Creating a “light, long term footprint” in Afghanistan

September 22, 2011

By David Rohde
The views expressed are his own.

This is a response to Rory Stewart’s book excerpt, “My uphill battle against the Afghanistan intervention.”

The most important phrase in Stewart’s essay is his statement that a “light, long-term footprint” should be adopted in Afghanistan. I agree but he paints a dark picture of all Western efforts in the country.

While Stewart is correct in many of his arguments, he presents a seductively simplistic picture of abject failure. Unquestionably, Washington has focused too much on the military effort. And Stewart is right to argue against a policy of simply pouring in more foreign troops. Yet his portrait of foreigners achieving nothing in a decade stokes a dangerous isolationism gaining credence in both liberal and conservative circles in the West.

It is presented in subtle terms, but Stewart’s argument of cultural differences plays into an ugly, colonial-era view that Afghanistan and the greater Middle East are inherently backward. The region’s people, culture and faith, an extreme interpretation of the argument goes, have nothing in common with the West.

The region is not inherently backward, nor anti-Western. It is enduring a long and bloody conflict between religious conservatives and urban liberals. Instead of walking away, the United States and Europe must find a more effective way to back those liberals over the long-term.

The notion that the west can simply walk away from Afghanistan is an appealing fantasy.  A hasty American withdrawal and rapid Taliban takeover of Afghanistan will strengthen the Pakistani Taliban’s effort to seize control of Pakistan and its nuclear weapons. A nuclear-armed Taliban state will destabilize the greater Middle East, a region the world economy still depends on for oil. Unless Washington adopts radically new energy policies and stances toward Israel, the U.S. will need stability in the Greater Middle East for decades to come.

In recent testimony before the U.S. Congress, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that “an entire year of civilian assistance in Afghanistan costs Americans the same amount as 10 days of military operations.” Stewart is correct in declaring such an imbalance a core failure in Afghanistan, but he goes too far. His portrait of virtually all aid projects failing is one dimensional.

Since 2002, the number of children in Afghan schools has soared from 900,000 to 7 million. Thirty-seven percent of students are girls. A vast improvement in healthcare has emerged, with the percentage of population enjoying access to basic health care rising from 9% to 64%. Infant mortality has declined by 22 percent. Over 5 million refugees have returned to Afghanistan, increasing the country’s population by 20 percent.

In many ways, the country’s cities are thriving, with Kabul’s population tripling from an estimated 1 million in 2002 to 3.5 million today. Young urban Afghans relish mobile phones, access to the Internet and a flood of Afghan-produced popular culture. Many see comparatively liberal Dubai or Turkey as their role model, not conservative Saudi Arabia. At the same time, the Taliban retain support in the rural south and east, the country’s traditionally conservative areas.

Overall, it is simply untrue to suggest that nothing has been achieved in Afghanistan or that the western presence has only made things worse.

Yes, too many aid projects were short-term efforts designed to meet political needs in Washington, London and other foreign capitals. More than any other factor, short time frames and a lack of Afghan involvement doomed projects. Development programs have succeeded in other countries, but they spanned decades.

The core failure of the western effort in Afghanistan has been the inability to produce security across the country. Without security, all efforts at political, economic and social reform will fail, whether they are Afghan or American led. That fueled a belief that more troops were the answer.

When I covered Afghanistan from 2001 to 2008, Afghans and American officials both believed that foreign troop levels were too low. With roughly 25,000 American troops in Afghanistan as compared to 140,000 in Iraq through 2007, many hoped more foreign troops would finally increase security. The Obama troop surge raised the level of U.S. troops to 100,000 in 2010.

It was not wholly ineffective, as Stewart contends. The surge greatly weakened the Taliban in their strongholds in the south, bur failed to stop high-profile suicide bombings and assassinations. Clearly, maintaining such high American troop levels is financially unsustainable over the long-term. Afghans must lead the fight, not Americans.

The presence of foreign troops alone has not led to failure in Afghanistan, as Stewart argues. Two other dynamics doomed the effort as well. Pakistan’s continued support for the Afghan Taliban – particularly the Haqqani network – gives them a sanctuary to plan high-profile attacks in Kabul. At the same time, President Hamid Karzai’s inability to ease the country’s deep ethnic tensions, endemic corruption and weak governance hampers Afghan security efforts. Yes, there has been failure in Afghanistan, but the fault lies with Pakistani generals, President Karzai and American officials.

The assassination this week of the head of the Afghan government’s peace council shows that the Taliban are a ruthless movement that will not easily reconcile with Afghan moderates. The presence of foreign troops does aid Taliban recruitment, but hardline Taliban will not suddenly moderate if American forces withdraw. The retaliation they will mete out to their Afghan opponents will be savage.

Sadly, intensifying civil war is likely Afghanistan’s future. The Pakistani military’s policy of backing the Afghan Taliban, which Admiral Mike Mullen confirmed in unusually blunt Congressional testimony today, will continue. Hardliners in New Delhi, in turn, will back the Northern Alliance. India and Pakistan will engage in an unnecessary and pointless proxy war whose primary victims will be Afghans.

The U.S. must gradually withdraw its forces while continuing a long-delayed process of training Afghan security forces. Afghan President Hamid Karzai must be forced to keep his promise to leave office when his term expires in 2014. And American military aid to Pakistan must be cut off as long as its generals continue to back the Taliban.

If an Afghan government emerges that is committed to reconciling with Taliban moderates, fighting Taliban hardliners and continuing to rebuild the country, Washington should back it with large amounts of American aid, not large deployments of American troops.

All Western effort in Afghanistan is not folly. The United States and Europe must develop a long-term strategy that backs local moderates as they lead the fight against hardline Taliban. Stewart is correct that the effort since 2002 served Afghan moderates poorly. Simply abandoning them would be an even greater disservice.

PHOTO: Student leaders of the first grade class at the Gandanak Girl’s School participate in a visit by the regional command’s cultural advisor, in Daykundi province, June 8, 2011, in this photo provided by ISAF Regional Command (South). REUTERS/U.S. Army Sergeant Sam P. Dillon/Handout


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