- The Washington Times - Friday, July 19, 2002

This week's visit of Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz to Afghanistan shoring up the interim government in Kabul and dealing with repercussions from a "friendly fire" incident by U.S. forces engaged in combat operations against al Qaeda and Taliban guerrillas may also signal a shift in U.S. military operations in Afghanistan. Counter-guerrilla operations have made possible increased U.S. policy efforts to engage Afghans throughout the country not just in Kabul in political stability and reconstruction. The military will now increasingly work with other U.S. government agencies to help rebuild not just roads and buildings, but also our best hope for continued peace in Afghanistan keeping al Qaeda and the Taliban marginalized.

The United States has rightly supported the international effort to rebuild the Kabul government. But these new military tactics recognize that the United States has a unique capability to head off challenges to Kabul's nascent authority. Throughout Afghanistan, key regional military commanders "warlords" to their political opponents have U.S. special-operation-forces liaison teams with them. These teams were decisive in the military defeat of the Taliban last year. The visible presence of U.S. troops on the ground demonstrated U.S. commitment better than even the most accurate bombing. These teams have succeeded in limiting fighting by "deconflicting" Afghan factions. The teams function as mediators and provide a way for the United States to speak directly to the men with the guns, telling them that their interests will be better served by cooperation with Kabul and its international supporters than by seeking external patrons for renewed conflict, and that peace is more important than power.

But to remain credible, the United States must be able to back up this talk with action. The Afghans respect the special-operations teams, but ask why they can call in powerful airstrikes to defeat al Qaeda guerrillas but cannot call in needed aid to help Afghans. To remain credible, the U.S. military's demonstrated ability to destroy needs to be matched by its ability to build. Such actions are already under way. Eight small U.S. military-civil affairs teams, deployed throughout Afghanistan, have completed more than two dozen projects, reconstructing schools, hospitals, roads and water systems over a six-month period earlier this year. Their success may point the way for future action.

The precarious security situation in Afghanistan's provinces needs to be addressed, both by expanding the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) which has no U.S. troops but depends on U.S. back-up and by building on successes such as those of the special-forces and civil-affairs teams. State Department and Agency for International Development (AID) personnel are being sent out from Kabul to work alongside the military, dealing with Afghan regional leaders.

The United States should be ready to expand the new approach. Engineer battalions could deploy to rebuild or put in roads, as has been done in Central America, while medical units and hospitals could demonstrate that the U.S. military is committed to improving the life of Afghans as well as the stability of the government. The training the United States is currently providing to a new Afghan army could be expanded: Afghanistan's government needs trained administrators and inspectors general, as well as infantrymen. Again, the need is immediate. Pledges of future aid and waiting for fiscal 2004 funding from Washington will not produce evidence that the political process set up at Bonn in December is succeeding, winning over even those Afghans who still long for power and revenge for themselves and their kind. The United States needs to put more people in the field, to show the Afghans in the provinces that we are also backing Kabul and not looking for an easy exit.

The U.S. military can provide needed near-term results, demonstrate our continued commitment, and show regional leaders they will benefit only if they stay with the program and support Kabul and peaceful conflict resolution. Once peace has improved the life of the average Afghan, any leader who tries to renew fighting will find less support among his own followers. While helping to rebuild the legitimacy of Afghanistan's government and hold together Afghanistan's polarized ethno-linguistic groups continues, the United States needs to demonstrate that it can be as effective at building as destroying. Building on military successes in previous months can help restore the momentum to Afghanistan's political process and achieve policy goals.

David Isby is a Washington-based national-security-policy consultant and author of three books on Afghanistan.

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