The Obama campaign, anxious to prove they are tough on national security, should be careful not to fall into the trap of pretending we can solve Afghanistan’s problems with more soldiers. Rory Stewart, the brilliant British diplomat and writer who has spent so much time on the ground in Afghanistan, makes a compelling case in Time Magazine for another approach.
First, the West should not increase troop numbers. In time, NATO allies, such as Germany and Holland, will probably want to draw down their numbers, and they should be allowed to do so. We face pressing challenges elsewhere. If we are worried about terrorism, Pakistan is more important than Afghanistan; if we are worried about regional stability, then Egypt, Iran or even Lebanon is more important; if we are worried about poverty, Africa is more important. A troop increase is likely to inflame Afghan nationalism because Afghans are more anti-foreign than we acknowledge and the support for our presence in the insurgency areas is declining. The Taliban, which was a largely discredited and backward movement, gains support by portraying itself as fighting for Islam and Afghanistan against a foreign military occupation.
Nor should we increase our involvement in government and the economy. The more responsibility we take in Afghanistan, the more we undermine the credibility and responsibility of the Afghan government and encourage it to act irresponsibly. Our claims that Afghanistan is the “front line in the war on terror” and that “failure is not an option” have convinced the Afghan government that we need it more than it needs us. The worse things become, the more assistance it seems to receive. This is not an incentive to reform. Increasing our commitment to Afghanistan gives us no leverage over the government.
This is not to say that there is nothing we can do there. Stewart has two ideas, one of which links directly to yesterday’s post on counterterrorism.
Our military strategy, meanwhile, should focus on counterterrorism — not counterinsurgency. Our presence has so far prevented al-Qaeda from establishing training camps in Afghanistan. We must continue to prevent it from doing so. But our troops should not try to hold territory or chase the Taliban around rural areas. We should also use our presence to steer Afghanistan away from civil war and provide some opportunity for the Afghans themselves to create a more humane, well-governed and prosperous country. This policy would require far fewer troops over the next 20 years, and they would probably be predominantly special forces and intelligence operatives.
Finally, our financial aid must be targeted.
We should focus on meeting the Afghan government’s request for more investment in agricultural irrigation, energy and roads. And we should increase our support to the most effective departments, such as education, health and rural development; they are good for the reputation of the Afghan state and the West. Creating more educated, healthier women and men and better transport, communications and electrical infrastructure may be only part of the story, but they are essential for Afghanistan’s economic future.
As I have tried to point out in The Cost of Empire, our continuing bi-partisan belief that foreign policy solutions flow from military power is a 60 year fools errand. We must break the brainlock this notion has on policy makers.