Don't move the goalposts on Afghanistan
If Iraq was "Bush's War," Afghanistan may well become "Obama's War." But as the New York Times reports today, the Obama administration is attempting to shift the goalposts in Afghanistan away from building a functioning democracy and toward the limited objective of denying terrorists sanctuary on Afghan soil.
This is troubling, but also ironic: As President Obama promises to "end" (rather than "win") the war in Iraq so that he can focus on what parts of his antiwar base have always defined as "the good war," U.S. objectives in Afghanistan have been redefined away from nation-building, promoting good governance, and fostering long-term development. Instead, as Secretary of Defense Gates has said (and not just once), America must be realistic rather than starry-eyed about what we can accomplish in the graveyard of empires.
This sounds reasonable enough. But it is such a cramped definition of "victory" that it puts the chances of long-term success in doubt -- a difficult balancing act, to be sure, as Peter Feaver suggests below. The Bush administration concluded in last year's Afghan Strategy Review that a near-term focus on security is essential to creating an enabling environment for governance and development. But in this equation, security is the means to the end of a cohesive, democratic state connected to its people through functioning and accountable institutions. Security is not the end in itself. And, as Gates rightly notes, security must ultimately be the responsibility of Afghans, not foreign soldiers. We cannot win in Afghanistan until the Afghan state itself is capable of securing its territory and meeting its people's basic needs.
But the Obama administration is now arguing that the United States must instead focus solely on denying Al Qaeda sanctuary in Afghanistan. "If we set ourselves the objective of creating some sort of Central Asian Valhalla over there, we will lose," Gates says, "[N]obody in the world has th[e] kind of time, patience and money" to achieve more ambitious goals. The problem with this formulation is its inversion of the sources of security in Afghanistan.
The Taliban does not enjoy more popular support than the elected Afghan government. On the contrary, the Taliban is deeply unpopular with most Afghans. Its insurgency is only sustainable thanks to the roughly $300-400 million in drug revenues it earns annually from controlling or taxing the narcotics trade, and from the failures of the Afghan state to connect with the Afghan people, leaving vast and ungoverned swathes of the country subject to parallel administration by the Taliban.
The Taliban rules by the barrel of a gun, not by popular consent. As I saw firsthand as an International Republican Institute observer of previous Afghan elections, a substantial majority of Afghans have repeatedly -- and enthusiastically -- voted for a future of liberty and modernity, rejecting at the ballot box the neo-medieval despotism of the Taliban.
Success in Afghanistan lies in reconnecting the Afghan state with the people it represents. Creating a secure environment is necessary but not sufficient; rather, security makes possible the delivery of government services and development to an impoverished society that resents warlord rule and the human insecurity it produces. So when senior Obama administration officials tell the Times that the United States "will put more emphasis on waging war than on development" as part of a new Afghanistan strategy, it sounds eerily like the Democratic critiques of Bush's foreign policy.
Denying Al Qaeda sanctuary in Afghanistan is a critical U.S. goal, but it is not enough. During the debate over the troop surge in Iraq, some called for a U.S. force withdrawal to an "over-the-horizon" posture, limiting further intervention in Iraq to a narrow counter-terrorism mission. President Bush rightly rejected this strategy, because as long as the Iraqi state did not control its territory and faced an active insurgency, the risk that Al Qaeda would enjoy safe haven would only grow, irrespective of sporadic U.S. counter-terrorism interventions. The broader political goal of empowering the institutions of the Iraqi state was necessary to prevent the use of Iraqi territory by terrorists.
Afghanistan is too important to be relegated to the fate of a failed state and terrorist safe haven like Somalia. Doing so would be not only a strategic mistake given the West's vital interests there, but a moral error given our repeated promises to the Afghan people to help them build a different, and better, future -- and our record of abandoning that cause after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.
Denial of space to terrorists in Afghanistan is a negative goal that must be matched with a positive agenda to promote good governance and the hard and soft infrastructure of development. Former State Department counterterrorism advisor Dave Kilcullen and colleagues make the case here for an Afghanistan policy that combines Gates' two "no's" - no sanctuary for terrorists with global reach and no regional war over the spoils of a Balkanized Afghanistan - with the "yes" of building a sustainable system of governance that meets the needs of the Afghan people.
As the outgoing Bush team recommended to its successors, much of what America and our allies need to do in Afghanistan involves "Afghanizing" development delivery, empowering provincial and local governance, adapting Provincial Reconstruction Teams to reflect Afghan priorities, developing a successful counter-narcotics strategy, and rooting out corruption at all levels of government.
It is also critically important to integrate the counterterrorism mission with our broader counterinsurgency goals. Counterinsurgency should protect the population and separate them from the insurgents; our counterterrorism efforts as currently constituted produce civilian casualties that alienate the population and drive them into the hands of the adversary.
We've heard a lot from the new U.S. team about elevating the use of "smart" over "hard" power. Afghanistan would be a good place to start.