President Obama's finally announced, long awaited strategy for Afghanistan rests on three premises: That victory in Afghanistan is fundamental to U.S. national security because we must deprive Al Qaeda of that operating base; that defeating the Taliban requires a significant ramp-up of the U.S. military presence; and that in addition to establishing security, the U.S. must also create good governance by "fixing" the government in Kabul, making it more effective, less corrupt and able to extend its power into the provinces. All three premises are incorrect.
Defeating Al Qaeda is not a matter of geography and driving its leaders out of Afghanistan, assuming we can, will not make us safe. To think otherwise means to not understand asymmetrical warfare. This is a large and messy planet; there will always be some chaotic corner where terrorists can set up camp. Their message has to stop resonating, potential recruits have to lose interest, communities have to turn against them, and their ideology has to fade into obscurity. That, and not control of geographic terrain, is what being safe looks like.
Now, it is true that allowing a Taliban resurgence under our very noses damages our credibility as a superpower and boosts the reputation of Al Qaeda. It is also a tragedy for the Afghans and unfair in light of our promises to them - not that fairness has often been a dominating principle of world history. Nonetheless, if this outcome can be prevented, it should.
The terrible, almost inexplicable irony of our current dilemma is that we know exactly how to win wars in Afghanistan, having done it successfully twice before. In the 1990's, the United States helped the mujahedeen defeat the vastly superior Soviet Union. In 2002, we used the Northern Alliance ground troops to overthrow the Taliban.
In both instances, the odds were hugely against success, but we succeeded anyway, because we had the formula right. We taught a ragtag band of illiterate warriors how to use Stinger missiles, and they defeated the Soviet superpower. We partnered with the Northern Alliance, a nearly defeated militia that had been driven out of city after city by the victorious Taliban, had just lost its charismatic leader to Taliban assassins, and was crouched in its final mountain stronghold. Within weeks, they turned things around and won back their country.
In both instances, the U.S. provided weapons, information, logistical help and air support, but avoided putting our troops on the ground. The way to win in Afghanistan is to let the Afghans do the fighting. They understand the terrain, they grasp the subtleties and nuances of local alliances and power structures, and they have ample supplies of fighting-age young males and a centuries-old warrior culture. They don't need our 18- and 19-year olds; they don't even need training.
The U.S. knew that in 1990 and we knew it in 2002. What can have happened to make us forget? This time around, we have taken it into our heads to stand up an Afghan National Army, complete with uniforms and rank insignia and barracks. And while we ever so slowly try to coax the Afghans into that alien format, we are forcing our own soldiers to go boots on the ground in an environment equally alien to them.
This makes no sense. We are dealing with an insurgency combined with an asymmetric terrorist threat, located in a pre-industrial country in Islamic Asia. Why would we fight this conflict as though it were an 18th century conventional European war with a little bit of Vietnamese counterinsurgency sprinkled over the top?
As President Obama has ordered 30,000 more troops into Afghanistan, it is worth re-examining the Soviet experience there. The Soviets had two goals. First, they wanted to spread socialism, whose message of social justice they believed should resonate in that feudal, oppressive, immensely poor society. And by the way, many Soviets felt that this goal was too ambitious, that it was not the job of their country to force social progress on a people who were not ready, who they were too underdeveloped and uneducated to be able to grasp the concept. Second, the Soviets wanted to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a stronghold controlled by their Cold War adversaries.
At first, things went well. Moscow helped put in place a friendly government. Over time, however, the Soviets grew increasingly disillusioned with their protégés, frustrated by the government's poor performance, growing unpopularity and high levels of corruption.
Did someone say 2009? Drug trade, warlords, incompetence, nepotism, election fraud? Omit the names and dates, and the Politburo discussions about Afghanistan are eerily identical to those that reportedly preceded Obama's decision to send more troops.
The Kremlin's own documents reveal its reluctance to send soldiers to Afghanistan in ever-increasing numbers. But the Politburo concluded that this was the only way to turn a bad situation around. And, they thought, it was essential to gain the trust and support of the population, and therefore development programs were required, a parallel to today's civilian surge. But because they had the formula wrong, that investment did not turn the tide for them.
Politburo sessions reflected growing frustration at the slowness of the buildup of the Afghan army, its poor performance, and gradually, with horrible inevitability, the conclusion that more Russian troops had to be sent if the situation was not to be lost entirely.
Our biggest challenge is to stay on the right side of this analogy. We need to be on the side of the Afghan people, aiding them in their desire for freedom and progress, but not running their country or fighting their battles. The Taliban are wildly unpopular with the Afghan people - just as the Soviets were. Defeating them is the job of the Afghans. We can advise them, support them, rally behind them, fund them, equip them, arm them and train them. As we did in the 1980's, we can build up an Afghan people's force of new freedom fighters.
The Afghan police and national army, as instruments of a barely credible central government and plagued by their own deep issues of ethnicity, corruption and inefficiency, can continue to train up at their snail's pace. But they cannot be the heart of the effort.
It is common knowledge that the Kabul government has been a huge disappointment. Corruption, election fraud and incompetence have been the hallmarks of its performance, and the current U.S. thinking is that a large civilian effort must be expended to turn this around before we can leave.
However, the poor results to date are not a reflection of a previous lack of trying. The Karzai government has received unprecedented multinational goodwill and money, and endless numbers of NGOs and international organizations have provided training, mentoring, money and other support to Afghan ministries and institutions.
Does anyone really believe that we can reconfigure Afghanistan's non-functioning justice system, its drug trade, nepotism and corruption in 18 months, when the previous eight years have achieved so little? Especially when strong vested interests on the Afghan side will struggle to hold onto their ill-gotten privileges?
Here again, the U.S. is failing to recognize what actually works in Afghanistan. The surprising truth is that our presence and our efforts have achieved huge success - just not in Kabul, and not with the official institutions. Rather, the infusion of international ideas and money has inspired a vibrant culture of local self-government.
An entirely new civil society has sprouted all over Afghanistan, comprised of elected village councils, cultural organizations, media initiatives, bloggers' clubs, poets' associations, private colleges, professional associations and much more. These groups are committed to ending corruption, building a non-ethnic national identity, and establishing rational and good governance on the ground where they live. Instead of noticing, assessing, and engaging with these, our natural allies, we've got our poor soldiers running around the countryside looking for "tribal leaders" to bribe.
Success is not far from reach in Afghanistan; but we seem unable to see it.
Afghanistan, the graveyard of empires? Maybe - but only if the United States offers an imperial presence. During the Cold War, we were perfectly happy to watch the Soviet Union do exactly that, and bleed itself out in the Hindukush. What bitter irony if the U.S. falls into the same trap we helped bait those many decades ago.
Cheryl Benard is the Director of the Alternative Strategies Institute, which conducts research and implementation in the area of civic engagement.