Stephen J. Hadley on how Obama's surge in Afghanistan can stabilize the region

U.S. soldiers patrol in the center of Kabul last week.
U.S. soldiers patrol in the center of Kabul last week. (Musadeq Sadeq/associated Press)
By Stephen J. Hadley
Friday, December 11, 2009

President Obama has embraced a strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan that deserves bipartisan support. Its success is crucial to the security of our nation and that of our allies.

Despite some well-grounded concerns, the president and his national security team have said there is no arbitrary withdrawal schedule or exit date. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was explicit, saying on Sunday that "we're not talking about an exit strategy or a drop-dead deadline." Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that the transition to Afghan responsibility "will be the same kind of gradual conditions-based transition, province by province, district by district, that we saw in Iraq," where the decision of when a district or province "is ready to be turned over to the Afghan security forces is a judgment that will be made by our commanders on the ground, not here in Washington."

But why after eight years does the United States have to send still more forces into Afghanistan?

The U.S. goal has always been to help the Afghan people build the institutions of governance, economy and security they need to chart their own future. From late 2001 through mid-2006, this strategy had considerable success.

Politically, the United Nations-led conference in Bonn, Germany, in December 2001 helped establish an interim government. In January 2004 the Afghan people adopted a progressive constitution. They turned out in overwhelming numbers to elect a president that October and a parliament in September 2005.

Economically, the international community pledged tens of billions of dollars in assistance. The growth rate of the Afghan economy climbed toward 10 percent, and an ambitious road-building program provided a reliable way to move goods to market.

As to security, the U.N. Security Council authorized an international military force in December 2001, put it under NATO command in August 2003 and expanded its writ to all of Afghanistan in October 2003. Afghan army and police forces were being recruited, trained and equipped. Most of the country was free of violence.

But in 2006, the situation deteriorated. Suicide bombings and attacks using improvised explosive devices spiked. Corruption and poppy production grew dramatically, and the central government failed to establish an effective presence in the provinces. The planned Afghan security force was simply too small to handle the escalating violence.

In September 2006, Afghanistan's neighbor Pakistan embarked on a series of well-intentioned but ill-fated deals intended to entice local tribes to support the government in Kabul. The tribes were supposed to expel al-Qaeda and end Taliban attacks in exchange for economic assistance and the withdrawal of Pakistani troops. Instead, these badly executed agreements strengthened the terrorist havens.

Then Pakistan plunged into an 18-month political crisis, beginning in March 2007 when President Pervez Musharraf fired the country's chief justice and ending with Musharraf's resignation in August 2008. Consumed by political chaos, Pakistan could only watch as al-Qaeda terrorists and their Taliban allies launched attacks not only in Afghanistan but also in Pakistan -- including the assassination of Benazir Bhutto.

Some argue that America could not respond to the deteriorating situation because its attention and its troops were all focused on Iraq. Yet despite troop demands for Iraq, President George W. Bush and our coalition allies launched a "quiet surge" in Afghanistan to meet the new challenge. Consider:

-- U.S. force levels increased from less than 21,000 in 2006 to nearly 31,000 in September 2008.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company