What are we doing in Afghanistan?

October 25, 2010     
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The more one reads about contemporary events in Afghanistan, the more difficult it is to understand the situation. NATO ground operations and especially American drone attacks appear more lethal than ever in their ability to target Taliban strongholds. The Afghan army and police forces are growing in size and reach. At the same time, the number of Taliban attacks on allied and Afghan forces is also growing. Pakistan continues to play a double game of taking American money and supporting some elements of the Taliban. Most of all, the Kabul government of Hamid Karzai continues to be riddled with corruption and signs of ineffectiveness. Karzai and his close associates collect millions of dollars in cash from Iran, the United States, and many others. Much of that money enriches a few figures rather than the country as a whole.

Since his arrival in Afghanistan, U.S. General David Petraeus has emphasized a strategy similar to the “surge” in Iraq. This has meant forward deployments of force against Taliban positions, efforts to secure population centers rather than pursue enemies, and overtures to negotiate with various local figures — including “moderate” elements of the Taliban. Recently, NATO aircraft helped to transport a group of Taliban officials for negotiations with allied forces and members of Karzai’s government. This is a strategy of force and negotiation, designed to kill the really bad guys and encourage the not-as-bad guys to work with us. This is a strategy for local stability and American exit — beginning in the summer of 2011, according to President Barack Obama’s public pledge.

Will this work? Are we making progress? Can we expect a stable Afghanistan and an orderly American departure less than one year from now?

Despite the difficult security situation and the rampant government corruption, it does appear that some of the basic elements of nation-building are progressing in Afghanistan. The very informative “Afghanistan Index” of analytical data on the region (published and updated frequently by the Brookings Institution: http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/Files/Programs/FP/afghanistan%20index/index.pdf) shows that the country is experiencing significant economic growth, with consistent expansion in legitimate trade, electricity production, and educational opportunity for boys and girls. Virtually every poll reveals that a large proportion of Afghan citizens believe that their lives are improving. Progress is slow and uneven, but it is real.

Foreign aid, advice, and arms are contributing to this process. Foreign commitments are also encouraging citizens, particularly returned emigres, to take risks. American soldiers are not popular among Afghans, but they remain far less threatening in the eyes of most citizens than the Taliban. Many Aghans, including Hamid Karzai, see the American presence as a necessary evil for nation-building.

This somewhat optimistic assessment contains many lingering problems. The first is Pakistan. It remains a source of instability in the region through its continued support for the Taliban, its spread of violence against foreign (especially Indian) influences, and its participation in the corrupt practices of various figures. The Pakistanis are trouble-makers and the United States, ironically, is only encouraging this behavior through its short-sighted support for the Islamabad regime. We give Pakistani leaders billions of dollars each year, some of which they send to the insurgents shooting at our soldiers. Does that make sense? Afghanistan will never become a stable state until Washington finds a mechanism for exerting more positive leverage on Pakistan. There is little evidence of that right now.

The second problem is the short deadline for the American withdrawal. Nation-building never occurs that fast, especially in such trying circumstances. President Obama is correct to avoid open-ended commitments, but he must also create a credible long-term presence to encourage positive local actors and deter dangerous spoilers. Otherwise, our allies will fear reprisals after we leave and our enemies will simply wait us out. The time has come for Obama to articulate a plan for how the United States will reduce its military presence, but remain directly committed to security, stability, and development in Afghanistan. Nation-building requires long-term partnership, and mutual confidence that the most powerful actor will not pick up and run. Nation-building also requires relationships that transcend an individual figure, like Hamid Karzai, and include many other regional and local actors. The American political presence should broaden as its military presence narrows.

Looking forward, we can expect the next few years to bring neither grand achievements nor terrible disasters in Afghanistan. Nation-building will continue to make slow progress, and it will continue to face difficult setbacks. Afghanistan will muddle through — circumstances will be better than before, but not near our basic standards for good governance. In this context, the American military and political presence in Afghanistan will remain vital. President Obama will reduce the number of U.S. soldiers in the country, but American forces will stay in large numbers for the forseeable future. The number of U.S. government civilians and private contractors in Afghanistan might actually increase.

Nation-building is a long, difficult, and uncertain process. For all its power, the United States cannot make government work in Afghanistan or any other society. At the same time, the United States cannot abandon places where it has invested so much, and where the threat of collapse poses such grave dangers. Just remember what happened the last time we abandoned Afghanistan after 1991.

The United States has a strong interest in building a stable nation-state in Afghanistan that will encourage wider regional stability, rather than more violence, repression, and terrorism. The United States can only do this by making careful, limited, but significant investments in local governing institutions. We are at the beginning, not the end, in Afghanistan.

The opinions expressed in this blog are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of either Global Brief or the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs.

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