5 Ways to Win the War in Afghanistan

Here's how Obama can reverse the dangerous deterioration of conditions in America's longest war.


As President Barack Obama delivers an assessment of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan, and an update on his own year-old strategy for winning the war, the strategic outlook in the country remains bleak. Although the United States and its allies have scored important tactical gains over the past 12 months — decimating insurgent networks and securing once-violent districts in southern Afghanistan — they have no clear plan to either defeat insurgent sanctuaries in Pakistan or address the corruption and predatory behavior of Afghanistan’s political class, which threatens to undermine U.S. and allied military successes.

I fought in Afghanistan in 2002 and 2004 and returned to serve on Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s initial assessment team in 2009. Over the past two weeks, I have been traveling around Afghanistan interviewing U.S., NATO and Afghan commanders, Afghan police and politicians, NGO workers and journalists, and local Afghans.

While the daily tactical battles in Afghanistan might seem distant, and the strategic challenges daunting, policymakers in Washington are not helpless. In fact, they can support the efforts of Gen. David Petraeus and his troops in Afghanistan in five key ways.

1. Cut Funding for the War

This may seem a bit counterintuitive, to say the least. But right now, the massive amount of money flowing into Kabul is fueling the conflict. In a bizarre way, both the Taliban and the Afghan government currently have an interest in perpetuating this conflict: Both parties are making millions of dollars from the aid and development money saturating the country. These funds are distorting incentives and presenting ample opportunities for kickbacks, bribes, and other forms of corruption. It is little wonder Transparency International rates Afghanistan the world’s third most corrupt nation.

The United States and its allies should only spend the money in Afghanistan they can properly manage and oversee. They should also focus on developing ways to spend resources more wisely in Afghanistan. One way to do so — and here any congressional aides reading this should grab a notebook and pen — would be to allow aid and development funds not spent in one fiscal year to roll over to the next. Well-constructed aid programs, such as Afghanistan’s National Solidarity Program, have trusts established that allow funds not spend in one year to be spent later. But within the U.S. government, that’s not the case: Money not spent is lost from year to year.

Military officers, for example, are familiar with the concept of the "SPENDEX," where all ammunition not used in the course of the year is fired — sometimes wildly — at the end of a fiscal year, so ammunition allotted for the next year is not cut. The same principle applies to aid — but instead of wasting bullets, the organizations waste dollars. Rather than face the prospect of reduced development funds in the future, development and military officers are under pressure to spend every penny they are given. But doing so simply feeds the Afghanistan’s distorted economy, which only benefits the insurgency and corrupt Afghan officials. We must first fix the perverse incentives in our own system in order to fix those in Afghanistan.

2. Compromise on Combat Enablers

Every day, the president is faced with the difficult task of determining how many resources should be expended on foreign engagements when compared with competing domestic priorities. Obama has decided to implement a soft "cap" on troop numbers in Afghanistan, limiting troops deployed to the number he and the Department of Defense agreed upon in the fall of 2009.

At the same time, however, the president and his team should be flexible enough to support the commanders in eastern and southern Afghanistan with the critical "enablers" they need to be successful tactically. More than anything else, our field commanders need more heavy-lift rotary-wing assets in Afghanistan. With a limited supply of helicopters, it is incredible difficult to operate in the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan. The president should commit more CH-47 helicopters to Afghanistan immediately, even if he has to "trade" David Petraeus an infantry battalion in order to keep the overall number of troops more or less the same. The military also needs more intelligence platforms, including drones and observation blimps. Finally, the development of local security programs like the Afghan Local Police could be sped up if more Special Forces A-Teams were committed to the effort.

3. Reinvent, Don’t Replace, the Special Envoy

Trying to replace a diplomatic giant like the late Ambassador Richard Holbrooke is a fool’s errand. The president should not even try. But he will still need officials responsible for coordinating U.S. policy between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The comparatively low-key acting Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Frank Ruggiero, should keep Holbrooke’s team in place to do just that.

As far as the regional "super envoy" job that Holbrooke attempted to fill (with mixed success, it must be said), it might be best left to a respected United Nations diplomat — such as Lakhdar Brahimi, who had earlier successes enlisting the support of Afghanistan’s neighbors. State Department officials and CENTCOM commander James Mattis, along with envoys in Kabul and Islamabad, could then be used to properly allocate diplomatic and military resources between the two countries.

In Afghanistan, Ambassador Karl Eikenberry is likely headed home soon. The president and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton should spend more time searching for his replacement than trying to replace Holbrooke. I’m sure Gen. Petraeus would appreciate an attempt to lure former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker out of semi-retirement and back to the region.

4. Find and Pressure Dual Citizens

Analysts regularly note how difficult it is to apply pressure to corrupt Afghan officials and local power brokers. However, many of these officials possess citizenship in countries other than Afghanistan or have children residing in other countries. To my knowledge, no effort has been made to compile a list of these individuals and use the laws of the United States and other Western countries to prosecute corrupt officials outside Afghanistan. U.S. intelligence agencies should busy themselves compiling this list immediately.

There is a precedent for this approach. Mahmood Karzai, brother of the Afghan president and an American citizen, is currently the subject of a federal corruption probe in New York. Western governments can surely build cases against other Afghan political actors judged to be involved with illicit activity — or at least use the threat of investigations as a source of leverage over them. For many Afghan power brokers and their families, a Western passport is their escape plan from Afghanistan should the country descend into a chaotic civil war. U.S. intelligence services should pressure these power brokers to act responsibly today by endangering their plans for tomorrow.

5. Go Long

Afghans live in fear that the international community will abandon them. Although the Taliban is unpopular, normal Afghans are just trying to survive, waiting to see how this conflict will turn out. Pakistan, meanwhile, is hedging its bets, supporting proxy actors like the Quetta Shura Taliban and Haqqani Network that might counter Indian interests in Kabul after the United States and its allies eventually withdraw. The insurgent sanctuaries in Pakistan are one of the two Achilles heels in the NATO strategy, the other being governance in Afghanistan.

One way the United States might counter both Afghan fears as well as Pakistani predictions is by signaling a long-term military commitment to Afghanistan. As the United States and its allies transition from a resource-intensive counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan, we should be prepared to leave behind 25,000 to 35,000 special operations forces and trainers beyond 2014. Afghan leaders, including President Hamid Karzai, have long desired a concrete U.S. security commitment to Afghanistan. Such a residual force will both protect U.S. interests in Afghanistan and Central Asia after the departure of the bulk of U.S. and NATO troops, and will also signal to Pakistan that their strategy of employing hard-to-control violent extremist groups poses a larger long-term threat to Pakistan’s stability than it does to the government in Kabul.

Everything in Afghanistan is hard, and it is hard all the time. But 150,000 U.S. and NATO troops are scoring important tactical successes over there each day. Policymakers in Washington can help them by scoring some strategic successes back home.

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