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In Afghanistan, No Choice but to Try

By Michael Gerson
Friday, September 4, 2009

We are seeing the stirrings of a cross-ideological revolt against American military involvement in Afghanistan.

On the right, some who accepted the Cold War as a great moral cause view the war on terror as a bother -- even as a dangerous excuse for global social engineering. Such tinkering, the argument goes, is particularly doomed in Afghanistan, brimming with warlords both primitive and invincible. And because Afghanistan is now Barack Obama's war, no partisan motive remains to support it.

On the left, some view every conceivable war as a "war of choice" that should never be chosen. With Iraq miraculously unscathed by the attentions of the antiwar movement -- whose success in encouraging untimely withdrawal might have sparked a genocide -- Afghanistan is the next obvious target of their idealism.

The strategic importance of Afghanistan is difficult for critics of the war to deny. The events of Sept. 11, 2001, which began in state-sponsored terror academies there, are not yet generally regarded as a myth. The spread of Taliban havens in Afghanistan would permit al-Qaeda to return to its historical operating areas. This would allow, according to one administration official to whom I spoke, "perhaps a hundredfold expansion of their geographic and demographic area of operation." And Taliban advances in Afghanistan could push a fragile, nuclear Pakistan toward chaos.

So critics turn to a different question: What does it matter how strategic Afghanistan is if the war itself is unwinnable?

I posed that question Wednesday to Gen. David Petraeus, head of U.S. Central Command. "To be fair," he responded, "all of us should be asking that question more, in view of allegations of electoral fraud" in the recent Afghan election. "I don't think anyone can guarantee that it will work out even if we apply a lot more resources. But it won't work out if we don't."

Petraeus dismisses the idea that a strategy of drones, missiles and U.S. Special Forces would be sufficient in Afghanistan. "We tried counterterrorist approaches in Afghanistan, launching cruise missiles. Some say we are doing okay with that approach in the FATA [Pakistan's federally administered tribal regions]. But only because we know where to look." Targeting terrorists is done with on-the-ground intelligence, which "takes enormous infrastructure." In addition, "the Taliban have sanctuaries in Afghanistan. You can't take out sanctuaries with Predator strikes. We are not going to carpet-bomb. Distance puts limits on what you can do."

Petraeus is also concerned about a strategy of incrementalism -- marginal shifts in strategy and resources that might result in gains years in the future. "We have to regain the initiative. We have to get ahead of this, to arrest the downward spiral, to revive momentum."

As a result, Petraeus is strongly behind the approach recently advocated by America's lead general in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal -- what Petraeus calls "a fully resourced, comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign." This involves expanding the Afghan army, partnering American troops with Afghan forces, better protecting population centers, coordinating military advances with civilian development efforts, strengthening local governance and mastering the endless intricacies of a tribal culture. The effort will require more troops, more resources and more patience from a tired nation -- and perhaps, to get serious results in 2010, an emergency war supplemental appropriation from Congress.

Iraq, the recent model for counterinsurgency success, is different from Afghanistan. Afghanistan's population is more dispersed; its insurgency more rural. Small contingents of troops are needed in more locations to secure population centers. The Afghan insurgency is also mainly indigenous -- in contrast to Iraq, where foreign leadership was eventually resented and resisted.

But America is not without advantages in this fight. The people of Afghanistan know what it is like to live under the Taliban, and there is no evidence they want to go back to it. Afghan consent for the American presence in their country, according to polls, is resilient and sustained.

"The opportunity," argues Petraeus, "is reconciliation. About 70 to 80 percent [of the insurgents] are in this to survive, to scratch out a living, are intimidated or coerced. They are not true believers." Even in Afghanistan, Petraeus insists, "the core principles of counterinsurgency still obtain. . . . If you make people's lives better, they are grateful for it."

Can we make Afghan lives better? There are no guarantees, but there are precedents. And this much is clear: It is not a serious strategy to exaggerate American obstacles in Afghanistan, to discount hopeful alternatives, and to speak with airy vagueness about how it will all work out if we retreat. It is a fantasy world of our own unmaking.

mgerson@globalengage.org

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