Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Failure Is Not Realism

It's time to stop making excuses for why Afghanistan can't be won.

SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images
SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images
SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images

Even as the United States ramps up its military presence in Afghanistan, a political debate has already begun over how low to set expectations. Some skeptics in Washington, such as former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, are now making the case that it's time to abandon the project of nation-building and focus instead on narrow security goals. Others are even more pessimistic. In an interview last weekend with Fareed Zakaria, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper flatly declared, We are not ever going to defeat the insurgency, and suggested it was time for U.S. and NATO troops to withdraw entirely.

But those who say that Afghanistan can never be won ignore the fact that the United States has never really tried. If you consider all post-conflict reconstruction projects since World War II, the United Stated has by far spent the least per capita in Afghanistan. In the first two years after fighting ended in Bosnia and East Timor, the United States devoted $679 and $233 in per capita development aid respectively. In contrast, during the first two crucial years of reconstruction in Afghanistan -- when a focused investment could have had significant impact -- per capita development aid amounted to a mere $57. Although we can't reclaim that window of opportunity, when we lost focus and wasted both blood and treasure, we can do better going forward.

The United States needs a new approach in Afghanistan. We need to ensure that money is spent wisely and strategically -- and not be scared away by the challenges ahead. The fears of some that a long-term commitment in Afghanistan won't be worth the effort are utterly unfounded. Three common mistaken assumptions have become the rallying cry of new realists advocating inaction. It's time to fact-check those excuses.

Even as the United States ramps up its military presence in Afghanistan, a political debate has already begun over how low to set expectations. Some skeptics in Washington, such as former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, are now making the case that it’s time to abandon the project of nation-building and focus instead on narrow security goals. Others are even more pessimistic. In an interview last weekend with Fareed Zakaria, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper flatly declared, We are not ever going to defeat the insurgency, and suggested it was time for U.S. and NATO troops to withdraw entirely.

But those who say that Afghanistan can never be won ignore the fact that the United States has never really tried. If you consider all post-conflict reconstruction projects since World War II, the United Stated has by far spent the least per capita in Afghanistan. In the first two years after fighting ended in Bosnia and East Timor, the United States devoted $679 and $233 in per capita development aid respectively. In contrast, during the first two crucial years of reconstruction in Afghanistan — when a focused investment could have had significant impact — per capita development aid amounted to a mere $57. Although we can’t reclaim that window of opportunity, when we lost focus and wasted both blood and treasure, we can do better going forward.

The United States needs a new approach in Afghanistan. We need to ensure that money is spent wisely and strategically — and not be scared away by the challenges ahead. The fears of some that a long-term commitment in Afghanistan won’t be worth the effort are utterly unfounded. Three common mistaken assumptions have become the rallying cry of new realists advocating inaction. It’s time to fact-check those excuses.

Excuse #1: Democracy can’t work in Afghanistan

This assertion is deeply dubious. Any presumption on the part of outside observers regarding what forms of freedom Afghans are prepared to handle is itself a fallacy. More importantly, this argument distracts from the real issue. Debating what form of government would be best for Afghans is probably not productive or necessary right now. Instead, it would be more useful for Afghanistan’s allies to help the country rid itself of terrorism, so that its citizens can decide for themselves. Perhaps they will choose a Jeffersonian-style democracy, perhaps not. In any case, uncertainty and theoretical discussions about the form of government that Afghans will or should have in the future is no reason for inaction now.

Excuse #2: The Afghan Army should handle it from here

Some argue that the U.S. strategy should be to train and equip the Afghan National Army and police, and then leave domestic forces to secure the country. But this would hardly be a money-saving proposition. The best estimates put the cost of maintaining an Afghan security force capable of providing real security for the country at more than $3.5 billion dollars annually. To put this in perspective, the Afghan government’s entire annual revenue currently amounts to only about $700 million. This means that sustaining a sizable domestic security force would require significant investment from abroad, which isn’t a realistic scenario long-term. Instead, what’s needed is a broader regional solution.

Excuse #3: Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires

One of the most persistent clichs about Afghanistan is that it is a graveyard of empires, a reference to the unfortunate fates of the Soviet Army (30 years ago) and British forces (150 years ago) deployed in the region. It is true that Afghans do not enjoy seeing their country invaded, and they certainly do not like to be bombed out of their homes, but one would hardly think these reactions are unique. The graveyard of empires trope meanwhile ignores the fact that even after decades of war and destruction, Afghans overwhelmingly welcomed international forces and the ousting of the Taliban (which was itself a foreign force). Analogies to the past are simply that — not reasons to justify disengagement or skirt the challenges ahead.

Citing one or all of these excuses, critics of the current U.S. approach to Afghanistan are advocating a focus on short-term results. This could be a recipe for failure. Any effort defined from the start as a limited-term engagement would send a clear message to the Afghan people that the international community is not serious about helping them long-term, and that Western forces are preparing to leave the people of the region behind once again. This would be directly counterproductive to the ultimate goal of winning the hearts and minds of the Afghan people, which is so crucial for containing the insurgency on the ground.

In their enthusiasm to adopt strategies that proved fruitful in Iraq, some are now pushing to negotiate with the Taliban. Unfortunately, this is more complicated than it sounds. First, there is no such thing as a single, monolithic Taliban with which to negotiate; instead there are many factions. Perhaps more importantly, the merging of Taliban forces and al Qaeda is making it virtually impossible to distinguish between them.

The Afghan central government’s authority is already weak and unstable. If international forces take it upon themselves to negotiate directly with the Taliban, their actions would completely strip the government in Kabul of what little legitimacy it has left. The Taliban have been able to infiltrate villages to coerce the support of local populations because Afghan and international security forces have simply been absent from many parts of the country. Instead of negotiating from a position of weakness, we need to gain the confidence of the local population by showing up in their villages and delivering basic services.

There is no doubt that talks with certain Taliban fighters are necessary to establish stability. However, if not pursued with extreme care, such discussions could lead to a balkanization of the country — pitting ethnic groups against each other and destroying any sense of fragile national unity that exists today.

So, if the United States can’t withdraw, and if counterinsurgency tactics are likely to be of only limited utility, what strategy should be pursued? First, a clear message must be sent, not in words, but in deeds, that the United States will never shy away from helping the Afghans rebuild their country, and that it will stay as long as it takes. Help does not have to take the form of unending military and development spending. Instead, spending must be far more strategic and efficient than it has been in the past eight years — catering to actual needs on the ground. U.S. spending on development aid has hovered at about $1 billion a year. Yet the delivery of that money has been so inefficient that only about 30 cents of each dollar is estimated to have made it into the hands of those in need. The bulk of the aid money has disappeared in layers of subcontracting, mismanagement, and corruption. Any reduction in the serious waste in development aid and military spending would go a long way to helping stabilize the region.

Another important point is that security in Afghanistan cannot be achieved without first eliminating the extremists’ sanctuaries in Pakistan. As long as al Qaeda and the Taliban enjoy both tribal support and the protection of certain elements of the Pakistani military, no number of troops in Afghanistan can stop insurgents from arousing insecurity in the hearts and minds of the local population. The West should show strong support for Pakistan’s secular political movements in establishing a more stable state. It should also help to facilitate an open dialogue between India and Pakistan on Kashmir and pursue an agreement to integrate the tribal areas into Pakistan’s province as an essential step towards political stability.

Any long-term solution for the region must be global in scope. Reducing the mounting security burden in the region will demand that the United States use all possible engagement channels to address current threats. India, Iran, China, Russia, and the Central Asian countries all have major strategic interests in resolving the violence in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The United States and Europe must recognize and utilize the common interests of each significant player in the region.

Afghanistan is not a war to be won in the traditional sense, but it can be lost. Curtailing our resolve is the surest way to ensure defeat. Supporting the long-term goal of helping Afghans to build a stable society will in the end cost us less than a short-term campaign to chase al Qaeda. Without a functioning state, able to serve its citizens, Afghans will never feel secure and hopeful about the future and will remain at risk to Taliban coercion. Freedom and democratic ideals are not just Western concepts. Afghans too want to live in a free, secure, and just society without unending oppression, conflict, and hardship. Investing in governance, institution building, police training, and the creation of alternative livelihoods for farmers now growing illicit poppies is what is dearly needed.

Just talking about realism will not create stability in Afghanistan. A real commitment to building the country’s institutions might.

Masood Aziz, a former diplomat, lives in Washington, D.C.

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