- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 7, 2010


Much has changed - both at home and in the region - in the nine years since we launched the war in Afghanistan. Recent appointments among military commanders, our own midterm elections and shifting tides, affiliations and goals among great powers with interests in the region justify our taking stock of where we stand to determine whether our continued struggle is worth the blood and treasure at risk.

Are our original purposes in Afghanistan being achieved, is “mission creep” next door in Pakistan justified, and if so, why, toward what result, and can stability be achieved within a reasonable time and at affordable cost? President Obama has announced such a stocktaking for this month, although aides - curiously - have made clear in advance that no major changes are likely. It seems evident that while there are positive signs of progress, unanticipated challenges and significant changes elsewhere in the region that affect important U.S. interests warrant a fundamental review, starting with where we stand in Afghanistan.

Nine years ago, in the wake of the attacks launched by al Qaeda on Sept. 11, the United States sent an invasion force to Afghanistan to destroy al Qaeda and establish conditions in Afghanistan that would prevent its re-emergence. Today Gen. David H. Petraeus is leading U.S. and allied forces in execution of a classical counterinsurgency strategy that each day shows solid evidence that we can prevail on the battlefield in Afghanistan - the military part of our original mission.

Less clear is whether we and Afghan leaders together can establish an overall climate of security and political stability throughout the country sufficient to enable it to hold together. As of now, such a prospect is remote at best, owing to the rampant corruption and incompetence tolerated - many would say nurtured - by President Hamid Karzai. Recurrent reports from every level of Afghan society make clear the disgust and bitterness Afghans feel toward their government, from top to bottom. Unless a way is found to form a coalition government that represents all Afghans - Tajiks, Pashtuns, Uzbeks, Hazaras and others - a government with a shared commitment to overcoming these problems, the troop withdrawal to begin next summer will be followed by renewed warlordism and, ultimately, civil war. And we will withdraw, leaving Afghanistan as we found it - in tatters and turmoil, once more a breeding ground for terrorists. Formation of such a government is not as implausible as it may sound. We could start by enlisting the help of China, Russia and India - all of which have an interest in a stable Afghanistan - in such an effort.

Such a happy outcome, however, begs the question: But what happens in Pakistan? That nation is the acknowledged spoiler or guarantor of whatever we might achieve in Afghanistan. Pakistan, a country of 173 million, has had few moments of stability in its 63-year history. Oscillating between governments run by feudal landlords and the military, no formula has been found by these two blocs for sharing power and managing the meager resources of the country, let alone defeating a widespread terrorist campaign. Almost 80 percent of the national budget goes to the military (which faces no seriously plausible threat) or to servicing the national debt, thus assuring that the body politic remains largely illiterate and - given the paucity of Pakistan’s resources - impoverished.

As if these problems weren’t enough, a new insidious and pernicious threat has emerged over the past 25 years that threatens the survival of this (nuclear-armed) state, a threat that unless it is contained and defeated will make the challenges of Afghanistan pale by comparison. I refer to the half-million children under the influence of radical Islamist groups, who are willing to blow themselves up or, to say it straight, to bring down any moderate civilian government that might be installed in Islamabad for years to come. It is difficult to imagine that any civilian government of Pakistan could command the resources and support needed to contain, round up and overcome this Islamist menace. Yet failure to do so - again, in this nuclear-armed state - poses incalculable risks.

The current civilian leadership of Pakistan is in near paralysis. The military - itself facing uncertainties regarding command and control over the army and Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) - is watching events with trepidation as it has previous periods of civilian corruption or incompetence. Prolonged drift such as is evident today is almost certain to lead to another military takeover - albeit fraught with risks - as the last best hope for containing and overcoming the radical Islamist threat and guiding the country back to a more stable future. Clearly, however, Pakistan’s leaders cannot do this alone.

If there is a basis for hope in all this gloom, it lies in the fact, mentioned earlier, that the great powers that surround Afghanistan and Pakistan - Russia, China and India - all have a strong interest in preventing these two countries from lapsing into chaos and becoming once more a source of virulent Islamist radicalism. Bringing them into an effective effort first to craft, and then to execute a strategy to help these countries through this crisis, will require very heavy lifting by the United States.

Robert McFarlane served as President Reagan’s national security adviser and is a senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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