The one thing you need to read about Afghanistan

The one thing you need to read about Afghanistan

By Christian Brose

Shadow Government is assigning a lot of Afghanistan homework today. First there’s Sen. John McCain’s solid speech at AEI yesterday. Then check out Kissinger’s op-ed in the Post. There’s a short pairing in U.S. News on whether an escalation in Afghanistan is worth it from John Nagl (pro) and Andrew Bacevich (con). Afghan Foreign Minister Spanta spoke at the Center for American Progress today, and though there’s no printed remarks yet, according to Spencer, Spanta warned the Obama administration against adopting a "reductionist" new approach — by which he meant giving up on democracy in favor of counter-terrorism alone. And then in the think tank world, CSIS has a new report on Afghanistan-Pakistan policy.

But if you read just one thing on Afghanistan, make it Marin Strmecki’s comprehensive and outstanding testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee today. There’s a lot being said about Afghanistan these days by people who don’t always know what they’re talking about (I among them), but Strmecki has been working on this issue for over 20 years, and intimately at the Pentagon from 2003-05.

Do yourself a favor and read the whole thing. But the main point is that the United States cannot lower its sights in Afghanistan. We must fully resource a counterinsurgency strategy that integrates security, development, and good governance to "harden" the Afghan state, while peeling away the outer layers of the insurgency to isolate the hard core. We can then increasingly pass that effort off to our Afghan partners over time. That’s how we should define success, and it’s an "attainable goal."

Here are a few other important points I took away:

1. If you look at Afghan history, the country is not ungovernable, and there is precedent, contra Kissinger, of a central government extending its writ across the territory. That’s not to say that local and provincial governance is unimportant; they’re extremely important. But we should not give up on our support for state-building, a point McCain also makes.

2. Historically, stability in Afghanistan was rooted in a regional compact among the neighbors and Kabul over the nature of influence that all would have in Afghanistan. This was replicated in the Bonn Process, and it helped immensely to stabilize the country. Such a regional compact is desperately needed again. And Strmecki lays out perhaps the best set of ideas I’ve seen yet for what would encompass it and how it would work.

3. The precedent for what we need to do in Afghanistan in 2009 and beyond is what we were doing in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005, under the country team leadership of Amb. Zalmay Khalilzad and Gen. Dave Barno. So this isn’t exactly unchartered waters.

4. Investing in the Afghan National Army must be a primary strategic goal, and we should be devoting more and more of our Special Operations Forces to train them up, rather than conduct raids that alienate us from the population. The army’s end strength should be 250,000 troops, which I believe is also the number Nagl cites.

5. Make Afghanistan’s ministries the vehicle for delivering development assistance, rather than working around them through Western contractors, as we mostly do now. This only makes the Afghan state more feeble and dependent on external largesse.

I’ll stop there. Seriously, though, read the whole thing.