Winning Afghanistan

Winning Afghanistan

America cannot make government work in Afghanistan. The best we can hope to do is turn people away from the Taliban.


The war in Afghanistan is winnable-but only if we redefine what we mean by "winning." We will not defeat the Taliban by throwing tens of thousands more troops at the Taliban. The Soviets had well over one hundred thousand troops in Afghanistan; they were defeated all the same. Like the mujahideen, who were financed by Saudis and others, and armed by the United States with Stingers and other weapons, the Taliban will somehow acquire both funds (from drugs, if nowhere else) and arms. Afghans can fight for decades, even when their position seems hopeless, and, as Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has made it very clear, the Taliban position is far from hopeless.

To win the United States must do what it failed to do during the period when I was the Department of Defense civilian coordinator for Afghanistan, and indeed during the first six years of the Afghan War. It must put the entire government, not just the military and diplomatic corps, on a wartime footing. For six years, despite my efforts and those of the State Department leadership, the Office of Management and Budget treated the Afghan war as a sideshow, releasing minimal funds for reconstruction, at a time when even a few billion dollars a year might have held the country together. For six years, Washington attempted to contract out a strategy to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people, permitting its bureaucrats to push papers at their desks and catch the five o'clock car pool when their services were desperately needed in Afghanistan.


The Bush administration finally woke up about two years ago and President Obama appears committed to staying the course in Afghanistan. But the Afghan people have a right to be cynical: we abandoned them in the 1990s, and then did not carry out our promises earlier this decade. We still do not have enough Agency for International Development (AID) professionals in the country. We still have contractors and NGOs tripping over each other, the former seeking profits; the latter glory and donations from big givers. We still have no regulation from the Office of Personnel Management denying promotion to GS-15 Level or above for bureaucrats in any agency that can contribute to Afghan reconstruction (to include the Departments of Health and Human Services, Agriculture, Commerce, AID, and HUD, among others) who have not devoted a year's service in Afghanistan.

Putting our country on a war footing is a necessary, but insufficient, condition for "success" in Afghanistan. It is a country that has not yet emerged from the early Middle Ages. Tribal and ethnic loyalties are paramount, while strong central government is a concept that is alien to all but the tiny Western-educated elite. Similarly, Western notions of corruption do not resonate in a society where gifts and favors are a way of life. If we deem "success" to be a matter of establishing a strong central government, we will not succeed. If we deem success to be the elimination of warlords, instead of their cooption, we will not succeed. If we expect people who have yet to learn how to use a toilet washbasin to learn the niceties of democracy, we will not succeed.

But if we are seen to be the people's best chance at security and stability, underpinning their ability to feed, house and clothe their families, then they will indeed turn away from the Taliban. What we must therefore do is commit material and human non-military resources to this war torn country and lower our expectations regarding its future governance. Let the Afghans worry about how they wish to be governed, and by whom. Let us give them the chance to do that worrying. And while we should carefully consider field commanders' requests for more troops, let us recognize that there is a limit to their effectiveness in a country that historically has consumed foreign military forces like so much quicksand.


Dov S. Zakheim was deputy under secretary of defense (planning and resources) from 1985-87 and under secretary of defense (comptroller) from 2001-2004. He was also the Defense Department civilian coordinator for Afghanistan from 2002-2004.