What’s the U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan?

A poppy field in Afghanistan

W.J. Astore

Six years ago, I wrote an article about Afghanistan that opened like so:

In the U.S. debate on Afghanistan, virtually all experts agree that it’s not within the power of the American military alone to win the war. For that, Afghanistan needs its own military and police force, one that is truly representative of the people, and one that is not hopelessly corrupted by drug money and the selfish concerns of the Karzai government in Kabul.

What has changed since 2009?  Karzai is gone, but corruption remains endemic.  The U.S. military is still there, at least until 2017 and likely for far longer.  And drug money!  In a searching summary of the opium trade in recent Afghan history, Alfred McCoy at TomDispatch.com shows convincingly that the drug trade has flourished despite, or rather because of, American efforts to block it or control it.  In his words:

In the almost 15 years of continuous combat since the U.S. invasion of 2001, pacification efforts have failed to curtail the Taliban insurgency largely because the U.S. could not control the swelling surplus from the county’s heroin trade. As opium production surged from a minimal 180 tons to a monumental 8,200 in the first five years of U.S. occupation, Afghanistan’s soil seemed to have been sown with the dragon’s teeth of ancient Greek myth. Every poppy harvest yielded a new crop of teenaged fighters for the Taliban’s growing guerrilla army.

At each stage in Afghanistan’s tragic, tumultuous history over the past 40 years — the covert war of the 1980s, the civil war of the 1990s, and the U.S. occupation since 2001 — opium played a surprisingly significant role in shaping the country’s destiny. In one of history’s bitter twists of fate, the way Afghanistan’s unique ecology converged with American military technology transformed this remote, landlocked nation into the world’s first true narco-state — a country where illicit drugs dominate the economy, define political choices, and determine the fate of foreign interventions.

McCoy’s article, which you should read here in its entirety, raises many questions, but for me the obvious one is this: What is the U.S. military doing in Afghanistan?  What is its strategy?

If it’s trying to win Afghan hearts and minds, you can’t do that by destroying the main cash crop of so many people.  If it’s trying to create a measure of stability, you can’t do that by mounting destructive military operations that spread chaos.  If it’s trying to interdict the drug trade, you can’t do that successfully while maintaining the support of powerful interests in Afghanistan that profit so heavily from that trade.

After nearly 15 years, a sensible person would conclude that American interference in Afghanistan is only making matters worse.  Afghan drug wars are a no-win scenario for U.S. troops.  Lacking a coherent and sensible strategy that is attractive to Afghan power brokers, American forces should smarten up, load up, and pull out.

A sensible strategy in three words: Yankee come home.