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Topic A: What's the Right Strategy for Afghanistan?

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Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Post asked foreign policy experts whether President Obama should maintain a focus on protecting the population and rebuilding the country, or on striking terrorists. Below are contributions from Jane Harman, Kurt Volker, Gilles Dorronsoro, John Nagl, Ronald E. Neumann, Meghan O'Sullivan and Carl M. Levin.

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JANE HARMAN

Democratic representative from California; former ranking member of the House intelligence committee

It's too early to abandon a strategy focused on protecting the population and rebuilding the country, a key part of which is Afghan buy-in. We should aim to shrink our ground footprint and focus on training a growing army of willing and courageous Afghans. But without a viable partner, the strategy will fail. That's why I say: "It's the corruption, stupid."

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, is right to focus on better governance as the way to persuade Afghans to side with NATO forces against the Taliban. Major opposition candidates and tribal elders in Kandahar told me in April that the presidential election would be a sham and that people could join the Taliban rather than submit to the corruption of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's cronies. The United States has leverage to demand that the Karzai government clean up its act and submit to a partial or total recount to fix the fraudulent election. Unless and until this happens, Congress shouldn't even be asked about troop levels.

KURT VOLKER

U.S. permanent representative to NATO from 2008 to 2009

The whole notion of "killing terrorists" without supporting a responsible society in their place is fallacy. It is what the Bush administration tried with Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon, and it failed, alienating the population while giving extremists free rein. This approach created the wide-open space that the Taliban has filled -- giving us the problem we face today. The Bush administration changed course, and President Obama's first strategy review rightly re-emphasized a "comprehensive approach." All good.

To really get the terrorists, we need to deny them havens and provide alternatives. True victory will be when communities feel confident enough to stand up for their own future. Afghans are a proud people scarred by decades of war and jaded about foreign interlopers. In the end, they know they must live with the winners. If they think that the United States is packing up, they won't bet their lives on opposing extremists. Neither, frankly, will European allies, who will help Afghans protect and build their society but will recoil at "killing terrorists." Afghanistan, too, would become "America's war." Patience never wins political arguments. But it is what strong leadership should demand now in Afghanistan.

GILLES DORRONSORO

Visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

A Taliban victory in Afghanistan would enable al-Qaeda to use Afghan cities as a base. But the United States can prevent that outcome without defeating the Taliban -- which would require many more troops and a much longer commitment than the American public would tolerate -- if it helps build an Afghan state that can defend its cities and strategic areas.

Instead of this limited objective, the current strategy aims to retake the south and east of the country from the insurgents. As we see in Helmand province, where 20,000 troops have been unable to secure a few districts, this strategy cannot work. The coalition cannot secure the villages of the Pashtun belt, where foreigners are deeply unpopular, and there is no Afghan army or police force to take its place. If Gen. Stanley McChrystal prevails on the White House to commit more troops to this end, the results will be catastrophic: high casualties and growing opposition among both the Afghan and American people. Large operations like that in Helmand needlessly antagonize Afghans, who see the coalition as the main source of insecurity.

To succeed, the coalition must control Afghanistan's cities, where institution-building can take place and where the population is more neutral or even favorable to the coalition. The Afghan army and, in certain cases, small militias must protect cities, towns and the roads linking them. Fewer casualties and the improvement of the Afghan security forces -- Afghanization -- will allow the coalition to focus more resources in the north, where the situation is becoming extremely unstable. Stabilizing the country will allow the coalition to focus on al-Qaeda, the enemy that attacked the United States on Sept. 11.

JOHN NAGL

President of the Center for a New American Security

For the past eight years in Afghanistan, the United States has focused on killing and capturing the Taliban while failing to properly build Afghan security forces, protect the Afghan population or develop an Afghan government worthy of the name. This strategy has clearly failed: the Taliban is gaining strength, the Afghan security forces are not robust enough to protect the population on their own, and the Afghan government is corrupt and ineffective.

In March, President Obama announced that his administration would instead implement a comprehensive counterinsurgency strategy dedicated to protecting the Afghan people. Gen. Stanley McChrystal is just beginning to implement this strategy; 4,000 advisers are deploying this month from Fort Bragg to help develop the Afghan National Army and Police, and McChrystal is starting to redeploy his forces to protect population centers rather than chase enemy fighters.

A strategy that just targets enemy fighters, on the other hand, cannot build an Afghan state that can stand on its own; if we pursue that strategy, we are sentencing ourselves to fight a war forever. In time, a properly resourced strategy like that President Obama articulated in March can build Afghan security forces that can stand on their own, preventing Afghanistan from again being used as a haven for terrorism and stabilizing rather than weakening neighboring Pakistan. The cost will be high, but sometimes you get what you pay for.

RONALD E. NEUMANN

U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007

It is time to review fundamentals. Talk of "narrow goals" compounds confusion about Afghanistan. The term is being used to mean two different things; one has failed and the other isn't narrow. The real narrow goal is the Rumsfeld strategy: ignore nation-building and just hunt terrorists. It failed. One eliminated leader was replaced by another. The Taliban re-grew before a strengthened state or military could resist. President Obama defines limited goals differently -- getting rid of al-Qaeda. But al-Qaeda is not state-based and can reestablish itself in Afghanistan if the state fragments. The Obama strategy recognizes this in its emphasis on strengthening the Afghan state and protecting civilians. These goals are rational, but they are not limited. Essentially they demand the creation of an Afghan state sufficiently stable to fight a low level of insurgency for a long time, with foreign help but without being dependent on foreign forces. This is extraordinarily ambitious.

But there are no other acceptable choices other than the strategy Obama outlined in March. There is no army or political force waiting in the wings. Local security based on militias would replicate the corrupt structures that tore the country apart in civil war and collapsed in the face of Taliban attack. So succeed in building a somewhat cohesive state or lose.

In 2001 the Taliban refused to give up al-Qaeda to avoid war. In the years since, every bit of intelligence and analysis I know of suggests that the links have become tighter. A Taliban victory would be an al-Qaeda victory, bringing real risks of further attacks against us.

MEGHAN O'SULLIVAN

Kirkpatrick professor of international affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government; deputy national security adviser for Iraq and Afghanistan in the George W. Bush administration

President Obama should reaffirm his counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan. It may be resource-intensive, difficult to execute and require untold patience. But the alternatives are no more attractive.

For example, a more modest effort in Afghanistan would not allow for a dramatically more robust approach in Pakistan. Neither freed-up dollars nor troops can compensate for what is lacking in the U.S. approach toward Pakistan: the authority to operate in Pakistan and a common U.S.-Pakistani strategic vision toward the Taliban. In reality, a U.S. retreat from Afghanistan would make efforts to stabilize nuclear-armed Pakistan eminently more difficult. It would reinforce the widely held Pakistani view that America is not a reliable partner. And it would strengthen those in Pakistan who see Taliban control over Afghanistan as a way to provide Pakistan with strategic depth in the face of a continued Indian threat.

Equally questionable are claims that United States could persuade or compel the Taliban to keep al-Qaeda out of Afghanistan. (Put aside the questionable proposition that a return to power of the Taliban would not seriously damage U.S. interests as long as such a regime could be convinced to keep al-Qaeda off Afghan soil.) Such thinking discounts the long entanglement of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. It also presumes that the Taliban thinks through and weighs options the same way that we do. Why assume the Taliban leaders are rational actors who can be deterred in a way that we understand? After all, the Taliban chose to protect Osama bin Laden after Sept. 11, and long before they believed they defeated the West -- as they will be able to claim if they return to power.

CARL M. LEVIN

Democratic senator from Michigan; chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee

Our strategic approach to Afghanistan should start from a simple premise: It is in our national security interest to ensure that Afghanistan does not revert to rule by a regime that would allow its territory to once again serve as a base for attacks against us.

A counterinsurgency strategy to secure the Afghan population, principally carried out by the Afghan army with support from the United States and coalition allies, is the approach that seems most likely to prevent the Taliban from retaking power and once again harboring those who have attacked us before and would attack us again.

The Afghan army is the hope of its nation. Its soldiers are motivated to fight and are respected by Afghan citizens. Our focus should be on rapidly expanding their numbers; providing them with training and support; and equipping them, on an urgent basis, in part with a significant transfer of equipment now in Iraq. In addition, we should help the Afghans implement a plan to win over low- and mid-level insurgents and re-integrate them into Afghan society, just as we brought tens of thousands of Sunni insurgents in Iraq over to our side.

Ultimately, Afghanistan's own institutions will determine the success of a counterinsurgency strategy. Our goal should be to strengthen those institutions.


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