This has caused consternation among some in the Democratic Party. In May, fifty-one House Democrats voted against continued funding for the Afghan war. And David Obey, the chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, which controls federal spending, says the White House must show concrete results in Afghanistan within a yearimplying that if it doesnt do so, he will move to turn off the money spigot. If this is the attitude of Obamas own party, one can imagine what the Republicans will be saying if his “Af-Pak” strategy doesnt start yielding results as they gear up for the 2010 midterm elections.
Its not just politicians who are souring on the Afghan war. A USA Today poll earlier this year found that 42 percent of Americans believe the war is a mistake, up from 6 percent in 2002. The media has only added to the gloom. Newsweek ran a cover story in January speculating that Afghanistan could be Obamas Vietnam. And the New York Times has run prominent opinion pieces with headlines like “The Good War Isnt Worth Fighting” and “Fearing Another Quagmire in Afghanistan.”
But the growing skepticism about Obamas chances for success in Afghanistan is largely based on deep misreadings of both the countrys history and the views of its people, which are often compounded by facile comparisons to the United Statess misadventures of past decades in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Afghanistan will not be Obamas Vietnam, nor will it be his Iraq. Rather, the renewed and better resourced American effort in Afghanistan will, in time, produce a relatively stable and prosperous Central Asian state.
The Soviets, of course, spent almost a decade waging war in Afghanistan, only to retreat ignominiously in 1989, an important factor in their own empires consignment to historys dustbin. But todays American-led intervention in Afghanistan is quite different from the Communist occupation. The Soviet army killed more than a million Afghans and forced some five million more to flee the country, creating what was then the worlds largest refugee population. The Soviets also sowed millions of mines (including some that resembled toys), making Afghanistan one of the most heavily mined countries in the world. And Soviet soldiers were a largely unprofessional rabble of conscripts who drank heavily, used drugs, and consistently engaged in looting. The Soviets strategy, tactics, and behavior were, in short, the exact opposite of those used in successful counterinsurgency campaigns.
Unsurprisingly, the brutal Soviet occupation provoked a countrywide insurrection that drew from a wide array of ethnic groupsTajiks, Uzbeks, Pashtuns, and Hazarasand every class in Afghan society, from mullahs to urban professionals to peasants. By contrast, the insurgents in Afghanistan today are overwhelmingly rural Pashtuns with negligible support in urban areas and among other ethnic groups.
That makes quite a difference to the scale of todays insurgency. Even the most generous estimates of the size of the Taliban force hold it to be no more than 20,000 men, while authoritative estimates of the numbers of Afghans on the battlefield at any given moment in the war against the Soviets range up to 250,000. The Taliban insurgency today is only around 10 percent the size of what the Soviets faced.
And while todays Afghan insurgents are well financed, in part by the drug trade, this backing is not on the scale of the financial and military support that the anti-Communist guerrillas enjoyed in the 1980s. The mujahideen were the recipients of billions of dollars of American and Saudi aid, large-scale Pakistani training, and sophisticated U.S. military hardware such as highly effective anti-aircraft Stinger missiles, which ended the Soviets command of the air.
An assertion that deserves a similarly hard look is the argument that nation building in Afghanistan is doomed because the country isnt a nation-state, but rather a jury-rigged patchwork of competing tribal groupings. In fact, Afghanistan is a much older nation-state than, say, Italy or Germany, both of which were only unified in the late nineteenth century. Modern Afghanistan is considered to have emerged with the first Afghan empire under Ahmad Shah Durrani in 1747, and so has been a nation for decades longer than the United States. Accordingly, Afghans have a strong sense of nationhood.
What they have had just as long, however, is a weak central state. The last king of Afghanistan, Zahir Shah, who reigned from 1933 to 1973, presided lightly over a country in a time that Afghans recall with great nostalgia as one of relative peace and prosperity. Today President Hamid Karzai similarly presides over a weak central government. Critics contend that President Karzai is unable or unwilling to fight the epic corruption in his government, and joke that he is only the “mayor of Kabul.” This criticism is largely accurate, but misses the fact that Karzai is still a somewhat popular leader in Afghanistan. Fifty-two percent of Afghans say that the president is doing a good job, only 15 percent less than the number of Americans who say the same thing about Obamaand that is eight years after Karzai assumed the leadership of a country in which any honeymoon period has long since evaporated. Afghans are also wildly enthusiastic about participating in real politics. In the 2004 presidential election, more than 80 percent of them turned out to vote, an accomplishment Americans havent been able to claim since the late nineteenth century.
Nor has the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan been anywhere near as expensive as Vietnam wasin fact, thats in part why American efforts have not met with as much success as they could have. During the Vietnam War, the United States spent almost 10 percent of its GDP on military spending. Todays military expenditures are somewhere between 4 and 5 percent of GDP, and of that, Afghanistan last year consumed only 6 percent of the total expenditure, while Iraq sucked up some five times that amount. And unlike the Vietnamese and Iraqis, Afghans have generally embraced international forces. In 2005, four years after the fall of the Taliban, eight out of ten Afghans expressed in a BBC/ABC poll a favorable opinion of the United States, and the same number supported foreign soldiers in their country. Contrast that with Iraq, where a BBC/ABC poll in 2005 found that only one in three Iraqis supported international forces in their country. While the same poll taken in Afghanistan this year reported, for the first time, that just under half of Afghans have a favorable view of the United States, thats still a higher approval rating than the U.S. gets in any other Muslim-majority country save Lebanon. And a solid majority of Afghans continue to approve of the international forces in their country. What Afghans want is not for American and other foreign soldiers to leave, but for them to deliver on their promises of helping to midwife a more secure and prosperous country.
Why should we believe that the alternative offered by the Obama administrationcommitting large numbers of boots on the ground and significant sums of money to Afghanistanhas a better chance of success? In part, because the Afghan people themselves, the center of gravity in a counterinsurgency, are rooting for us to win. BBC/ABC polling found that 58 percent of Afghans named the Talibanwho only 7 percent of Afghans view favorablyas the greatest threat to their nation; only 8 percent said it was the United States.
There are other positive indices. Refugees dont return to places they dont think have a future, and more than four million Afghan refugees have returned home since the fall of the Taliban. (By contrast, about the same number of Iraqi refugees fled their homes after the American-led invasion of their country in 2003, and few have returned.) There are also more than two million Afghan kids in schools, including, of course, many girls. Music, kites, movies, independent newspapers, and TV stationsall of which were banned under the Talibanare now ubiquitous. One in six Afghans now has a cell phone, in a country that didnt have a phone system under the Taliban. And, according to the World Bank, the 2007 GDP growth rate for Afghanistan was 14 percent. Under Taliban rule the country was so poor that the World Bank didnt even bother to measure its economic indicators.
Today 40 percent of Afghans say their country is going in the right direction (only 17 percent of Americans felt the same way in the waning months of the Bush administration). Considering Afghanistans rampant drug trade, pervasive corruption, and rising violence, this may seem counterintuitiveuntil you recall that no country in the world has ever suffered Afghanistans combination of an invasion and occupation by a totalitarian regime followed by a civil war, with subsequent “government” by warlords and then the neo-medieval misrule of the Taliban. In other words, the bar is pretty low. No Afghan is expecting that the country will turn into, say, Belgium, but there is an expectation that Afghanistan can be returned to the somewhat secure condition it enjoyed in the 1970s before the Soviet invasion, and that the country will be able to grow its way out of being simply a subsistence agricultural economy.
Obamas Afghanistan strategy is well poised to deliver on these expectations because it primarily emphasizes increased security for the Afghan peoplethe first public good that Afghans want. In the south of Afghanistan, where the insurgency is the most intense, the U.S. is deploying two Marine brigades and a Stryker brigade, 17,000 soldiers in all, to supplement the thinly stretched British, Dutch, and Canadian forces in the region. These are not the kind of units that do peacekeeping; they will go in and clear areas of the Taliban and, most crucially, hold them. This will be a major improvement in a region where NATO forces have often had enough manpower to clear areas but not to hold them. One Western diplomat in Kabul joked grimly to me that every year in the south NATO soldiers have gone in to “mow the lawn.” This time the idea is not to let the grass grow back.
One potential objection to Obamas Afghanistan strategy is that the thousands of additional American soldiers that are now deploying to the country will only be the thin end of the wedge, because the Pentagon will inevitably ask for significantly more troops. This is a reasonable concern, but should be obviated by the fact that dramatically scaling up the size of the Afghan army and police is the best American exit strategy from the country, and that effort is at the heart of Obamas plan.
Today there are only some 160,000 Afghan soldiers and cops, a quarter of the size of Iraqs security services, and they are tasked with bringing order to a country that is larger and more populous than Iraq. Obama wants to modestly improve the size and professionalism of Afghanistans police force, and almost double the ranks of the Afghan army over the next two years. The latter is especially important because Afghans trust their army more than any other institution, and the army has emerged as a truly national force not riven by ethnic divisions. To help train those Afghan security services, some 4,000 trainers from the 82nd Airborne are deploying to Afghanistan. The administration is also pushing to make salaries in those forces competitive with what the Taliban pays its foot soldiersoften three times what an Afghan policeman makes.
Another possible objection to the introduction of more U.S. soldiers into Afghanistan is that, inevitably, they will kill more civilians, the main issue that angers Afghans about the foreign military presence. In fact, the presence of more boots on the ground is likely to reduce civilian casualties, because historically it has been the overreliance on American air strikesas a result of too few ground forceswhich has been the key cause of civilian deaths. According to the U.S. Air Force, between January and August 2008 there were almost 2,400 air strikes in Afghanistan, fully three times as many as in Iraq. And the United Nations concluded that it was air strikes, rather than action on the ground, which were responsible for the largest percentage64 percentof civilian deaths attributed to pro-government forces in 2008.
Cognizant of the importance of the issue of civilian casualties, in his Senate confirmation hearing in June the new commander in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, testified that their avoidance “may be the critical point” of American military operations, adding, “I cannot overstate my commitment to the importance of this concept.” McChrystal, generally regarded as one of the most effective officers of his generation, has now put the avoidance of civilian casualties at the core of his military strategy in Afghanistan, and that message will undoubtedly filter down the chain of command.
This brings us to the one skunk at this garden party, and it is a rather large one: Afghanistans nuclear-armed, al-Qaeda- and Taliban-headquartering neighbor to the east. The Pakistani dimension of Obamas Af-Pak strategy is his critics most reasonable objection to his plans for the region. It is difficult for the United States to have an effective strategy for Pakistan when Pakistan doesnt have an effective strategy for Pakistan. There is a set of interwoven problems that the country must face if it is to effectively confront the militants in its own territory. If it fails to do this, the regional insurgency that encompasses both sides of the Afghanistan/Pakistan border will continue to gather strength.
The first problem is that Pakistan effectively has two governments. There is a weak, elected civilian one, and a strong, unelected military one. Pakistans civilian government knows little about military strategy and is often at odds with the army, which has veto power over all aspects of national security policy. Pakistans army, meanwhile, has wavered ineffectually between mounting punitive expeditions against the militants and appeasing them, and is generally unable or unwilling to adopt an effective strategy against the Taliban. (The recent operations in the Swat Valley, characterized by the use of artillery and air power and millions of refugees streaming out of the battle zone, are not the hallmarks of a successful counterinsurgency.) As a result, civilians caught in the middle dont know which way the wind will blow from day to day. They have reason to be skeptical that the government will protect them from the predations of the Taliban if the former chooses to revisit the various “peace” agreements it has struck with the militants over the past several years. Finally, the Pakistani establishment has done a poor job of persuading the public that the Taliban and other militant groups to which it once gave succor, and which are now attacking the Pakistani state, pose a grave threat to Pakistan itself.
Some have argued that if the U.S. does succeed in Afghanistan, it will only make this situation worse, pushing the Taliban and their allied foreign fighters into Pakistan and further destabilizing the already rickety nuclear-armed state. But this line of reasoning has the equation precisely the wrong way around: al-Qaeda was founded in Pakistan in 1988, and many of the Talibans leaders and foot soldiers emerged out of Pakistani madrassas and refugee camps. Following the vacuum created by the Afghan civil war of the early 1990s, the Pakistan-based militants expanded into Afghanistan. The notion of the militants enjoying safe havens in either Afghanistan or Pakistan is a false choicein truth, they have had a persistent presence in both countries for decades.
That said, there are some hopeful signs that the militants have shot themselves in the feet in Pakistan. There has been no single “9/11 moment,” but the cumulative weight of a number of eventsthe Talibans assassination of Benazir Bhutto; al-Qaedas bombing of the Marriott hotel in Islamabad; the attacks on the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team and the police academy in Lahore; the widely circulated video images of the Taliban flogging a seventeen-year-old girl; and the Talibans decision to move from Swat into Buner District, only sixty miles from Islamabadhas accomplished something similar. Each of these incidents has provoked revulsion and fear among the Pakistani public. Indicative of this, the alliance of pro-Taliban religious parties known as the MMA was annihilated in the 2008 election, earning just 2 percent of the vote. And support for suicide bombing among Pakistanis has cratered, from 33 percent in 2002 to 5 percent in 2008.
The United States overthrew the Taliban in the winter of 2001. It has a moral obligation to ensure that when it does leave Afghanistan it does so secure in the knowledge that the country will never again be a launching pad for the worlds deadliest terrorist groups, and that the country is on the way to a measure of stability and prosperity. When that happens, it is not too fanciful to think that Afghanistans majestic mountains, verdant valleys, and jasmine-scented gardens may once again draw the tourists that once flocked there.
This site and all contents within are Copyright 1969-2011 Washington Monthly
Editorial offices: 1200 18th Street NW, Suite 330, Washington, DC 20036