Both presidential candidates support more troops, money, and materiel for the war in Afghanistan. The assumption behind the recommendation is that it’s been President Bush’s neglect of Afghanistan that has permitted the Taliban and other insurgents to regain much of the country. If only the US and NATO had kept up the military pressure (and not have been distracted by Saddam Hussein, argues Obama), Osama bin Laden would have been captured, the Karzai government would control more than just the capital city, fewer civilians would be dying, less opium poppy would be grown, etc.
There’s no doubt that Bush shamefully under funded reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan since 2002 (counteracted to some extent by Congress), and that this contributed mightily to the return of the Taliban. But it’s much less clear that additional or more extensive military action would have written a happier future for one of the poorest, least-developed, most corrupt countries in the world.
So what is to be done? Implementing the following six point program could create the conditions whereby NATO and the US can claim “victory.” This will not be a victory where the enemy is completely vanquished. It will, rather, be a far more realistic victory given the present circumstances.
First, do not increase the NATO or US combat troop presence. More soldiers equals more targets for the Taliban. Afghanistan witnessed a “surge” in 2007 that fizzled. This is not a winnable war in the conventional sense, because it is not a conventional war. Instead, it’s winnable in the sense that the conflicts in Northern Ireland, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua were “winnable”: through negotiated, political settlements among former combatants. Is it not finally evident to all that Afghanistan is a place Empires go to lose? What is it about the Afghan failures of Alexander the Great, the British at the height of their global power, or the fearsome Soviet Union that we do not get?
Second, do not extend the war to Pakistan. As tempting as it must be for field commanders to hammer Taliban compounds across the border with drones or commando raids, it’s clear that the micro-benefits of these tactics are heavily outweighed by their macro-costs in public diplomacy. Surreptiously attacking a shadowy third party on the soil of a longtime US ally? This is surely playing with fire (even if the howling protests from Islamabad are insincere) given that this ally has nuclear weapons, an unstable government, and less than a month’s foreign exchange with which to buy petroleum.
Third, begin formal, direct talks with the Taliban immediately. The Bush administration was recently “surprised” when the Karzai government met with Taliban representatives in Saudi Arabia. President Bush takes North Korea off the terrorism list but his State Department cannot talk to the Taliban? How does this serve American or Afghan interests?
Fourth, focus “Operation Enduring Freedom” on basic development projects not combat patrols. If a school is blown up or a clinic burned down, rebuild it again and again using local materials and labor. It’s cheaper than warfare. Yes, security is and will remain a problem. But if health care, education, and the economy improve, and civilian deaths from US bombings decline, the number of “by default” recruits to the Taliban will shrink quickly.
Fifth, crack down on corruption. This will be extremely difficult given the chaos that reigns across most of the country, and the resurgence of poppy cultivation. It is nonetheless an essential step to win back the trust of ordinary Afghans. Karzai should consider legalizing, regulating, and taxing poppy cultivation. This will reduce the influence of organized criminals, insurgents, and warlords. It will produce a large revenue stream for the government, and be popular in the countryside.
Sixth, set a deadline for US and NATO troop withdrawal. Washington and Brussels can decide whether the phased withdrawal is tied to the direct negotiations or not. The new president must resist the urge to think he can do better than Bush in Afghanistan, and keep the war raging futilely for another four or eight years. There’s no going back to 2001-02.
None of this program precludes attempts to bring terrorists to Afghan national or international justice through paramilitary police efforts, or to protect infrastructure and development projects. The training of the Afghan police and army should move ahead quicker than ever. What the program does is soberly accept a difficult, unpleasant Afghan reality, and adjust our strategy to it. This adjustment made sense even before the financial meltdown. The new president will need fewer “foreign entanglements” than ever.
STEVE BREYMAN, a veteran of the United States Army, teaches political science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He can be reached at email@example.com