- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 5, 2009

An official briefed on President Obama’s new strategy for Afghanistan has aptly characterized it as “going all in,” pushing his chips into the center of the table by committing to send a total of 21,000 additional troops, mobilizing a surge of civilian capability and undertaking more active regional diplomacy.

His action was a rejection of calls to narrow or diminish our objectives and to cynically seek an exit strategy. Though even greater efforts may be needed over time, this was the right decision.

The stakes are great. The international community faces a threat in western Pakistan — a diverse group of violent extremists given sanctuary and supported by elements within Pakistan — that radiates in three directions. Some of these extremists launch cross-border attacks into Afghanistan. Others threaten to destabilize Pakistan, the world’s second largest Muslim-majority country and a nuclear power. Still others seek to launch terrorist attacks against the United States. Ignoring this threat is not an option.

Success in Afghanistan — defined as a stable, representative and effective Afghan state capable of policing its territory — is a realistic objective. Greater action is required today because the security situation has been deteriorating since late 2005, a result of escalating enemy activity, underperformance by the Afghan government and drift in American policy during the past two years.

At the same time, Americans should not exaggerate the challenge: the level of violence in Afghanistan today is roughly the same as that of post-surge Iraq. Yet, there are five actions we can take to maximize the ability of our military and civilian personnel to turn the situation around rapidly.

First, the Obama administration must undertake a clear-eyed assessment of the activities of Pakistan’s military establishment, particularly its intelligence service. Enemy sanctuaries developed in western Pakistan after the fall of the Taliban, and while the Pakistani military has partially cooperated in going after al Qaeda, it has done little against the Taliban. More troubling, recent press accounts have reported that the Pakistani military is providing operational support to the Taliban.

To secure Pakistan’s full cooperation, special envoy Richard Holbrooke must allay or address the fears and other motivations underlying its current posture. Many Pakistanis believe that their rivals — particularly India — are gaining an upper hand in Afghanistan and that the United States will soon abandon the region. This means the Obama administration must work with the Afghan government to establish redlines on the influence of regional actors in Afghanistan, committing to a long-term U.S. relationship with Afghanistan, and creating a U.S.-Pakistan relationship based not just on short-term counterterrorist objectives but on an active American role in realizing a positive vision for Pakistan’s future.

Second, the United States, other NATO countries and the Afghan government must develop a campaign plan based on classic counterinsurgency principles. During the past three years, NATO has largely shifted to raids and kinetic strikes targeting small insurgent units or individual leaders. This has resulted in few enduring security gains and in greater civilian casualties. Yet, success in counterinsurgency derives from creating persistent security for the local population, which is the key to persuading villagers to conclude that it is safe and worth the risk to provide intelligence on the enemy to Afghan government and NATO forces.

The Obama administration must direct its commanders to make population security the main effort in Afghanistan. The short-term objective should be to use the newly deployed U.S. forces to establish sufficient security to enable full participation in the August presidential elections in all areas of Afghanistan. This effort should then transition into a three- or four-year campaign to secure the people living in contested areas, district by district and province by province.

Third, to support this counterinsurgency campaign, the United States should work with the Afghan government to increase dramatically the size and capabilities of the Afghan National Security Forces. The planned end strengths of the Afghan National Army should be increased from 134,000 to 250,000 and of the Afghan National Police from 86,000 to more than 100,000. This will be expensive and potentially require a larger commitment of U.S. trainers and mentors. However, since deploying a NATO soldier costs 50 to 100 times more than an Afghan soldier, the most economical and sustainable approach to secure Afghan territory is to build robust Afghan security forces.

Fourth, the United States must work with Afghan leaders to improve governance by reducing corruption and appointing officials who inspire support on the part of the people. Some progress has been made in recent months by President Harmid Karzai. If given a hypothetical choice between getting more military forces or having more effective local Afghan officials, American commanders in the field almost always opt for the latter. Therefore, the Afghan government and the international community should together systematically evaluate — and replace where necessary — all Afghan provincial governors, district administrators and police chiefs.

Fifth, the United States and other supporters of Afghanistan must work with the Afghan government to bring into balance the military and nonmilitary elements of strategy. It is a truism that counterinsurgency campaigns should be composed of 80 percent political and economic actions and 20 percent military activity. In Afghanistan, current efforts are the converse. The Obama administration should work with the Afghan government to increase Afghan capacity in order to enable, for example, the delivery of development assistance through Afghan ministries and civil organizations.

The United States turned the tide of events in Iraq under much more difficult circumstances. Though ethnically diverse, Afghans share a national identity. Most important, the U.S. effort in Afghanistan has the overwhelming support of the Afghan people. Polls typically show that 80 percent to 90 percent of Afghans surveyed want their government to succeed. This reserve of support is the indispensable foundation for progress, and Mr. Obama’s decision to recommit to Afghanistan is the essential first step to realize such an enduring success.

&#8226 Marin Strmecki is the senior vice president and director of programs of the Smith Richardson Foundation.

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