Escaping the “Graveyard of Empires”: A Strategy to Exit Afghanistan (White Paper)

Given the nature of the conflict in Afghanistan,

a definitive, conventional “victory” is not a

realistic option. Denying a sanctuary to terrorists

who seek to attack the United States does not

require Washington to pacify the entire country,

eradicate its opium fields, or sustain a long-term

military presence in Central Asia. From the sky,

U.S. unmanned aerial vehicles can monitor villages,

training camps, and insurgent compounds.

On the ground, the United States can retain a

small number of covert operatives for intelligence

gathering and discrete operations against specific

targets, as well as an additional small group of

advisers to train Afghan police and military forces.

The United States should withdraw most of its

forces from Afghanistan within the next 12 to 18

months and treat al Qaeda’s presence in the

region as a chronic, but manageable, problem.

Washington needs to narrow its objectives to

three critical tasks:

Security. Support, rather than supplant, indigenous

security efforts by training and assisting

the Afghan national army and police and, where

appropriate, paying off or otherwise co-opting

regional militias. Training should be tied to clear

metrics. If those benchmarks are not achieved,

Washington must cut its losses and cease further

assistance. U.S. forces should not become Afghanistan’s

perpetual crutch.

Intelligence and Regional Relations. Sustain

intelligence operations in the region through aerial

surveillance, covert operations, and ongoing

intelligence-sharing with the Afghan and Pakistani

governments. Seek cordial relations with all of Afghanistan’s

neighbors, particularly Russia and

Iran, as each has the means to significantly undermine

or facilitate progress in the country.

Drugs. Dial back an opium eradication policy

to one that solely targets drug cartels affiliated

with insurgents rather than one that targets all

traffickers, including poor local farmers. Harassing

the latter alienates a significant portion of the rural

population.

Central Asia holds little intrinsic strategic value

to the United States, and America’s security will

not be endangered even if an oppressive regime

takes over a contiguous fraction of Afghan territory.

America’s objective has been to neutralize the

parties responsible for the atrocities committed

on 9/11. The United States should not go beyond

that objective by combating a regional insurgency

or drifting into an open-ended occupation and

nation-building mission.

Most important, Afghanistan serves as the

crossroads of Central Asia. From its invasion by

Genghis Khan and his two-million strong Mongol

hordes to the superpower proxy war between

the United States and the Soviet Union, Afghanistan’s

trade routes and land-locked position in

the middle of the region have for centuries rendered

it vulnerable to invasion by external powers.

Although Afghanistan has endured successive

waves of Persian, Greek, Arab, Turk, Mongol,

British, and Soviet invaders, no occupying power

has ever successfully conquered it. There’s a reason

why it has been described as the “graveyard of

empires,” and unless America scales down its

objectives, it risks meeting a similar fate.

Given the nature of the conflict in Afghanistan,

a definitive, conventional “victory” is not a

realistic option. Denying a sanctuary to terrorists

who seek to attack the United States does not

require Washington to pacify the entire country,

eradicate its opium fields, or sustain a long-term

military presence in Central Asia. From the sky,

U.S. unmanned aerial vehicles can monitor villages,

training camps, and insurgent compounds.

On the ground, the United States can retain a

small number of covert operatives for intelligence

gathering and discrete operations against specific

targets, as well as an additional small group of

advisers to train Afghan police and military forces.

The United States should withdraw most of its

forces from Afghanistan within the next 12 to 18

months and treat al Qaeda’s presence in the

region as a chronic, but manageable, problem.

Washington needs to narrow its objectives to

three critical tasks:

Security. Support, rather than supplant, indigenous

security efforts by training and assisting

the Afghan national army and police and, where

appropriate, paying off or otherwise co-opting

regional militias. Training should be tied to clear

metrics. If those benchmarks are not achieved,

Washington must cut its losses and cease further

assistance. U.S. forces should not become Afghanistan’s

perpetual crutch.

Intelligence and Regional Relations. Sustain

intelligence operations in the region through aerial

surveillance, covert operations, and ongoing

intelligence-sharing with the Afghan and Pakistani

governments. Seek cordial relations with all of Afghanistan’s

neighbors, particularly Russia and

Iran, as each has the means to significantly undermine

or facilitate progress in the country.

Drugs. Dial back an opium eradication policy

to one that solely targets drug cartels affiliated

with insurgents rather than one that targets all

traffickers, including poor local farmers. Harassing

the latter alienates a significant portion of the rural

population.

Central Asia holds little intrinsic strategic value

to the United States, and America’s security will

not be endangered even if an oppressive regime

takes over a contiguous fraction of Afghan territory.

America’s objective has been to neutralize the

parties responsible for the atrocities committed

on 9/11. The United States should not go beyond

that objective by combating a regional insurgency

or drifting into an open-ended occupation and

nation-building mission.

Most important, Afghanistan serves as the

crossroads of Central Asia. From its invasion by

Genghis Khan and his two-million strong Mongol

hordes to the superpower proxy war between

the United States and the Soviet Union, Afghanistan’s

trade routes and land-locked position in

the middle of the region have for centuries rendered

it vulnerable to invasion by external powers.

Although Afghanistan has endured successive

waves of Persian, Greek, Arab, Turk, Mongol,

British, and Soviet invaders, no occupying power

has ever successfully conquered it. There’s a reason

why it has been described as the “graveyard of

empires,” and unless America scales down its

objectives, it risks meeting a similar fate.

Malou Innocent is a foreign policy analyst at the Cato Institute who focuses on Afghanistan and Pakistan. Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at Cato, is the author of 8 and the editor of 10 books on international affairs. His most recent book is Smart Power: Toward a Prudent Foreign Policy for America.

Studies from the Cato Institute