The Key to Afghanistan: More Time
American commanders worry that Afghanistan is "the forgotten war" as it recedes into the shadow of the bloodier, more divisive conflict in Iraq. But they take some comfort from their relative obscurity: They need time, and they will take it any way they can get it.
The biggest challenge that U.S. and NATO forces face is not on the battlefield. It lies in building confidence in the country's rural tribes and sparse urban population that Western governments will stay deeply involved in Afghanistan for a decade or longer. If Afghans do not believe that, they are unlikely to take the risks of vast social and political change being demanded of them today.
In government-speak, this is called "pushing out the timelines." It means that Washington and other NATO capitals should accept the idea that they are providing a long-term military presence and significant development funding to Afghanistan as a matter of routine and strategy, rather than as a temporary military emergency.
Being "forgotten" in that sense is better than being at the center of the kind of urgent and partisan debate that Iraq has sparked. Whether the White House is willing to admit it or not, Iraq's particularities have eclipsed or altered the Bush administration's strategies of pushing democracy forward in the Middle East and of fighting the war on terrorism abroad rather than on American soil. The conflict there has become a war with Iraqi characteristics rather than an abstract struggle about greater goals and principles.
Afghanistan, on the other hand, still illustrates in fairly clear form the consequences and dynamics of fighting jihadist terrorist networks and their supporters in a failed Islamic state. Making a long-term commitment to Afghanistan as a matter of routine would require Congress to overhaul obsolete budgeting priorities that starve U.S. reconstruction and development projects. Europeans would have to fund expeditionary forces that are today ill equipped and ill trained for distant counterinsurgency operations. Both changes are desperately needed.
"Show me where the roads end, and I will show you where the Taliban begins," Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, says often to his staff. But while the United States spends about $10 billion a year to field about 20,000 troops there, Congress frequently rejects or blocks creative approaches to development and peacekeeping that would cost much less.
Recent NATO decisions to take greater command responsibilities and to put several thousand more soldiers into the country's most active war zones are seen by U.S. officials as promising signs of shifting attitudes in Europe. NATO currently has 20,000 troops in Afghanistan operating under a British general.
"As new commanders come in, they see the need to be building bridges and schools to buy space for development and to keep the Taliban out," says one U.S. senior officer. "That should generate requests back to their capitals."
Even so, managing expectations and hopes has become a major task for the United States, Canada, the European nations of NATO and the beleaguered government of President Hamid Karzai. The greatest Afghan challenge may lie in the fact that the very progress brought by five years of Western involvement stirs fierce resistance in a tradition-bound, poverty-stricken Islamic society.
The number of girls in elementary and secondary schools has gone from zero to 2 million in those five years. That is a stunning accomplishment -- and no doubt a great recruiting tool for the Taliban as it seeks to reestablish the savagely misogynistic version of Islam that helped tie it to al-Qaeda.
That is why "pushing out the timelines" is vital: Only when it becomes clear to Afghans that the changes brought by the toppling of the Taliban are durable and will shape their options a decade from now will they commit to building a more tolerant society. That is broadly true throughout the Middle East and Central Asia.
Afghanistan turned out not to be a model for waging the war on terrorism. The quick success that U.S. forces scored in the autumn of 2001 misled commanders and their civilian chiefs about what would happen in Iraq. The 2001 lightning campaign was not even a doctrinal model for what would come in Afghanistan: The United States has more troops there now than at any time in the conflict.
But how the long-term counterinsurgency is waged in Afghanistan will foreshadow the outcome of the broader struggle against jihadist extremism. The struggle there needs resources, it needs time -- and it needs never to be forgotten.