The South Asia Channel

More talking, not more troops

By Graeme Smith More foreign troops will not help Afghanistan. As the United States considers another surge, it’s worth remembering that the number of international forces in Afghanistan has already increased dramatically. Every year I spent in the country, from 2005 to 2009, saw major troop surges — and terrible surges of violence. With every ...

By Graeme Smith

More foreign troops will not help Afghanistan. As the United States considers another surge, it’s worth remembering that the number of international forces in Afghanistan has already increased dramatically. Every year I spent in the country, from 2005 to 2009, saw major troop surges — and terrible surges of violence. With every fighting season, more women and children were killed. I saw their faces, I smelled the death. What did we buy with so much blood?

Nothing worth the price, sadly. We tried to make it safer for the United Nations and aid agencies to help the people, but instead it became more dangerous. We tried to set up a democratic government — but it’s not democratic, and it doesn’t govern much territory.

Building a country at gunpoint has failed.

We need to acknowledge this failure if we’re going to think clearly about what’s next. Those who argue for a grand vision of Afghanistan usually list the accomplishments since 2001 — roads, health clinics, polio vaccinations — and it’s true, these are important. But how many roads are built in rural Afghanistan these days without paying bribes to local insurgents? How many Pashtun villagers would get polio vaccinations without permission from the Taliban? Making the country better doesn’t necessarily require fighting the insurgents; in many cases, it requires working with them.

You’re not going to force Kabul’s rulers into deals with the insurgents unless they feel it’s necessary. The communist regime of the 1980s did not reach that point until the Soviet withdrawal. A mythology has emerged that Afghanistan was abandoned and immediately fell to pieces; in fact, the Najibullah government survived as long as money flowed from Moscow. Without foreign troops to support the regime, Najibullah bribed his opponents and gave up territory to local tribes. That’s not a great model, but it’s better than escalating war.

A Georgetown University study reached two conclusions about that period of history: 1) the Afghan rebels were good at resisting invaders, but poorly organized for conventional war; and 2) the insurgents squabbled among themselves after the common enemy departed. Both lessons now apply. The United States and its allies should declare they will execute a phased withdrawal, pushing Kabul into meaningful peace talks with the insurgents. A small fraction of the money you save from reduced troop commitments would be enough to supply the cash and other support needed to give the Kabul regime a credible place at the bargaining table.

Would such deal-making prevent the United States from tracking global jihadists in the tribal areas? Not likely. The Kabul government’s ability to monitor those zones is already minimal, and dwindling. The organizations that could deliver the best intelligence about al Qaeda are the Taliban, the Haqqani network, and the Hekmatyar group. Fighting terrorism doesn’t necessarily require killing insurgents; in many cases, it requires working with them.

You can earn your Peace Prize without sacrificing national security, Mr. Obama, but it will require a strong dose of humility.

Graeme Smith is a foreign correspondent for Canada’s Globe and Mail who was based in Kandahar for three years.

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