Not only in the U.S. presidential race, not only at U.S. Central Command headquarters where Gen. David Petraeus is soon to take command, but in capital cities around the world, attention is now turning to Afghanistan. Incredibly, while the war in Iraq is now being won, the conflict in Afghanistan is presently being gradually lost.
To be sure, violence levels in Afghanistan remain well below what they were in Iraq in the throes of that country's civil war, before the U.S.-Iraqi surge and Sunni awakening and other developments turned things around so radically in 2007-2008 and brought the rate of violence down by at least 80 percent. But Afghanistan's situation is continually worsening by almost any measure, with no clear end in sight to the deterioration.
Monthly violence rates are up a factor of two to three from earlier years this decade. Poppy production continues to dominate what little there is of an Afghan economy. The Afghan army is improving, but woefully small, and the police forces are corrupt and largely ineffective. The Karzai government has little control or even influence in much of the countryside. Perhaps worst of all, insurgent and terrorist groups led by the Taliban and the Haqqani network operate with near impunity from across the border in Pakistan.
As Gen. Petraeus sets his sights now on the broader Central Command region, and U.S. presidential candidates together with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates assert the need for more international forces in Afghanistan, it is becoming safe to assume that the international presence in Afghanistan will further strengthen over the coming months, perhaps from its current total of some 62,000 troops to 75,000 or more. There is talk, not surprisingly, of a "surge" for Afghanistan, and hope that we can soon accomplish there what has begun to take root in Iraq.
But we must avoid viewing the situation entirely in this light. Combined Iraqi and international forces numbered 600,000 or more personnel in the crucial months of the surge. In Afghanistan, the current figure is less than 200,000 and will grow only modestly in coming months - for a country even larger and more populous than Iraq. Afghanistan does not have the economic resources, or the historical track record of operating as a strong and cohesive polity, that Iraq enjoys. And for all the trouble Syria and Iran have caused in Iraq, by shipping in weaponry and tolerating the flow of al Qaeda fighters into the country, they have never represented the kind of sanctuary for main insurgent groups that Pakistan's tribal regions provide in regard to Afghanistan.
As such, it is difficult to spell out a convincing strategy for turning things around in Afghanistan. Almost surely, we will not find a silver bullet strategy as we did in Iraq; the first goal will be to arrest the deterioration of the situation, and only thereafter to turn the momentum in favor of the Afghan people and government as well as the international community. We need to do what is possible across four main fronts, and then hope that over time small positive developments within each strengthen and reinforce each other. To wit:
- Grow the Afghan army. Thankfully, the international community and President Karzai now agree on this goal, with a target of 130,000 troops in the coming years. But Iraq has twice that number in its army already. We are still thinking too much in terms of what is financially affordable for Afghanistan. That is the wrong way to size the Afghan army. It is much cheaper for the world community to subsidize whatever force is needed than to have to fight so much of this war itself, and much more prudent to spend $3 billion to $5 billion a year on the Afghan army than to lose this war. The 130,000 target needs to be doubled - though that will admittedly take time, given constraints on available trainers as well as the need to vet recruits.
- Continue increasing international forces, too. While no panacea, the movement towards larger numbers is sound. They cannot be used to patrol most cities in quite the way they were in Iraq; numbers are simply inadequate. But securing transportation routes, clamping down on the Pakistan-Afghanistan border as much as possible, reestablishing a sense of security around Kabul, and gradually spreading the "mini ink blots" of greater security to other parts of the country still make sense. American troop commitments in still-fragile Iraq preclude a major and rapid troop increase; however, not only the United States but other countries should do what they can to increase troop numbers. Indeed, other countries should try to do a lot more in 2009-2010 in particular; after that, growing Afghan capabilities and more available American forces should reduce the need for European, Canadian, South Asian and Western Pacific contributions. Additional forces should also reduce our reliance on airpower, and correspondingly reduce the frequency of tragic attacks in which large numbers of Afghan civilians are inadvertently killed by crossfire.
- Help Pakistan with new initiatives in the tribal regions. This effort is of course easier said than done, given the proclivities of Pakistan's intelligence services to support or at least condone the Taliban and Islamabad's current desire to try to avoid big battles with insurgents at present. But with recent changes in Pakistan's army, intelligence and political leadership, generous multi-year support to help build up the paramilitary Frontier Corps makes sense, as does whatever new economic development plan we can help devise for that region.
- Revamp economic development efforts in Afghanistan. Development efforts to date have been largely ineffective, with too many dollars supporting a large international aid infrastructure and too many resources squandered by efforts increasingly stymied by the security environment. A new boost of resources, and greater efforts to get money into local Afghan hands, should accompany the new push to improve security. Development efforts also need to be consolidated under more cohesive international leadership rather than stovepiped and divvied up into so many separate sets of initiatives.
Making this strategy work will take time, and even with time there is no guarantee of success. It will also take a new effort to sell it to western publics, who increasingly doubt our capacity to prevail. Recent polling by the Lowy Institute shows that even in Australia, which has suffered relatively few casualties, a majority now opposes military involvement in Afghanistan; only half are confident we have clear aims there. But as many, including President Bush, belatedly realized about Iraq in 2005-2006, we are beginning to lose in Afghanistan. The stakes are too high either to ignore this fact or to assume that any one new and modest policy initiative will suffice to turn things around.