Don’t fail Afghanistan

The United States is now at risk of “losing” Afghanistan, the predictable result of committing insufficient troops and money to that catastrophically failed state after the rout of the Taliban in 2001. U.S. forces are suffering sharply higher casualties as Taliban fighters surge back in, and drug lords are coming to dominate the political and economic landscape. The collapse of the noble nation-building experiment in Afghanistan would destroy U.S. credibility in the eyes of the world, shake global security and condemn millions of people to another generation of warfare and terrorism. And it would be all the more devastating if accompanied by U.S. defeat in Iraq. Yet the effort to build a stable nation atop the wreckage of Afghanistan can still, with great effort, be salvaged.

This page has argued that Iraq’s civil war is beyond the United States’ ability to suppress by military means and that the presence of U.S. troops can only delay the bloody but inevitable political reckoning. Although it is unlikely that a workable political accord will be reached before the power struggle is settled on the battlefield, only the Iraqis themselves can prevent this calamity.

All is not lost in Afghanistan, however. Unlike the Iraqis, Afghans are not engaged in nationwide sectarian warfare. They have a weak but legitimate government, a corrupt but functioning parliament and an elected president who commands broad international support. Critics have dismissed President Hamid Karzai as no more than “the mayor of Kabul,” but the importance of his leadership was demonstrated anew this month when he managed to convene tribal leaders -- 350 from Afghanistan and 300 from Pakistan -- in a historic “peace jirga.”

Unlike in Iraq, the insurgency in Afghanistan doesn’t spring from deep-seated animosity toward a fatally sectarian government. Rather, as former U.S. special envoy James Dobbins points out, the insurgents are primarily ethnic Pashtun living on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and their campaign is organized, armed, funded and directed from Pakistan. The Taliban have been Pakistan’s hedge against a united Afghanistan allied with India. This thorny problem won’t be easily solved, but it can be managed. Weak governments around the world have successfully dealt with insurgencies -- when they have been able to pressure the rebels’ foreign sanctuaries and when they have earned popular support by political inclusion and economic progress.

Why should the United States keep forces in Afghanistan while withdrawing them from Iraq? Some argue, cogently, that if the greatest threat to U.S. national security comes from terrorist havens in failed states, then we have more to fear from a failed Iraq, with its huge population, strategic location and oil wealth, than from a failed Afghanistan, an impoverished backwater. If Al Qaeda were to dominate Iraq, it would pose a terrible security threat to the West -- but that outcome appears unlikely. Sunni tribal leaders are cooperating with U.S. forces to fight the foreign Al Qaeda; Shiites have been the primary victims of its barbaric attacks. The United States does have an interest in a stable Iraq, but its troops cannot impose peace without a committed Iraqi partner.

The Afghan government is such a partner. The U.N.-authorized, NATO-led peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan is accepted as legitimate and has made progress when and where it was properly managed and funded. And so, for reasons of history, timing and practicality, the United States should redouble its efforts to save Afghanistan from a resurgent Taliban.

First, history: The threat from Afghanistan isn’t theoretical. It was the source of the attack on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, and the U.S. invaded only after the Taliban refused to hand over the avowed mastermind, Osama bin Laden. Six years later, Bin Laden and Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban leader, are still at large, probably in Pakistan. Bin Laden still brags of his exploits on videotape. Their triumphant impunity continues to inspire suicide bombings, beheadings of headmasters who dare teach girls, slayings of prominent women, kidnappings of foreign aid workers and terrorizing of Afghan villages. NATO troops must fight until Afghanistan has a strong enough military to prevent their return.

Second, timing: The United States would be seen as dangerously weak if it is mired in Afghanistan at the same time it is retreating from a stalemate in Iraq. Moreover, making good on unkept promises to improve the lives of the Afghan people is both a moral and a geopolitical imperative at a time when the West should be offering a meaningful alternative to fanatical Islamism. The setbacks in Afghanistan are fairly blamed on the Bush administration’s decision to attempt nation-building on the cheap. It then slashed aid in 2006 and diverted military and intelligence resources to the worsening situation in Iraq. This year, the U.S. gave just $1.8 billion in direct “operations aid” to the Afghan government; the other 82% of U.S. aid was military. Afghanistan needs massive civilian economic aid now, and $10 billion a year -- what we spend in a month in Iraq -- would be a start. The Europeans have been right to criticize the United States for shortchanging nation-building, but they in turn must be persuaded to order their troops into combat. And the so-called donor nations, including the wealthy Arab states, must be shamed into paying what they’ve promised -- now, when Kabul needs it most.

Third, practicality: The “global war on terror” cannot be fought by primarily military means as long as terrorists have an unending supply of suicidal recruits. Al Qaeda’s ideology was born in Egypt and Saudi Arabia but has appeal around the world, including in Pakistan, because of hostility to Western political, economic and cultural incursions into Muslim lands. Success in Afghanistan would show that the West can be a respectful and helpful friend to an Islamic country in which it has no oil or other economic interests.

To succeed, however, the tactics of the U.S. military in Afghanistan must change, in keeping with the Army’s own counterinsurgency thinking. The military must end its over-reliance on air power, which has caused so many civilian casualties, and shift to a strategy of holding terrain long enough to allow aid projects to bear fruit. The United States can and should help Afghanistan forge a durable peace by isolating terrorists from their host populations; by offering prosperity, respect and self-determination to estranged peoples such as the Pashtun; by curbingcorruption; and by training Afghan forces to do the job themselves.

Nation-building will never be easy or cheap, and the American people may wish to make future commitments more sparingly. But the Afghan people want the international help they’ve been promised. We owe it to them -- and to ourselves -- to try harder.