Now’s not the time to dream of nation building

By Michael Cohen What to do in Afghanistan has become the dominant question in Washington. Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s recently leaked strategic review suggests more troops are needed; Democrats in Congress are assertively counseling against such a move; and U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration appears increasingly concerned that mission creep is underway. But the debate over ...

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By Michael Cohen

What to do in Afghanistan has become the dominant question in Washington. Gen. Stanley McChrystal's recently leaked strategic review suggests more troops are needed; Democrats in Congress are assertively counseling against such a move; and U.S. President Barack Obama's administration appears increasingly concerned that mission creep is underway.

By Michael Cohen

What to do in Afghanistan has become the dominant question in Washington. Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s recently leaked strategic review suggests more troops are needed; Democrats in Congress are assertively counseling against such a move; and U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration appears increasingly concerned that mission creep is underway.

But the debate over troop levels is a distraction from the real problem in Afghanistan — a dubious counterinsurgency strategy that is based on faulty assumptions and unrealistic expectations of what can be achieved. McChrystal’s leaked review only provides more evidence of the desperate need for a new course in Afghanistan.

One of the fundamental precepts of any successful counterinsurgency operation is the support of the host government: If the United States is to wage war for a local government, the government must be a dependable ally. Yet, as McChrystal’s review makes clear, the Afghan government is anything but: “The weakness of state institutions, malign actions of power-brokers, widespread corruption and abuse of power by various officials … have given Afghans little reason to support their government.”

To make matters worse, McChrystal sees serious holes in the capabilities of U.S. and NATO forces to wage counterinsurgency. NATO, the review argues, “does not sufficiently appreciate the dynamics in local communities, nor how the insurgency, corruption, incompetent officials, power-brokers, and criminality all combine to affect the Afghan population.”

If the Afghan government is riddled with corruption and NATO doesn’t fully understand how to prosecute a counterinsurgency strategy, it is hard to understand why McChrystal is advocating such an approach in the first place. Hamid Karzai’s government basically stole the recent presidential election. It hardly seems on the verge of ending its corrupt ways. Moreover, there is little reason to believe that a full multinational embrace of counterinsurgency doctrine can be achieved in what is becoming an increasingly compressed time frame.

Throw in the problem of largely unmolested Afghan Taliban safe havens across the border in Pakistan and the fact that in some parts of Southern Afghanistan the Taliban are as popular as the Karzai government, and you have a situation where the lack of U.S .troops and political will, as well as Pakistani and Afghan support, is undermining the stated mission.

McChrystal offers smart ideas for how to turn the tide, but with declining public support for the mission — on both sides of the Atlantic — it’s unlikely he will have the opportunity to implement the changes he is recommending.

Instead, the president should demand his commander go back to the original objective for the mission — disrupting, defeating, and dismantling al Qaeda. This means discarding the dream of nation-building in Afghanistan and focusing instead on targeting al Qaeda in Pakistan (a process already occurring through successful drone attacks on terrorist leaders there) and moving toward a more realistic containment approach of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

To accomplish this, the United States must first prioritize training the Afghan security services. This doesn’t necessarily mean a huge force, which would be difficult to achieve and potentially destabilizing for the region. Military trainers should focus on building a smaller, more reliable force that can serve as an effective military counterweight to the Taliban.

Second, General McChrystal has made it his top priority to “protect the population,” but the U.S. and NATO forces lack the resources and local support to complete such a mission. Instead, the United States needs to place greater priority on targeting the Taliban enemy and regaining the military initiative.

Along these lines, McChrystal must prioritize his operations to the north of the country where the Taliban are making inroads but lack the support of the local population. Ongoing combat operations in southern Afghanistan have done little to shift the military balance, particularly as the Taliban have used Western attention to the region as an opportunity to attack elsewhere in the country. U.S. and NATO forces should consolidate the gains made elsewhere and for now lessen the military footprint in the south.

McChrystal has laid out an ambitious, but unrealistic, counterinsurgency agenda for Afghanistan. It is the president’s job to step in and set a new more counterterrorism-focused course that is realistic and that furthers U.S. interests in the region. The uncertainty in Washington on what to do next has given him just that opportunity. He must seize it.

Michael A. Cohen is a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation.

MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP/Getty Images

Michael Cohen is a fellow at the Century Foundation.

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