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Why Afghanistan?

A major US effort in Afghanistan makes no sense in its own right: a faraway country with very limited resources and a history of hostility to invaders. But Afghanistan was intimately involved with the World Trade Center attack - a major psychological blow to the American people and that has given Afghanistan a major psychological tie in US minds. The present focus in Afghanistan, as articulated by President Obama, "has a clear mission and defined goals--to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda and its extremist allies."

This is a very narrow objective, for the only global superpower to put its strategic focus on a ragtag band of misfits squirreled away in an obscure part of the world, and it has drawn much criticism. One very lucid critique by Senator Russell Feingold, a congressional leader advocating a withdrawal timetable, stresses that we "cannot support an open-ended commitment to an escalating war in Afghanistan when the al Qaeda operatives we sought have largely been captured or killed or crossed the border to Pakistan." Other critiques range from Dave Schuler's plaintive, "Please Make a Case for Afghanistan," through Andrew Bacevich's listing of five key points which need to be addressed (starting with why Afghanistan constitutes a vital national security interest) to Bernard Finel's ten probing questions (starting with why does the mere possibility that al Qaeda might establish a sanctuary in Afghanistan justify a multi-year commitment of American forces). The core of all these critiques is simply, how does Afghanistan fit into overall US strategic objectives.

Unfortunately, that is not easy to say as overall US strategic objectives are broad and dated. President George W. Bush's introductory letter to the last National Security Strategy, published in March 2006, gave two pillars of national strategy: to promote effective democracies while expanding global prosperity and to lead a growing community of democracies. He underlined the need for promoting international change and for US leadership, but failed to address globalization or nation building. Implementing strategy requires a US foreign policy that must inevitably balance both defense and the general welfare. These are intertwined, the prosperity of the nation provides defense necessary physical and human resources, while it is the prosperity of the nation that defense protects.

Coming into the twenty-first century, the United States faces an entirely new type of challenge to its security and well being, the threat of global turmoil disrupting the economic network on which the US economy, and ultimately its defense establishment, depends. The United States cannot thrive in a world of misery; creating a stable and prosperous world is the major challenge facing the nation. While the United States obviously cannot do this alone, there is no other nation capable of supplying the critical leadership that is necessary. The task is to promote wide ranging cooperative and intergovernmental programs now to address global challenges of water, food supply and good governance. This will require an integrated application of the entire range of US national assets and coordination of efforts by the entire global community. The weaker areas of the world need to be stabilized before they devolve into a squabbling and warring collection of nations and subnational groups in which no nation could maintain stability or prosperity. Such a central strategic objective of global development is worthy of a superpower - it is long term, positive, and demands a productive use of resources. It incorporates the solid American ideals of President Bush's prior strategy. It could mobilize support and enthusiasm both at home and abroad for the real tasks at hand.

A major complicating factor is the Clash of Civilizations, eloquently postulated by Samuel Huntington in 1993. He foresaw world politics as entering a new phase in which the underlying source of international conflict would be cultural; the fault lines between civilizations would become the battle lines of the future. For a world of different civilizations to learn to coexist with one other, the West needs to develop a more profound understanding of the basic religious and philosophical assumptions underlying other civilizations. Global interdependence and cooperative development cannot take place if a major portion of the world remains alienated and disruptive. Yet, the gulf between the West and the Muslim world has been widened by inept policies. The United States spoke of democracy, yet supported tyrants; that was the core problem with Iran and underlies our present difficulties there. The Muslim world also has a sense of being exploited by the West; its ancient heritage of scientific and cultural achievements smothered under poverty and autocracy for the sake of oil. More recently, the obvious underclass status of Muslim immigrants in West Europe and US military actions against Islamic elements in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan have further worsened Muslim perceptions. The information revolution has made this imbalance visible to all, naturally creating a sense of inferiority and frustration.

This has been skillfully manipulated by radical fundamentalists who insist that their Muslim brethren accept a medieval view of Islamic purity. At the same time, they thrive by exploiting globalization and modern information technology, which has lessened their dependence on physical havens. The fanatic dedication of the core cadre has inspired thousands to partake in holy war against the West. Suicide bombers vividly exemplify their willingness to die for their beliefs. Just as a lone serial killer can terrorize an entire metropolitan area, a handful of dedicated, brutal jihadists can terrorize an entire region. That is what we have in Afghanistan. It has become the center of gravity in the struggle with radical Islamic fundamentalists, a struggle pitting them not only against the West, but against a majority of Muslims who want to integrate their religion with the benefits of development; to see their societies prosper, their children learn, and Islamic culture once again flourish; to enjoy the benefits of the global economic system.

Afghanistan is now the test of our interest and capability to promote development of a vibrant, prosperous, open Muslim society. It has become the central front, not in the Global War on Terror, but in the global clash of civilizations. Unfortunately, this test has evolved in one of the most backward Muslim areas in the entire world. But this also means that the opportunities are larger. Indeed, there was a very large opportunity in 2002 when the Taliban had just been ousted, but we turned our back to focus on Iraq. Developmental efforts in Afghanistan shriveled. There is now little to show for our efforts, accomplishments we can point to. And even the accomplishments that are there remain below the level of visibility, we do not publicize them.

We have moved the center of the struggle to rural Pashtunistan, where the people see no attractiveness of a central government and have an innate hostility to armed foreigners. This is the most fundamentalist section of the country; the population there deeply skeptical of Western forces, intimidated by Taliban brutality, and determined to end up on the winning side - which they certainly do not see as NATO. There is zero potential for building up any local security force to protect against the Taliban; this is the population that the Taliban arose from and many are very supportive of them. Necessarily bending over backwards to reduce civilian casualties, our military has restricted the use of artillery and air power. But lower civilian casualties inevitably translate into higher US casualties, undermining domestic support for the war. US troops phase in and out; they have minimal cultural affinity. There is nothing of the continuity needed to build up rapport with a local population. "Deep partnering" is simply impossible; a lighter footprint is mandatory. More troops are not the answer.

In this area, the Taliban see an inevitable victory on the ground, sense that US forces can simply be outwaited. In the meantime, their visible ability to hold the United States at bay boosts their morale, strengthens their determination, and energizes their recruitment of new fighters. It is unrealistic to expect more moderate Taliban elements might negotiate agreement when they think the United States is losing, about to pull up and leave. The military resources to pacify the area are clearly inadequate, and the civilian assets needed to help build it up are virtually nonexistent. An integrated civil-military approach there is simply not possible, all the more so because there is no credible central government to promote. Widespread fraud in the current election has underlined how corrupt the Karzai government is, but it is also heavily non-Pashtun and so inherently suspect in this area. We are struggling in the wrong place. We have bitten off too much. In the near future, there are no positive prospects for Helmand. It can only end badly.

Our strategic objective needs to be a strong positive goal that puts al Qaeda in the place it belongs, a peripheral nuisance which has to be addressed, but hardly the center of the global challenge we face. In Afghanistan, we need to re-focus, as Ambassador Ronald Neumann has succinctly put it, on a limited number of objectives achievable in the short term. We have to show staying power and real development in the areas we do control, particularly in the north and main cities. There are northern areas, characterized by the former US troop commander in Afghanistan, LTG David Barno, as the stability zone, areas that the Taliban never controlled, not even in the dismal 1990s. The populace there almost universally opposes the Taliban. Focused aid can develop local leaders who can gain the respect and dedication of the population and can build a very hostile environment for the Taliban. Aid can be based on criteria already developed by the World Bank and the Millennium Challenge Corporation, open criteria that give a true measure of local governance. A stable and prosperous Afghanistan can indeed be built, but only district by district, province by province. This does require a long-term US commitment, not as a military occupier but rather transitioning to a development partner; we cannot "win" as invaders. The Taliban has a cohesive strategy; we need one also.

Developing a vibrant presence in the north and the major cities will still be a challenge as the Taliban have started focusing some efforts in the north in an attempt to intimidate the local population. Shifting coalition forces there can promote development; they can also encourage the local population to stand up to this threat, to build up their own security and make the region where the Taliban cannot take refuge because the population which sees them as disruptors and is confident of protection against brutal retaliation. The Taliban have been very successful in energizing young Afghans to their cause. We need to be just as successful in energizing young Afghans to build police and army units which will fight for their own security, confident that they can build a better life and that we will stay to support them. We also need to build up the confidence of local Islamic leaders that they can promote a more modern Islam and condemn Taliban brutality and its medieval precepts without fear of assassination.

There are lots of economic opportunities in the north and the cities. US forces have already been training Afghans in construction skills and there are active programs to develop local jobs. Agriculture, textiles, trade and a major copper deposit at Aynak also offer economic possibilities. Building up these areas will not only reduce the need for military assets (and reduce resource requirements and casualties), but also disabuse the Taliban of any expectation that the United States will soon depart and leave the country to them. It can serve as a vivid illustration of the difference between vibrant and developing areas supported by the United States and its allies in stark contrast to stunted, backward areas where the Taliban is dominant. This is a battle not only of ideas but of results, providing the essential government services the population needs: roads, electricity, clean water, health support, education, effective courts. Local leaders need to develop the plans for this and support has to depend on good governance; they can be credible partners even if the central government is not. Micro-credit programs can also encourage local economic development and insure that funds are used at the grass roots level. Support to the central government has to be minimized and strong international pressure brought to bear for it to also demonstrate good governance. This requires focusing our limited military and civil support assets into areas where they really build rapport with the local population and can make the most difference.

Senator Feingold's critique has one major misjudgement: "we've become embroiled in a nation-building experiment that may distract us from combating al Qaeda and its affiliates." To the contrary, nation-building in Afghanistan IS the central field of battle with Islamic radicalism. For better or worse, it is the battlefield we have. Developing Afghanistan resonates well with a longer term, broader strategic objective of supporting global development; it plays an important role in an overall strategic objective of using development to build a stable and prosperous world. We need to broadly publicize the good news of what is happening in Afghanistan. It is doubly important for us to show the entire Muslim world what US support can mean to a Muslim area, that the United States stands with the people who have supported its efforts, and that the United States can indeed provide long-term commitments. This can support a vision not of an eventual Taliban victory, but of a Taliban shriveling in the light of true cultural and economic development.

We need to build up the areas we have control of, support the local governments and their ties to the central government, build up the legitimacy of the central government province by province, and demonstrate what the United States and our allies can do to improve the lives of average Afghanis. We need to have something clearly positive we can show for our efforts, show to our own citizens and allies, show to the Muslim world, show to the entire globe. We need to minimize our casualties and Afghan casualties as well, so it is definitely a positive development that commanders are now being directed to pull forces out of sparsely populated areas. We can reverse operations in the south -- instead of us trying to control rural areas and be picked away at by the Taliban, let the Taliban control them and be picked away at by us. Above all, we need to match resources to an achievable objective, to have a credible strategy to show to the American people. If we can't convince the American people that this is worth it, no amount of thoughtful strategy will matter.

The Afghanistan situation fits into a broader context. Pakistan, in particular, is intimately involved with the Afghan insurgency. It requires much of the same support that Afghanistan does, and we face the same problem of brutal Taliban intimidation. Any comprehensive approach has to incorporate allied efforts and regional stabilization. President Obama's address to the United Nations on global issues stressed the need for international cooperation, though it did not specifically call attention to the potential for Islamic radicals to greatly complicate these efforts. Struggling in Afghanistan only makes sense as part of a larger effort to integrate the Muslim world into this global development program that is essential for US prosperity. That's why we need to be there.

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