The overall situation in Afghanistan is deteriorating. We have already lost support of most of our allies (and certainly their publics) and are now losing support of the American public - there is even an Out of Afghanistan Caucus in Congress.
The core problem is that we have lost a sense of purpose. The objective as articulated by President Obama, "to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda and its extremist allies," has been overtaken by events. There is negligible al Qaeda presence in Afghanistan. Their established base of operations in the Pakistan tribal areas would seem to serve them better. At any rate, the only significant al Qaeda threat is some kind of weapon of mass destruction (WMD); Afghanistan offers no prospects of supporting such an effort.
In Marjah, we have given the residents an opportunity to choose between the government and the Taliban. That is the right opportunity, but the wrong place. It needs a heavy military emphasis, which we cannot sustain, and the Taliban and local residents all know this. The cost in lives and resources undercuts US support. The huge logistic tail needed feeds corruption in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia. The very effort undermines itself. It puts us in the anomalous position of fighting for freedom in Afghanistan while we undermine it in Tajikistan by supporting a repressive government, now resulting in widespread bloodshed that threatens a major logistics pillar.
Foreign troops are inherently mistrusted; changing that takes considerable time. We are at high risk of letting down people we are now encouraging to rely on us - as we did in Iraq, where the Awakening Movement turned against al Qaeda thanks to our support and encouragement. But their position now depends on a government which has shown little support for them; the United States no longer has any control over the situation. Just so in Marjah, we are encouraging the local population to build up reliance on a weak government, to risk their lives in defending their own interests. But the government is actively negotiating and may well end up ceding control of the entire area to the Taliban. This is also something that is out of control of the United States and could well leave people who cooperate with us in the lurch, to say the least. We simply cannot give them any guarantees of continuing support by either the US forces or the Afghan government.
Overall, it is hard to see how anything positive will come of the current efforts in the south. This is an area of relatively primitive farming communities with few short term prospects for commercial development. The central government has clearly provided no vision of what a developing economy in this area would look like.
It is turning out to be a badly misplaced effort. It requires huge resources; it is the highest cost area of operations with the lowest potential return. Even a total loss of the area would have only a minimal direct impact on the United States. In the meantime, the steady stream of reports of bullets, bombs, blasts and bodies undermines the credibility of the operation within Afghanistan, with our allies, and with the American public. Even within the military, there is a new sense of doubt and frustration, now compounded by disparaging remarks by General McChrystal and his staff on the US civilian leadership.
The average American sees Afghanistan as a black hole, a pit soaking up lives and money supporting a weak government that we are increasingly alienated from and over which we have progressively less influence. Al Qaeda now has a minimal presence in Afghanistan and few prospects of using it again as a major base of operations. Islamic radicals appear to be implacable foes that the US presence only inflames while motivating even broader support. Afghanistan has been described by one critic as "a confusing mix of.... criminal gangs, drug traffickers, Pashtun and Tajik militias, kidnapping rings, death squads and mercenaries. .... The Pashtuns, who make up most of the Taliban and are the traditional rulers of Afghanistan, are battling the Tajiks and Uzbeks, who make up the Northern Alliance, which, with foreign help, won the civil war in 2001. The old Northern Alliance now dominates the corrupt and incompetent government." In this sort of a setting, trying to create a strong central government is totally unrealistic, even if it were willing to cooperate with us.
Dwindling US support is not helped by the situation in Iraq where thousands of lives and billions of dollars, followed by a "successful" surge, have only managed to emplace a sectarian government while the country slowly descends into turmoil. The new Iraqi government is neither stable nor democratic; how can we expect any better in Afghanistan? Against that sort of a background and with our own nation facing daunting economic challenges, it is no wonder that support in the United States is crumbling.
We need a different narrative, of how we are helping a war weary people struggle for a better life. "We" being those who want to see a new Afghanistan develop. Afghan society is under assault by a brutal fundamentalist sect which is rejected by mainstream Islam and violently opposes the basic values that America stands for: freedom, equality, the worth of the individual. America has historically helped those who sought freedom. President Kennedy's stirring words -- "Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty" -- overstated the nation's ability to support liberty globally, but did not overstate its intent.
What to do?
The first challenge is developing a clear objective that is understandable, stresses common US and Islamic ideals, and appeals to the Afghan and US publics as well as to the wider world. Above all, it must be credible, so it has to stress positive, developmental efforts and avoid unrealistic objectives. Operations in Afghanistan have to fit into a larger framework of global US strategy. The XXI Century demands a whole new concept of national security, where military power is no longer the base, but rather a necessary adjunct which has to be minimized where ever possible so that the critical tasks of building capacity domestically and globally can proceed vigorously.
We are not going to establish a strong, democratic, central government in Afghanistan. What we can do is promote a stable central government which facilitates economic development throughout the country. We cannot force this government to eliminate internal corruption, but we can insist that US efforts and especially US payments, be as open and transparent as possible. We can also encourage development of local press and media.
We must build on success and focus on areas where we can get the biggest return for the least cost, especially in lives. This means supporting local councils and regional leaders who work to take charge of their own lives and build their own communities. The more we can do this in conjunction with other Islamic countries, the better off we are. At a minimum, we can encourage commercial involvement from Islamic allies. Competent local governments are more important than a strong central government. Good governance is more important than some veneer of democracy; responsiveness, fairness and transparency are critical. Our basic objective can only be helping Afghans to build a better life. And this has to be part of a larger objective to promote global prosperity as the only route to avoid global turmoil. Afghanistan has become the test of our interest and capability to promote development of a vibrant, prosperous, open Muslim society.
Rebuilding support at home is essential, or US involvement will be unreliable and fragile. Afghanistan will not collapse as Vietnam did, but there will be concerns that US support will collapse, that people who work with us will be left in the lurch. Rebuilding support requires:
Articulation of a clear sense of purpose, along with a new vision of what Afghanistan can become. This requires open discussions, bargaining and proposal development in both Afghanistan and the United States, as well as with allies. It must be set into a broader strategic context.
Widespread positive publicity on a "thousand points of light" - the myriad projects which are today improving the lives of everyday Afghans -- educational, agricultural, construction and business activities now in progress and helping to build the new Afghanistan. We must show Afghanistan as being full of dynamic, forward-looking individuals who are actively working for better lives. It is critical that America see that Afghans are working to build Afghanistan and want US help. Publicity and media development within Afghanistan is equally important. Afghanistan Alive and Good Afghan News are already doing some of this, but there is no similar positive publicity in the United States.
Minimizing military operations. Help to put a lid on Taliban expansion, especially in the south, but local security must depend on commitment of local leaders to insure their own security. Marjah residents are slowly coming to believe that there might be a viable alternative to Taliban rule; some other villages have decided to actively oppose Taliban control. In the north, various local militias defend their own territories, sometimes with US support, often at odds with one another and/or the central government, but uniformly anti-Taliban. US forces can help facilitate Afghan government support, but prospects of a better life are even more important to provide incentives for people to take their security into their own hands.
Encouraging involvement of grass roots US organizations with grass roots Afghan organizations. Help US organizations adopt and sponsor specific projects -- educational, municipal, commercial - to maximize not only US citizen involvement, but word of mouth publicity of positive developments.
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 this larger effort to integrate the Muslim world into a global development program that is essential for US prosperity. That's why we need to be there and our stated objective has to make this clear.