Please Send More Than Troops

If the window closes to fix Afghanistan's government, more boots on the ground won't matter.


The end of Afghanistan’s election last week leaves the Barack Obama administration with a narrow window of opportunity to implement a new strategy. While much attention has been paid to such questions as troop levels and counterinsurgency tactics, real success will depend on much less tangible things: personal security, economic growth, and better governance on the ground. Only a strategy aimed at this political progress — as much as military gains — has any chance of success.

Now is the time to implement a framework for progress that focuses on protecting civilians, institutionalizing good governance, and spurring economic growth. It will take hard work and even tougher decisions on the part of both the NATO troops and the Afghan government. The risks of further engagement are grave, but there are several reasons why the time is ripe for such a strategy to finally take root.

Opponents of the war in Afghanistan argue that the International Security Assistance Forces’ (ISAF’s) mission is fundamentally flawed because Afghans, and Pushtuns particularly, simply don’t want foreign forces on their land. This is not true. For years as finance minister, I watched as tribal leaders came to the government to ask for more foreign troops. What they wanted then and still want now is security, justice, and a military operation that does not endanger civilians.

Indeed, one of the few positive outcomes of August’s presidential election has been an emerging Afghan national consensus on the need for good governance, peace, and reconciliation. As a result, the aspirations of the Afghan people coincide more than ever before with the objectives of President Obama: security and development.

Both Afghans and the international community today share a better understanding of the urgency of rule of law, justice, economic activity, and reconciliation than they have since the start of the war. Even the ISAF has acknowledged that good governance is a prerequisite for peace. ISAF Commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s recent strategy report concluded that the illegal behavior of government officials and its cronies poses as much of a threat to the future of Afghanistan as the violent insurgency.  

Internationally there are also positive signs that major global players are taking the threat of al Qaeda more seriously, and significant cooperation can be achieved. Saudi Arabia, China, and Russia have said they can agree to the Saudi proposal to work together to defeat the insurgency. As articulated by Prince Turki, that proposal argues that it is necessary to differentiate between al Qaeda and the Taliban. While al Qaeda should be treated as a common, global enemy, the Taliban should be treated separately, as a more manageable domestic challenge for Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia’s position of leadership in the Muslim world brings badly needed legitimacy to a new counter insurgency and peace and reconciliation plan.

Perhaps most important of all, the joint action by global powers is finally helping persuade Pakistani decision-makers to take a more pro-active, constructive role in regional security. Already communication and coordination has improved between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zadari, as recent military initiatives in South Waziristan have shown. Faced by a coherent front, Afghanistan can now become an ally, not just a liability.

Economic development will of course be vital to sustaining security gains. After narcotics have helped cripple the economy, there is a sense abroad that Afghanistan is destined to be poor and needs to be rescued. In reality, Afghanistan has the natural resource wealth to sustain itself. The U.S. Geological Survey has confirmed large deposits of iron, copper, gold, gas, and several gemstones under the country’s soil. Afghans are ready to do business with the world but are held back by insecurity.

The failures of the last eight years, on top of a legacy of 30 years of conflict, will pose formidable challenges to any strategy. The Afghan public is losing confidence both in its government and in the international community, as even ISAF has acknowledged. The former mistrust is the result of the government cutting deals with warlords, tolerating corruption and injustice, and failing to deliver basic services. The latter is the result of the ineffectiveness and corruption of foreign assistance and civilian casualties.

Despite talk of coordination and good intentions, foreign assistance, with few exceptions, has been generally ineffective. The United Nations’ refusal to publish the results of its agencies’ work has cost it credibility. U.S. indictments of a U.N. official and U.S. military contractors for corruption have only reinforced skepticism of foreign motives.

Only an Afghan administration truly committed to good governance will have any success against these challenges. The international community should therefore help design a five-year road map of governance in Afghanistan that lays out mechanisms for restoring the country’s full sovereignty through the building-up of strong, transparent state institutions. Meanwhile, the Afghan government should lay out its framework for national peace-building and cooperation with ISAF.

Rules of governance must be enforced, while limits must be imposed on government officials and elites. Oversight of foreign aid and extractive industries must be created to ensure accountability and efficiency. Government credibility requires both an ability to listen to grievances and the mechanisms for resolving them. Ordinary civilians should be the center of gravity of the state and the international forces.

The debate over Gen. McChrystal’s proposed strategy has been reduced to the number of troops, but the issue is more complex. Military success will depend not simply on troop levels, but on political victory in creating security, governance, development, and peace.

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