Setback in Afghanistan: The Right Response Is Not a Retreat.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

LAST MONTH we expected that Afghanistan's elections would mark a modest step forward for the country. Now it appears that they could be a major reverse. Though the election campaign was positive in many respects, Election Day itself is emerging as a disaster of relatively low turnout and massive irregularities -- including ballot-box-stuffing on behalf of both incumbent President Hamid Karzai and his leading opponent. Unless the fraud can be reversed or repaired through a U.N.-backed complaints commission or a runoff vote, Mr. Karzai may emerge as a crippled winner, his already weak and corruption-plagued administration facing further discredit or even violent protests.

This grim prospect is particularly worrisome because the United States and its allies were counting on the election to provide the Afghan government with a new lease on public support. They hoped the vote would be followed by a drive to reform both national and local administrations and extend their authority to areas where only the Taliban has been present. That construction of government capacity -- call it nation-building if you like -- is essential to the counterinsurgency strategy adopted by U.S. commanders during the last year and embraced by President Obama in March.

Unfortunately for the Obama administration, the bad election news has arrived at the same time as a report by the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, that portrays a "serious" military situation in which Taliban fighters are growing more capable and Afghan and international forces lack the military and civilian resources they need to regain the initiative. Gen. McChrystal is expected to ask Mr. Obama to dispatch more American troops next year -- perhaps tens of thousands of reinforcements to the 68,000 U.S. troops already deployed or on the way. The bad election and heavier U.S. casualties this summer, including more than 100 deaths, mean that Mr. Obama will probably come under considerable pressure to deny the additional troops and change course.

The Democratic left and some conservatives have begun to argue that the Afghan war is unwinnable and that U.S. interests can be secured by a much smaller military campaign directed at preventing al-Qaeda from regaining a foothold in the country. Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) has proposed a timetable for withdrawal -- the same demand the left rallied around when the war in Iraq was going badly. Its most cogent argument is a negative one: that the weakness of the Afghan government and the general backwardness of the country mean that the counterinsurgency strategy, with its emphasis on political and economic development, can't work.

That might prove true. But the problem with the critics' argument is that, while the strategy they oppose has yet to be tried, the alternatives they suggest already have been -- and they led to failure in both Afghanistan and Iraq. For years, U.S. commanders in both countries focused on killing insurgents and minimizing the numbers and exposure of U.S. troops rather than pacifying the country. The result was that violence in both countries steadily grew, until a counterinsurgency strategy was applied to Iraq in 2007. As for limiting U.S. intervention in Afghanistan to attacks by drones and Special Forces units, that was the strategy of the 1990s, which, as chronicled by the Sept. 11 commission, paved the way for al-Qaeda's attacks on New York and Washington. Given that the Taliban and al-Qaeda now also aim to overturn the government of nuclear-armed Pakistan, the risks of a U.S. withdrawal far exceed those of continuing to fight the war -- even were the result to be continued stalemate.

Yet if Mr. Obama provides adequate military and civilian resources, there's a reasonable chance the counterinsurgency approach will yield something better than stalemate, as it did in Iraq. The Taliban insurgency is not comparable to those that earlier fought the Soviets and the British in Afghanistan. Surveys show that support for its rule is tiny, even in its southern base. Not everything in Mr. Karzai's government is rotten: U.S. officials have reliable allies in some key ministries and provincial governorships, and the training of the Afghan army -- accelerated only recently -- is going relatively well. Stabilizing the country will require many years of patient effort and the pain of continued American casualties. Yet the consequences of any other option are likely to be far more dangerous for this country.

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