The Afghanistan Mess

America's new strategy review is vitally necessary. The Obama administration has gone from misstep to misstep over the last year.

Chris Hondros/Getty Images
Chris Hondros/Getty Images

Recent events in Afghanistan do not inspire confidence that the Barack Obama administration knows what it is doing. The administration’s current review of its Afghan strategy, though coming disturbingly quickly after its first review, is badly needed.

The clearly fraudulent Aug. 20 election in Afghanistan has been a serious blow to U.S. strategy and has helped generate consideration of a midcourse policy correction. What is perhaps more worrisome than the election fraud, however, is that the U.S. government actually seemed to believe that this election would work out relatively decently. Of course the election had long been scheduled, and it wouldn’t have been politically easy to have it postponed. But life had also radically changed in Afghanistan since the election was scheduled, and that’s something the United States should not have brushed over.

The election would, the U.S. government apparently thought, mark a decisive turning point in the effort to create a legitimate, reasonably functioning, national Afghan state, and the public would be reassured that the Afghan effort was on the right track. The United States, its allies, and the United Nations went to extraordinary lengths and spent hundreds of millions of dollars to try to ensure that the election would be, if not "free and fair," at least digestible.

Elections in highly unstable, war-torn areas are always an uncertain thing. The results can be a turning point in establishing political legitimacy — or they can freeze a bad situation or produce bad rulers. Clearly, Afghanistan was not in a position to hold a legitimate nationwide election. The 2004 election was also flawed, but at least then the operating environment was better with the Taliban having been largely thrown out of the country.

Five years later the military situation has deteriorated badly and President Hamid Karzai’s government has been in place long enough that the United States should have understood how it would act in such a scenario. Once again, the American penchant for elections and the impetuous need to demonstrate "success" to prove the legitimacy of Afghanistan’s government, show a new American dynamism, and fulfill badly outmoded legal deadlines have produced unhappy results. The United States now has to scurry to live with or try to reverse these results, depending on what it thinks is better for Afghanistan at this point. One can uncharitably ask: If the administration’s reading of the Afghan scene is so poor in this case, why should we trust its vastly enlarged nation-building efforts to have better results?

Then there is a basic strategic question: Why are U.S. forces — not as large as but far stronger militarily than the invading Russians in the 1980s — having such a hard time dealing with 30,000 or so decentralized militants? Yes, the Taliban have a safe haven in Pakistan — but so did their anti-Soviet forebears. And the Taliban have never received the billions of dollars and better weapons the mujahedeen got from the Americans and the Saudis in their effort to drive out the Soviets. Why was the Afghan ruler Najibullah able for three years — in the face of CIA predictions that he could not survive a day once the Soviets left — to prevent the sizable insurgent forces from taking over the numerous enclaves he controlled, including Kabul, even after the Soviets abandoned him? Meanwhile, the numerous Afghan fighters on the U.S. side, a good number of whom have also fought for a lifetime, some in Najibullah’s ranks, seem to need years of U.S. training — far more than the Taliban. To be sure, the United States is trying to build a state and leave something behind, and that immensely complicates the nature of any military effort against an insurgency.

One cannot be comforted by the past year’s events in Afghanistan, even given the incredibly wretched situation the George W. Bush administration left for the Obama administration. If the recent failed election is any indication, the United States has been approaching Afghanistan with a naive self-righteousness and a mechanistic perspective that does not bode well for expanded military and political efforts. Obama’s strategic review offers another opportunity to come up with a longer-term, sustainable policy that deals better with Afghan realities.

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