Commentary Magazine


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."

Ralph Peters, one of our most provocative and innovative strategic analysts (and an excellent novelist to boot), suggests in the New York Post that this is a fool’s errand. He writes:

"Our botched deployment to Afghanistan as warriors who morphed into squatters defies military logic, history and common sense. The Brits learned – finally – that you deal with Afghan problems by occasionally hammering Afghans, then leaving them to sort out their own mess. You kill the guilty and leave.

"Not us. We’re going to build Disneyworld on the Kabul River."

This is a conservative viewpoint that was also occasionally heard during the Iraq War. Some on the right suggested we should not bother with nation-building, which they saw as a utopian undertaking. Why not just depose Saddam and leave the Iraqis alone to sort out their own problems? President Bush thankfully ignored such advice because he understood that a premature exit would spark a terrible civil war with baleful consequences for U.S. interests throughout the entire region.

The same thing is true of Afghanistan. If we leave now, the Taliban will take over a substantial portion of the country, perhaps even Kabul, once again. The terrorist safe havens that have been established in Pakistan will migrate across the border and U.S. prestige will suffer a crippling blow — just as the prestige of the Soviet Union suffered from its defeat in Afghanistan. Bad as the situation is in Pakistan today, it will get worse if the U.S. is chased out of the region.

Ralph suggests we can always return "to hammer Afghanistan again," and that it would still be "cheaper in blood (ours and the Afghans’) and treasure than trying to build a ‘rule of law’ state where no real state ever existed." But it wouldn’t be quite as simple for us to return to the region as it was for the Brits who built permanent outposts on the Northwest Frontier. We would have to re-enter from afar. Unless we were going to rely purely on air power (an instrument of limited use against guerrillas who hide in caves, and in a territory largely devoid of infrastructure to target), we would then have to reestablish the logistics lines and bases we have spent countless billions of dollars to create since 2001. Assuming, that is, that there would be any political will for such a task in the United States. More likely, if we left Afghanistan, the public would insist that we not return unless another 9/11 were plotted from there — at which point it would be too late.

The war in Afghanistan is far from hopeless. With a slightly greater commitment of resources and the introduction of a sensible, unified strategic plan (something we’ve lacked so far), we can still turn the tide against the Taliban who remain intensely unpopular with most Afghanis (as this survey shows). That is far cheaper and more realistic than throwing up our hands in despair and dealing with the fallout of defeat.

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