A Tighter Command Is Needed in Afghanistan

The Obama administration’s plan for Afghanistan and Pakistan is generally strong. It properly focuses on two central goals: providing population security for the Afghan people and building up indigenous institutions so Afghans can provide their own security and run their own country as soon as possible.

The plan does require some ongoing improvement, however. Two stand out in the aftermath of the NATO summit of recent days. Ideally, they would have been fixed before the summit, but there is still time to repair the flaws in the coming weeks.

Both concern command arrangements. In Iraq, make no mistake about it, while Gen. David H. Petraeus rightly receives tremendous praise for the success of the surge, Gen. Raymond T. Odierno and Ambassador Ryan Crocker were essential elements of the three-man team (Gen. Odierno remains in Iraq as Gen. Petraeus’ successor).

These men represented not only America’s, but the overall international coalition’s various strengths and assets. Gen. Odierno commanded troops day to day; Gen. Petraeus oversaw the development and implementation of the surge-based strategy as well as its close coordination with Iraqi partners and the broader U.S. government; Mr. Crocker handled politics and economics.

In Afghanistan, comparable capabilities are largely lacking. Karl Eikenberry is headed to Kabul as ambassador, and he is well-qualified for the task, but the political and economic elements of the job are much more multilateral and complex than they were in Iraq. The U.S. ambassador, therefore, cannot do on his own what Mr. Crocker could do in Iraq. To take just one key example, of the $15 billion in aid disbursed in Afghanistan so far, only $5 billion, or one-third, has come from the United States, whereas 90 percent of foreign aid disbursements in Iraq were of U.S. origin.

In addition, there is no operational commander to help Gen. David D. McKiernan, who commands all foreign forces in Afghanistan. His staff is smaller than Gen. Petraeus’ was in Iraq (or than Gen. Odierno’s is now), yet he has no help in managing day-to-day affairs. Rather, below Gen. McKiernan, there are five regional commands run by different NATO countries, each with subregional commands run by yet more countries, to coordinate and manage.

Making things even harder for NATO’s already challenging mission in Afghanistan is the recent controversy over leadership. This weekend, leaders of the organization managed to override Turkish objections, and Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Danish prime minister, was nominated as the next secretary general.

Mr. Rasmussen will bring heavy baggage to his new job. In 2006, the Organization of the Islamic Conference representing 57 Muslim countries demanded an apology from him for the Danish cartoons depicting Prophet Muhammad wearing on his head a bomb in the shape of a turban. When Mr. Rasmussen refused to apologize and opted not to meet with OIC countries’ ambassadors in Denmark, Saudi Arabia recalled its ambassador and the OIC issued a severe condemnation. Violent riots against Danish embassies followed across the Islamic world. In Afghanistan, 12 people were killed when an angry mob tried to march on a U.S. military air base.

As a result of last weekend’s decision, NATO will now be led by a politician that most pious Muslims associate with the cartoon controversy. It is quite unfortunate that such a perception is emerging at a time when NATO is engaged in a crucial mission in the heart of the Islamic world. More important, Mr. Rasmussen’s selection complicates NATO’s own image at a time when the organization needs much better public relations with the Islamic world.

As bad as the problems are on the military side, they may be worse on the economic front. This is a crucial area, as we seek to help Afghan farmers develop alternatives to opium, judicial systems train and deploy competent judges, and schools and health-care centers reach the other half of the population not yet served.

With the country ravaged by three decades of war, most Afghan ministries have no more than a few competent professionals to run their operations. Among other challenges, they must deal with some 40 donors, whose efforts are uncoordinated and often amount to a hodgepodge of individually worthy but disconnected efforts.

Imagine this: If the competent ministers each receive just one briefing a month from each donor and spend time digesting what they have learned, they could easily consume half their precious time just listening to PowerPoint presentations (two briefings a day, every day, plus time to prepare and to process).

We owe our Afghan friends more help. We should suggest to the Afghan government and our major allies that a three-person overall command structure be created for the coalition’s work in Afghanistan. Gen. McKiernan would retain his role but devolve some day-to-day responsibilities to a new three-star operational commander coordinating all foreign military activities throughout the country.

In addition, an international aid coordinator, accountable to the NATO secretary-general and all major donors and representing a single major point of contact for the Afghan government, should be named – somewhat along the Paddy Ashdown model from Bosnia in the 1990s. The current U.N. coordinator does not have nearly enough control over most funds to play this role.

There is a very natural way to share the burden, and the responsibility, of this new command structure. With two-thirds of all foreign forces in Afghanistan soon to be American, not only the commander of the International Security Assistance Force, but his deputy in charge of day-to-day operations should be a U.S. military officer. But with two-thirds of all economic and development assistance of non-U.S. origins, the aid and development coordinator should be European.

Turkey should have a large role in the new European leadership of NATO or the Afghanistan mission. One mechanism would be for Mr. Rasmussen to nominate a Turk as his top deputy. Hikmet Cetin, a former Turkish foreign minister who served in Afghanistan in 2003-06 as NATO’s senior civilian representative, would be the most suitable candidate given his familiarity with NATO as well as Afghanistan. Selection of Mr. Cetin would also encourage Turkey to contribute more troops to Afghanistan at a time when the organization desperately needs a greater Muslim presence.

This approach would maintain the sense of international partnership of the Afghan mission while keeping leadership jobs in the hands of those making the greatest contributions. It would also be a good way for President Obama to show what his new style of American global diplomacy will entail – with recognition of the role of allies and partners, yet a strong and sustained sense of U.S. leadership.