From my in box: more grounds for doubt about Afghanistan

As the United States prepares send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, in what I still regard as a futile effort at “state-building,” two interesting items arrived in my in-box. The first is an opinion piece by former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami (now vice-president of the Toledo Center for Peace in Spain), who argues that ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
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575432_091220_afghanchildren2.jpg
Afghan children look on as US soldiers from first Batallion,32nd infantry Regiment 3rd Brigade,10th Mountain division pass by near Shigal village in Kunar province eastern Afghanistan on December 7, 2009. A convoy heading to the village to talk to elders came under attack from small arms fire and rocket propelled grenade (RPG) launchers. AFP PHOTO/Tauseef MUSTAFA (Photo credit should read TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP/Getty Images)

As the United States prepares send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, in what I still regard as a futile effort at “state-building,” two interesting items arrived in my in-box. The first is an opinion piece by former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami (now vice-president of the Toledo Center for Peace in Spain), who argues that Afghanistan’s neighbors have a greater stake there than the United States, and that they are advancing those interests more effectively by relying primarily on diplomacy rather than military intervention. Money quote:

So, while the United States gets to play the “Ugly American” once again, the regional powers promote their interests in that war-torn country with a smiling face and away from the battlefield. America’s difficulties in Afghanistan — and the serious problems it faces in harnessing Pakistan’s government to a more robust fight against the Taliban both at home and in Afghanistan — provide an opportunity for these powers to attempt to shift the dynamics of the “Great Game” to their benefit.

In other words, Afghanistan’s neighbors have successfully “passed the buck” to the United States — getting Uncle Sam to do the dirty work and heavy lifting in Afghanistan — and Washington has been foolish enough to accept that burden. It’s too late now, but a smarter strategy would have been for Washington to focus on getting the regional powers to address these problems while it remained in the background, focusing primarily focused tasks (such as the capture or killing of al Qaeda members) for which we were uniquely equipped. My guess is that this approach is where the United States will end up once it realizes that the current “surge” isn’t working, so Ben-Ami’s article might even prove to be prophetic.

The second item is a video report from the Guardian in Britain, which shows a group of U.S. Marine trainers working with some pretty hapless Afghan recruits. (One Marine says “I think if they introduced drug testing for the Afghan army, we would lose probably three-quarters to maybe eighty or eight-five percent of the army.” It is sort of like watching an Afghan version of Stripes, except that this is in fact serious business and a critical ingredient of current U.S. strategy. The video is consistent with other published reports about the difficulties the U.S. faces in trying to create larger and more effective Afghan security forces, but it is obviously hard to know how representative a single short film might be. So you should view it with some skepticism, the same way you should view any official reports of our progress or anything you read in the New York Times, the Washington Post, or the Guardian itself, for that matter. But if it’s even remotely representative, it tells you why everyone from Secretary Gates on down understands that we are facing a multi-year, and maybe even multi-decade challenge there. Good thing we don’t have any other foreign or domestic problems to address right now, and infinite resources to devote to this problem.

TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. Twitter: @stephenwalt

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