Oct 01, 2009

Two Arguments for What to Do in Afghanistan

In August, President Obama laid out the rationale for stepping up the fight in Afghanistan: If left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which al-Qaeda would plot to kill more Americans. So this is not only a war worth fighting. This is fundamental to the defense of our people. Obamas Af-Pak plan is, in essence, a countersanctuary strategy that denies safe havens to the Taliban and al-Qaeda, with the overriding goal of making America and its allies safer. Under Obama, the Pentagon has already sent a surge of 21,000 troops to Afghanistan, and the Administration is even weighing the possibility of deploying as many as 40,000 more. (See pictures of a photographer's personal journey through war.) This is a sound policy. If U.S. forces were not in Afghanistan, the Taliban, with its al-Qaeda allies in tow, would seize control of the country's south and east and might even take it over entirely. A senior Afghan politician told me that the Taliban would be in Kabul within 24 hours without the presence of international forces. This is not because the Taliban is so strong; generous estimates suggest it numbers no more than 20,000 fighters. It is because the Afghan government and the 90,000-man Afghan army are still so weak. The objections to an increased U.S. military commitment in South Asia rest on a number of flawed assumptions. The first is that Afghans always treat foreign forces as antibodies. In fact, poll after poll since the fall of the Taliban has found that a majority of Afghans have a favorable view of the international forces in their country. A BBC/ABC News poll conducted this year, for instance, showed that 63% of Afghans have a favorable view of the U.S. military. To those who say you cant trust polls taken in Afghanistan, its worth noting that the same type of poll consistently finds neighboring Pakistan to be one of the most anti-American countries in the world. Another common criticism is that Afghanistan is a cobbled-together agglomeration of warring tribes and ethnic factions that is not amenable to anything approaching nation-building. In fact, the first Afghan state emerged with the Durrani Empire in 1747, making it a nation older than the U.S. Afghans lack no sense of nationhood; rather, they have always been ruled by a weak central state. A third critique is that Afghanistan is simply too violent for anything constituting success to happen there. This is highly misleading. While violence is on the rise, it is nothing on the scale of what occurred during the Iraq war — or even what happened in U.S. cities as recently as 1991, when an American was statistically more likely to be killed than an Afghan civilian was last year. Finally, critics of greater U.S. involvement suggest that there is no realistic model for a successful end state in Afghanistan. In fact, there is a good one relatively close at hand: Afghanistan as it was in the 1970s, a country at peace internally and with its neighbors, whose towering mountains and exotic peoples drew tourists from around the world. These flawed assumptions underlie the misguided argument that the war in Afghanistan is unwinnable. Some voices have begun to advocate a much smaller mission in Afghanistan, fewer troops and a decapitation strategy aimed at militant leaders carried out by special forces and drone attacks. Superficially, this sounds reasonable. But it has a back-to-the-future flavor because it is more or less the exact same policy that the Bush Administration followed in the first years of the occupation: a light footprint of several thousand U.S. soldiers who were confined to counterterrorism missions. That approach helped foster the resurgence of the Taliban, which continues to receive material support from elements in Pakistan. If a pared-down counterterrorism strategy works no better the second time around, will we have to invade Afghanistan all over again in the event of a spectacular Taliban comeback? Having overthrown the ruling government in 2001, the U.S. has an obligation to leave to Afghans a country that is somewhat stable. And a stabilized Afghanistan is a necessary precondition for a peaceful South Asia, which is today the epicenter of global terrorism and the most likely setting of a nuclear war. Obamas Af-Pak plan has a real chance to achieve a stable Afghanistan if it is given some time to work. Bergen, a frequent visitor to Afghanistan since 1993, is the author of Holy War, Inc. and The Osama bin Laden I Know. See pictures of the battle in Afghanistan. See pictures of Afghanistan's TV election. Turn It Over Leslie H. Gelb Hawks on Afghan policy — those who favor defeating al-Qaeda through a full-blown counterinsurgency strategy involving up to 40,000 more U.S. troops — have divined a politically clever line of argument: Win or get out. Its a phony choice. The hawks know there's no chance of our simply pulling out of Afghanistan. That option isn't even on the White House table, despite growing public desire to end the war. The true aim of the hawks, or all-outers, in this maneuver is to discredit the real policy alternative — the middle ground. Their ploy is to portray the middle way as simply a cover for getting out. (See pictures of Gitmo detainees.) But there is a real and strong middle option: to put ourselves and friendly Afghans in a position to manage future terrorist threats in that country without a major U.S. combat role. We can accomplish this by doing what we actually know how to do: arm, train, divide the enemy, contain and deter. There are four main prescriptions for a more realistic strategy in Afghanistan. First, stop trying to do the impossible, i.e., build an effective government in Kabul and enlarge Afghan security forces. Corruption, inefficiency and addiction are endemic to Afghan society. We should instead focus on forging a smaller army, say 75,000 or 100,000, that can and will actually fight, and concentrate on arming and training local warlords and tribal leaders who can defend themselves. This, backed by good U.S. logistics and intelligence, could block a Taliban reconquest of Afghanistan. Second, divide and rent the Taliban. Like the British, we can propose deals that split the moderates (those content with exerting power in Afghanistan alone) from the fanatics (those obsessed with global jihad). We can also attract Taliban fighters by paying them more than the Taliban leadership can afford. Third, surge about 10,000 new combat forces on top of the 68,000 already authorized and create an additional 5,000 dedicated trainers. Such a surge should be sufficient to handle immediate troubles. Fourth, start doing what the U.S. does well — deterrence and containment. To deter, we must maintain a small, residual capability in Afghanistan for a few years, as well as offshore air and missile capabilities to inflict harsh punishment when necessary. To contain threats, Washington needs to form alliances with neighboring states like Pakistan, India, China, Russia and even Iran, which supported us in the early days of the war. All share an interest in combatting Sunni-based religious extremism as well as the drug trade. These actions can be in place within one to two years and allow the U.S. to be mostly withdrawn from combat within three. This strategy rests on a time guideline, not a fixed timetable. It is in keeping with our overriding interests: first, to check terrorist threats worldwide and not place disproportionate bets in Afghanistan; and second, to extricate ourselves from unending major wars so that our leaders can focus sharply on reconstituting what makes the U.S. the leading world power — our economy. But by far the strongest argument for this middle course is that the all-out alternative simply defies realities. The all-out strategy calls for an additional 40,000 or so troops, most of whom wont be deployed in the field in less than a year; they would thus do little to protect against the near-term dangers that General Stanley McChrystal has warned of. Perhaps most fundamental, the middle way avoids the quicksand on which the counterinsurgency strategy is built: the absolute need for nation-building. Counterinsurgency strategy requires clearing and holding territory, which cannot be done without transforming a corruption-riddled, anarchic and poverty-stricken state into a functioning market democracy. That goal is totally beyond American interests and capabilities and promises only endless war. Nor does the all-out approach help us in Pakistan, whose leaders continue to nurture long-standing alliances with the Taliban as a counterweight to India, Islamabad's real worry. Finally, the all-outers slight the U.S. voters who have run out of patience with the loss of American lives and treasure for a war whose aims they can no longer fathom. The U.S. has never won a classic civil war or a fight against an insurgency in which it bore the brunt of battle and became the local villain. Vietnam is the obvious example. For the sake of friendly Afghans and for our own security, our goal now should be to make this their war, not our war. Gelb is the author of Power Rules: How Common Sense Can Rescue American Foreign Policy and president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations.