs to reduce environmental risk--even to avoid catastrophe--are an unnecessary and unfair burden on us. Tax someone else. We are not responsible for what we do not foresee (or later choose to ignore if it becomes an unexpected reality). We have a right to deny it, or deny responsibility for it, when it doesn't seem right or fair. And this isn’t fair. Am I right, or am I right?