A Race Against Time in Afghanistan

By John F. Kerry
Tuesday, February 10, 2009

No foreign power has remained welcome in Afghanistan for a sustained period, and the British and the Soviets paid a bitter price for trying. Our goal has never been to dominate Afghanistan but, rather, to eliminate al-Qaeda's haven and to empower Afghans to govern their country in line with their best interests and our national security.

We shouldn't delude ourselves into thinking that we are in anything but a race against time in a region suspicious of foreign footprints. The United States is not in Afghanistan to make it our 51st state -- but to make sure it does not become an al-Qaeda narco-state and terrorist beachhead capable of destabilizing neighboring Pakistan.

We must renew our original mission -- and President Obama has rightly pledged to recommit to Afghanistan as the center of our global counterinsurgency campaign, beginning with the deployment of as many as 30,000 additional troops. In 2006, I argued that more troops were needed. I still believe that. But troops alone will not bring victory. Our military commitment must be matched with realistic goals, beginning with a comprehensive new bottom-up strategy acknowledging Afghanistan's history of decentralized governance and recognizing the capabilities of our NATO and Afghan allies.

Last year was the deadliest since we arrived in Afghanistan in 2001. A senior U.S. commander warned recently that "it's going to get worse before it gets better." We will succeed only by maintaining bipartisan support and public backing at home and winning back the Afghan people through a sustained commitment of additional civilian personnel, reconstruction funds and diplomatic engagement. Equally important, we need to execute this commitment without raising the stakes and turning Afghanistan once again into a magnet for the world's jihadists.

Our NATO allies have to shoulder a bigger burden, and we should continue to seek more combat troops with fewer restrictions. Jawboning reluctant allies has its limits; we will need to persuade countries unwilling to take on expanded combat roles to contribute more toward other aspects of the mission, including development and police training.

Afghanistan is not Iraq, and we should not expect the same results from a troop increase as occurred in Iraq. There, a broad Sunni tribal awakening was crucial. In Afghanistan, decades of war have weakened tribal structures, and the Taliban -- unlike the brutal foreigners who comprise al-Qaeda in Iraq -- have deep roots in Pashtun society. More troops, however, can create the conditions for enhanced reconstruction efforts and increase our leverage for the political solution sought by Gen. David Petraeus. Over time, increasing the number of reliable Afghan forces will be vital to maintaining security.

Corruption remains a powerful obstacle to progress. President Hamid Karzai promises to get tough on this chronic problem. But we need to insist on results -- where more is given in blood and money, more is expected in return. Afghanistan lacks judges, lawyers and an effective and honest police force. An illegitimate and isolated central government in Kabul would doom our efforts and drive the people into the clutches of the Taliban. We need to expand our reach beyond Kabul, empowering women and working more closely with trusted provincial leaders to ensure that funds reach the people.

Real progress must start at the local level. One promising model is the National Solidarity Program, which employs Afghans in reconstruction projects requested by village elders. A similar approach in Wardak province helps the district government hire tribal members as community guards.

One of our biggest challenges is eradicating narcotics cultivation, a major source of financing for the Taliban. We need to provide greater subsidies and technical assistance for farmers who abandon poppies, as we have done in Nangahar province. But we must also crack down on drug lords and reduce production, employing sustained force when necessary -- particularly in the Taliban stronghold of Helmand province.

Our strategy must also reflect the interconnectedness of the region. This requires redoubled efforts to strengthen Pakistan's civilian government and support its efforts against militants in the lawless border areas and the factions that would sabotage its relations with India.

We went to Afghanistan to deny sanctuary to al-Qaeda and to replace the Taliban rulers who harbored it with a legitimate government strong enough to avoid destabilizing a vital and volatile region. Our goal hasn't changed. Achieving it requires a more robust commitment of coalition troops and reconstruction aid. It is not too late to turn the tide, but only a comprehensive strategy, sufficient resources and bipartisan resolve will lead to success in Afghanistan.

The writer, a Democrat from Massachusetts, is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company