- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 18, 2009



Twenty years ago this week the last Soviet troops slunk out of Afghanistan. The Red Army, which had swooped into its southern neighbor on Christmas Eve in 1979, when the Soviet Union was at the peak of its imperial power, departed in humiliation a decade later, leaving behind a devastated country wracked by civil war, and returning to a defeated motherland on the verge of disintegration.

The United States is currently in its eighth year in Afghanistan and, while the situation is better than what the Soviets faced, there are still significant and growing problems. The Taliban are attempting to broaden their violent reach. Al Qaeda and the foreign fighters are employing more of the techniques they developed in Iraq to vex Coalition troops. The illicit drug trade is flourishing. And public opinion is turning against the Karzai government.

President Obama has declared Afghanistan to be a centerpiece of his national security agenda, a test case for “Smart Power.” Yesterday, he ordered 12,000 more troops to Afghanistan, saying “the increase is necessary to stabilize a deteriorating situation in Afghanistan, which has not received the strategic attention, direction and resources it urgently requires.” He calls the fight against al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan “the greatest threat to our security,” a position he was driven to by political circumstances. During the Bush years the Democrats had made the effort in Afghanistan a rhetorical riposte, something they could talk about that made them appear to be tough on terrorism while not having to support the war in Iraq. Now that they have inherited Operation Enduring Freedom they will have to replace posturing with policies.

It is unclear who will be in charge of the new strategy in Afghanistan, or what it will look like. The six-part study ordered last fall by Gen. David Petraeus is being written by the CENTCOM Assessment Team and is not made public, but there are signs the administration may want a second opinion. Former CIA South Asia analyst and Bush policy critic Bruce Riedel is heading up a 60-day interagency review of U.S. policy in the region, which must be viewed as an alternative to the CENTCOM study. And it remains to be seen how Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke fits in the mix.

Statements from both candidate and President Obama suggest that increased troop commitments from the U.S. and its NATO allies are central to his strategic thinking. But boots on the ground are not a panacea. It is worth noting that as troop strength has increased in recent years, conditions have grown worse. In 2001 Afghanistan was a model of success for the “small footprint” war, characterized by Coalition success in working with tribal leaders, augmenting their forces with critical capabilities such as intelligence and fire support. In this way the Coalition was able to gain functional control over Afghanistan, a larger and more populous country than Iraq, with a fraction of the force used in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

A far greater error than over-reliance on troops in Afghanistan would be to pursue unrealistic goals. This was the root cause of the Soviet defeat. Contrary to poplar belief, the Soviet Union did not rely exclusively on military power in their Afghan war. A close reading of the Soviet counterinsurgency strategy shows that they avidly pursued political reforms, economic development, infrastructure improvements, education and all the other elements of what is now the “smart power” agenda. Rather, Moscow’s original sin was in trying to create a stable, socialized Afghanistan with a strong central government. Central control is inimical to the Afghan political culture and way of life. No amount of military power or political bargaining could bring that about. The harder the Soviets tried, the more people resisted.

Dealing with Afghanistan requires accepting a level of ambiguity that may be beyond the Democrats’ philosophical predilection for bureaucratic centralism. Those who sneeringly refer to President Karzai as the “Mayor of Kabul” do not understand that this was true of all the leaders of that country. The hinterlands have always been controlled by tribal leaders. The path to stability lies in dealing with them, with all the risks and compromises that requires. The model for success should be the “Awakening” movement in Iraq, or the early, highly successful years of Operation Enduring Freedom. Afghanistan will never be a New England town meeting democracy, and it will not respond to the kind of top-down, one-size-fits-all solutions that brief well inside the Beltway. The road to quagmire leads through Kabul; if the U.S. seeks to make Hamid Karzai or his successor into an Afghan bureaucratic potentate, we will find ourselves in the same situation the Soviet Union faced, a never-ending struggle against a determined people defending nothing less than their freedom.

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