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We Can Win in Afghanistan

There is no doubt that the situation in Afghanistan is getting worse — see this report that civilian casualties increased 40% from 2007 to 2008. Given the difficulty of the task ahead, it is entirely appropriate that there should be a vigorous debate, in and out of government, about the best way to proceed. But I am troubled to see analysts whose views I generally respect, and who have considerable on-the-ground experience in the region, making arguments that I think will lead us in precisely the wrong direction.

First there was Ann Marlow in the Wall Street Journal arguing that Afghanistan doesn’t need a surge of U.S. troops. Instead, she argues, we should support an expansion of the Afghan National Police. This should be coupled, she believes, with an administration statement “that the U.S. prefers Mr. Karzai not seek another term” and that we would like to see major changes in the Afghan Constitution to allow provincial councils and parliamentarians to be elected on a district rather than a provincial basis, and for governors to be elected rather than appointed by the central government.

I’ve already explained in the Washington Post why I think it’s foolish to blame all the problems of Afghanistan on Karzai’s supposed incompetence and/or corruption. This is part of a pattern, one that we saw in Iraq as well as previously in Vietnam: When things are going well in a foreign war, we take the credit for ourselves. When things are going badly, we blame our local allies — whether Diem in Vietnam, Maliki in Iraq, or Karzai in Afghanistan. This approach ignores the reality that if we do a better job of creating security on the ground, then local leaders will be able to exercise more authority — as has happened in the past year in Iraq.

Sure, countries like Iraq and Afghanistan need more and better local security forces. But if there’s anything Iraq should have taught us it’s that trying to place the burden of fighting hardened terrorists on inexperienced local troops and cops — as Marlowe now proposes in Afghanistan — is a formula for failure. U.S. troops need to take the lead initially. Only once they have blunted the worst of the insurgent threat can local security personnel come to the fore. By all means we should fund and train more Afghan police and troops. But we can’t expect them to defeat the Taliban in the short term. For that we need a U.S. “surge.”

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