Two Arguments for What to Do in Afghanistan

Two Arguments for What to Do in Afghanistan

Give It Time
Peter Bergen

In August, President Obama laid out the rationale for stepping up the fight in Afghanistan: If left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which al-Qaeda would plot to kill more Americans. So this is not only a war worth fighting. This is fundamental to the defense of our people. Obamas Af-Pak plan is, in essence, a countersanctuary strategy that denies safe havens to the Taliban and al-Qaeda, with the overriding goal of making America and its allies safer. Under Obama, the Pentagon has already sent a surge of 21,000 troops to Afghanistan, and the Administration is even weighing the possibility of deploying as many as 40,000 more.

This is a sound policy. If U.S. forces were not in Afghanistan, the Taliban, with its al-Qaeda allies in tow, would seize control of the country’s south and east and might even take it over entirely. A senior Afghan politician told me that the Taliban would be in Kabul within 24 hours without the presence of international forces. This is not because the Taliban is so strong; generous estimates suggest it numbers no more than 20,000 fighters. It is because the Afghan government and the 90,000-man Afghan army are still so weak.

The objections to an increased U.S. military commitment in South Asia rest on a number of flawed assumptions. The first is that Afghans always treat foreign forces as antibodies. In fact, poll after poll since the fall of the Taliban has found that a majority of Afghans have a favorable view of the international forces in their country. A BBC/ABC News poll conducted this year, for instance, showed that 63% of Afghans have a favorable view of the U.S. military. To those who say you cant trust polls taken in Afghanistan, its worth noting that the same type of poll consistently finds neighboring Pakistan to be one of the most anti-American countries in the world.

Another common criticism is that Afghanistan is a cobbled-together agglomeration of warring tribes and ethnic factions that is not amenable to anything approaching nation-building. In fact, the first Afghan state emerged with the Durrani Empire in 1747, making it a nation older than the U.S. Afghans lack no sense of nationhood; rather, they have always been ruled by a weak central state.

A third critique is that Afghanistan is simply too violent for anything constituting success to happen there. This is highly misleading. While violence is on the rise, it is nothing on the scale of what occurred during the Iraq war — or even what happened in U.S. cities as recently as 1991, when an American was statistically more likely to be killed than an Afghan civilian was last year. Finally, critics of greater U.S. involvement suggest that there is no realistic model for a successful end state in Afghanistan. In fact, there is a good one relatively close at hand: Afghanistan as it was in the 1970s, a country at peace internally and with its neighbors, whose towering mountains and exotic peoples drew tourists from around the world.

These flawed assumptions underlie the misguided argument that the war in Afghanistan is unwinnable. Some voices have begun to advocate a much smaller mission in Afghanistan, fewer troops and a decapitation strategy aimed at militant leaders carried out by special forces and drone attacks. Superficially, this sounds reasonable. But it has a back-to-the-future flavor because it is more or less the exact same policy that the Bush Administration followed in the first years of the occupation: a light footprint of several thousand U.S. soldiers who were confined to counterterrorism missions. That approach helped foster the resurgence of the Taliban, which continues to receive material support from elements in Pakistan. If a pared-down counterterrorism strategy works no better the second time around, will we have to invade Afghanistan all over again in the event of a spectacular Taliban comeback

Having overthrown the ruling government in 2001, the U.S. has an obligation to leave to Afghans a country that is somewhat stable. And a stabilized Afghanistan is a necessary precondition for a peaceful South Asia, which is today the epicenter of global terrorism and the most likely setting of a nuclear war. Obamas Af-Pak plan has a real chance to achieve a stable Afghanistan if it is given some time to work.

Bergen, a frequent visitor to Afghanistan since 1993, is the author of Holy War, Inc. and The Osama bin Laden I Know.

See pictures of the battle in Afghanistan.

See pictures of Afghanistan’s TV election.