Awakening Afghanistan

To win the war in Afghanistan, we can’t focus on nation-building. We have to train Afghan forces to be self-reliant, freeing us to deal with al-Qaeda.

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The United States has been at war in Afghanistan for seven years now. Whatever our strategy is, it has not worked. As the Obama team ratchets up its Afghanistan war effort, the situation remains bleak. It is clear we need more troops-actively engaged. It is also clear most of the burden will rest with the United States. A surge for Afghanistan is indeed in the cards. But increasing our forces will be no panacea. Local military and police forces have not been trained adequately, while the corruption attendant to opium tears apart the fabric of trust in Afghan society. Hence, Washington is reviewing its strategy.

The heart of the security problem is the sanctuary in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in western Pakistan. To date, our approach has been containment-repulsing Taliban forces when they surge across the border into Afghanistan. This is playing defense against the Taliban, a second-tier enemy, while our mortal foe remains al-Qaeda. But the Pakistani army lacks the tactics, logistics and motivation to assert control in the FATA. So persuading Pakistan to take decisive action is unlikely to succeed. Of course, negotiating to lure some Taliban away from al-Qaeda is a reasonable option, although it won't result in a marked turnaround.

A tough course is to slowly build up the size and intensity of American air and ground strikes inside the FATA, with the intent of destroying al-Qaeda as a distinct entity of Arab foreigners, separate from the Taliban. The gamble is that the Pakistani government and people will accept as a fact of life a gradual increase in strikes. Large raids merit serious consideration if the chances of inflicting major losses on al-Qaeda are high. But the downside risk is portentous. Such strikes may provoke riots that bring down the government. Hence covert actions against Osama bin Laden's lair inside Pakistan remain the prudent course.

The Pentagon, however, must have ready a severe response if al-Qaeda succeeds in a second attack against American civilians. Assuming such a drastic action is not taken, it will be years before the tribes inside Pakistan are organized to reject the Taliban. Inside Afghanistan, U.S. troops may increase from thirty-two thousand to fifty thousand over the next year. But this surge can succeed only if the combat units live and fight alongside Afghan soldiers. Organizing and paying the tribes to contribute local militia, as was done in Vietnam with the Popular Forces and in Iraq with the Sunni neighborhood watches, will also enhance border defense. Iraq has demonstrated that the embedding of American small units among the population, partnered with indigenous forces, can bring about local security. Simultaneously, advisers must live in outposts with the local police.

Once security is provided at the village level in eastern Afghanistan, the issue is how to extract our troops. Currently, we're still wrestling with this in Iraq, where the enemy is fragmented and enjoys scant sanctuary. The problem is the Baghdad government is loath to offer reasonable terms to the local Sunni militias. In Afghanistan, the gap between the local level and officials up the chain of command is even greater. The central government in Kabul is wracked by corruption, drug cartels, incompetence, indifference and tribal patronage. If a district remains neglected by the Kabul government, a local warlord is sure to emerge, regardless of American military effectiveness. The opium trade has corrupted all segments of Afghani leadership-from tribal and military rulers to the warlords.

And again, we are faced with unpalatable options to address this crisis. One is of course to maintain the status quo-a post-9/11 pledge by NATO to contribute the money and troops needed to create a twenty-first-century unified Afghanistan with a robust non-opium economy. Given the global financial breakdown, however, Europe and the United States are unlikely to provide that amount of resources.

The second option is to scale back our ambition, focusing on security conditions that prevent a sanctuary inside Afghanistan for the Taliban or al-Qaeda, and that includes smashing the drug networks that support the Taliban. Nearly three years ago, CENTCOM declared the drug trade to be "the number one threat" to Afghanistan's democracy and freedom. If American units, living alongside Afghan soldiers, police and local tribal militias, are ordered to straighten out a corrupt mess, they have to be given the authority to arrest and to imprison. In essence, American units would be working against the interests of many in the Afghan government.

We have to face up to the reality of what it would take to achieve our goals, and to wrestle with our limitations. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen has said that Afghanistan needs highways, electricity, commerce, alternative crops to poppy, foreign investment, reliable provincial governors and a justice system based on the rule of law. "These are the keys to success in Afghanistan," he said. "We can't kill our way to victory."