Timelines or Time Windows for Afghanistan?

Feb 23, 2009

By our nature Americans take an engineering approach to problem solving. This attitude assumes that the existence of a problem presupposes the existence of a solution. One need only combine resources (people, money and time) with reasonable planning to find an answer. Furthermore, problems can be dealt with sequentially along an established timeline. If distractions arise, work can be temporarily suspended, sufficient means applied to ensure the problem does not worsen, and efforts renewed at a later date.

This largely describes the U.S. approach to Afghanistan since 2002. American forces invaded after the 9-11 attacks and displaced the Taliban government. The Bush administration then assumed that success was assured and shifted its attention to the new problem—Iraq—only to discover its apparent success was ephemeral. The U.S. military then conducted an "economy of force" operation in Afghanistan while focusing its efforts on the destruction of Saddam Hussein. As a result, U.S. and NATO troops have largely refought the second year of the Afghan War annually for the last five years while witnessing a steady increase in casualties and a downward spiral in stability. With violence now subsiding in Iraq, some policy-makers seem to assume that we can now turn our attention back to the Afghan "timeline" and pick up where we left off.

This is misplaced. We must not mistake a timeline for a time window. I was taught this valuable lesson during a visit to Kosovo soon after the NATO occupation. I met with a senior American official in his office in Pristina and asked him what he thought would happen. He replied, "We have three years to get this right. The people now view us as liberators and welcome our presence. After three years the window will close, and we will be viewed as occupiers." The weariness that the Afghan people may now have with our presence in their country is only compounded by the weariness of the American people and our NATO allies.

This should be a sobering thought for the new Obama team as it seeks to refocus American and NATO efforts in Afghanistan. The fierce nationalism of the Afghan people in the face of outside interventions has long been chronicled. Afghanistan has rightfully been described as the graveyard of foreign armies. Alexander the Great determined the only way to achieve some level of security was to marry the daughter of a leading Afghan warlord. British armies were nearly annihilated after capturing Kabul in the 19th century. The Soviet Union deployed more than 120,000 troops to subdue Afghanistan and failed. Clearly a time window for U.S. success in Afghanistan existed in 2002, but this window has shrunk dramatically since.

How then should the new administration approach this problem? There is an apparent consensus that as many as 30,000 additional troops should be dispatched to Afghanistan in the near future, and a strategy review is ongoing. Clearly these efforts must result in a new approach. Otherwise the United States could simply be writing another chapter in the sad history of foreigners that entered Afghanistan convinced it could be subdued. The new administration does not have seven more years to achieve success, and 2009 is a critical year.

A new approach must include the following elements. First, a sober reassessment must be made of near-term goals in Afghanistan. While calls for the creation of a Jeffersonian democracy and market economy in Afghanistan were appealing in 2002, the reality in 2009 is that these objectives will not be realized for many decades if ever. Our goals now must be greater security and enhanced government services that are provided more broadly throughout Afghan society.

Second, Afghanistan is not Iraq. Some lessons may be applied, but each must be examined carefully against the tremendous historical, cultural and economic differences between these two societies. We do, however, enjoy some advantages. It is clear to the adult Afghan population that the Taliban wish to reassert control and return the country to where it was prior to Sept. 11, 2001. While the majority rejects this notion, popular support for President Hamid Karzai has continued to dwindle and national elections later this year will be critical. The Afghan government is beset with massive corruption and has failed to achieve significant progress in providing the population basic social services. One recent report further predicts that unemployment may exceed 60 percent by the end of 2009. There has also been a 17 percent increase in poppy production since 2007, and Helmand Province is the leading area for cultivation in the world. Sadly, a large part of the Taliban budget is derived from these illegal narcotics.

Third, like Iraq, the military focus must be community-based security that provides greater protection for the population. This will be much more challenging in Afghanistan. It has both a larger population and land area than Iraq, and most of the population lives in small, isolated villages. Security in Afghanistan will depend much more on deploying smaller U.S. or NATO units to these locations as well as the development of not only the Afghan National Army and Police but also local militias.

Fourth, we have learned in both Iraq and Afghanistan that reconstruction and economic development are critical to defeating an insurgency. But they are doomed to at best modest progress absent a threshold of security. Consequently, an increase in military forces must be accompanied by an expansion in the number and capacity of fully-manned provincial reconstruction teams. Such teams can take advantage of security that does exist in sizeable parts of the country and expand as the situation improves.

Fifth, military commanders must exercise greater care in the use of air attacks and raids against suspected Taliban or al-Qaeda targets. Too frequently these attacks have achieved tactical success while causing strategic setbacks from the long-term alienation of the population due to civilian casualties.

Finally, the Obama team must view this challenge as not an Afghan but rather a regional problem. While we can lose the war in Afghanistan, we can only "win" it in Pakistan. We must find more creative means to disrupt the safe havens that al-Qaeda and the Taliban enjoy in the Pakistani tribal areas. These efforts have to be accomplished in concert with the Pakistani government and military to ensure we do not undermine their efforts to establish domestic legitimacy. This will also require U.S. leadership to reduce the historic animosity between Pakistan and India.

In the aftermath of the Mumbai terror attacks, both countries must realize they face a common threat that is much more severe than the danger they pose each other. The ultimate goal must be an existential shift in the mind of Pakistanis in particular away from a belief that India is their primary enemy. Such a shift will allow Pakistani leaders to refocus their efforts on internal stability and improvements to the nation's dire economic situation.

Clearly this is only part of an overwhelming security agenda for the Obama administration. We can take some solace from the new team's rapid selection and demonstrated experience. But success in Afghanistan is not on any timeline or preordained. The time window in Afghanistan is closing, and new approaches to the situation in this troubled land must be found quickly.

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