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Afghanistan: A marathon, not a prize fight

President Obama's decision to send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan reflects a nation deeply divided on the war. There are compelling arguments on both sides.

Sober-minded observers see al Qa'ida, the reason the U.S. came to Afghanistan in the first place, as a spent force whose leaders are now in Pakistan. And the Taliban, while a hateful horde, are not America's problem. These war critics further point to the corruption of the Afghan government, the reluctance of America's allies, the strain on already stretched armed forces, and the added costs of the war on a distressed economy. All these are valid points.

Skeptics also correctly point out that large-scale deployments risk increasing local resentment, which the Taliban are quick to exploit. But above all, critics fear that the United States cannot achieve anything that looks like victory in Afghanistan, and will instead become entangled in an open-ended imperial mission. In their view, the United States should start winding down now.

Last night, however, the president sided with the equally thoughtful analysts who warned that leaving an undermanned U.S. force to flounder in Afghanistan, or ordering a full withdrawal, would be portrayed as a U.S. defeat. It would hurt American diplomacy elsewhere. America's jihadist foes would be buoyed by their victory, their determination strengthened -- an encouragement to further terrorist attacks. Perceptions count.

But more importantly, U.S. military withdrawal would leave Afghanistan in chaos, in which al Qa'ida and its allies, always resilient and opportunistic, would flourish. If further terrorist attacks did occur once U.S. troops were out, it would be even more difficult for them to return. Pakistan, meanwhile, would likely abandon its campaign against its own Taliban insurgents and instead seek new deals.

The troop reinforcements Obama has ordered are necessary to check Taliban advances, signal America's continuing commitment, keep allies on board, and exploit opportunities created by Pakistan's efforts on its side of the border.

But this debate has been unwisely distilled down to the number of troops Obama is willing to send to Afghanistan. Too much weight has been placed on this figure, as if there were precisely a right number.

Any number greater than zero indicates a conviction that the United States can ultimately prevail. Obama has met that hurdle. The real question is how he can achieve victory with the troops he has committed.

The president can hope that by sending reinforcements now, commanders in the field will be able to turn a bad situation around fast, before political calculations inevitably necessitate a troop drawdown. But more troops mean more American casualties, more money, and expectations that Afghanistan can be "fixed" any time soon. A large U.S. deployment comes with a time table. It may not be a realistic one.

A long contest is a given. The U.S. time horizon must compare with that of the Cold War, not that of World War II. That will not go down well domestically. Americans' natural instinct is to go in big, get it done, and get out. But a slow, patient strategy, with limited aims, is the better bet - for America, and for Afghanistan.

However many more troops are deployed, the United States will not likely be able to drive the Taliban out of Afghanistan, their native land. At the same time, the Taliban cannot take over Afghanistan as long as U.S. and NATO forces remain there. Their strategy is to erode our will to stay.

The Taliban and al Qa'ida will likely welcome the commitment of 30,000 more U.S. troops, as well as another 5,000 from other countries. But they would likely be dismayed by a credible commitment that the United States will, if necessary, stay another 40 years.

It will take decades to develop national institutions, build effective Afghan army and police, raise the standard of living and change the pervasive culture of violence. Meanwhile, the metrics, milestones and timetables so appealing to American notions of management will serve only as markers for domestic partisan maneuver.

Americans must also be realistic about what they can expect from the Afghan government. Clearly it does not meet our standards, but the United States should decouple its military commitment from Afghanistan's political progress.

The United States is in Afghanistan primarily for its own reasons - to prevent al Qa'ida and its jihadist allies from taking over. Democracy and good governance must be goals, not preconditions, of the U.S. presence.

The Afghans have their own skin in the game - literally. According to a recent poll, one in six say they or relatives have been the victims of violence or crime in the past year alone; 78% support democracy, but 51% are still afraid to vote. The United States should push for political progress while accepting imperfections.

The war will not be over in 18 months, when the president says he wants to begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan. But reducing the American footprint in Afghanistan as soon as possible makes strategic sense.

U.S. forces have learned a great deal about counterinsurgency since 2003, but they are still not the best for the job, because however skilled, they are foreigners. The pacification of Afghanistan must ultimately be carried out by Afghans.

The United States can accelerate the slow process of building an Afghan national army by embedding allied soldiers in Afghan units, which they are doing, and by integrating Afghan and allied units.

To get more Afghan soldiers quickly, the U.S. should simultaneously build up local and tribal defense forces, which require less training and can be fielded even faster. This is a traditional task for Special Forces and Marines. These are irregular forces. Using them involves risks, revolts, betrayals. That is the nature of tribal warfare.

Tribal forces are opposed by the Afghan government and, until Iraq, unloved by American commanders. But from the Philippines to the Middle East, the U.S. has effectively mobilized indigenous irregulars to help defeat native insurgents.

In Vietnam, where I served with Special Forces, several thousand Americans recruited and managed an irregular self-defense force of 50,000 fighters - a ratio of roughly 25 to 1. We armed them, paid them, and took care of their families. Most of them came from the region's mountain tribes. Many of them were former Viet Cong guerrillas. They were highly effective because they fought on their own turf.

In Iraq, the key component of success was not simply the modest increase in American forces. It was a fundamental shift in strategy that included the recruitment - often for cash - of more than 100,000 Iraqi fighters, many of them former insurgents.

In Afghanistan, U.S. political and development officers could be embedded into local military teams, or military officers could be trained to take on additional development tasks. They would also be in the business of dispensing rewards to cooperative locals and outbidding the Taliban to recruit fighters. It is certainly cheaper and better to buy off the insurgents than to try to keep them from shooting at Americans and terrorizing Afghans.

There is nothing to negotiate with fanatics who subscribe to al Qaeda's brand of jihad. But the Taliban is more complicated than that and includes local chieftains with whom some political accommodations may be possible. The "terrorist" label should not prevent creative and pragmatic dialogue.

President Obama's decision does not end the public debate about America's goals and strategy. He has a hard sell. Americans believe "good" wars are short and lack patience for protracted entanglements. The president must explain that long-term commitments and pragmatic, limited strategies may defeat al Qa'ida where over-ambitious, hasty ones will certainly fail.

Brian Michael Jenkins, author of Will Terrorists Go Nuclear? (Prometheus, 2008), is senior advisor to the president of the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decision-making through research and analysis.

The opinions expressed in this article and the SitRep website are the author's own and do not reflect the view of

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