In mid-January, Defense Secretary Robert Gates approved an order to send an additional 3,000 U.S. marines into Afghanistan in anticipation of the now annual Taliban spring offensive. It was the right thing to do, but such a temporary force increase falls far short of what is needed. U.S. military policy is still stumbling toward failure in Afghanistan—a failure that will likely have dire consequences beyond South Asia. Let’s be clear: The mission in Afghanistan is not in jeopardy mainly because NATO members refuse to provide sufficient troops or appropriate engagement protocols for the International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF). Neither is the mission in jeopardy because of any deficiency inherent in U.S. or Coalition counterinsurgency doctrine. The problem goes deeper, into the underlying political context of Coalition military operations. The real issue is the transitory and uncertain U.S. military posture in Afghanistan (and, by implication, across South Asia), which undermines the necessary link between relevant military security operations and positive political consequences.
Our uncertain commitment to Afghanistan has the effect of bolstering Taliban propaganda, which threatens to punish anyone cooperating with Coalition efforts. This intimidation of critical local U.S. allies, fueled by a credible fear that the United States will leave them in the lurch, is shaping conditions for a major failure in our counterinsurgency and counter-terror programs. Our unwillingness to commit ourselves for the long haul also provides incentives for Pakistan to hedge its bets. The U.S. government has urged the Pakistani government to act decisively to deal with its side of the Afghan-Pakistan border to dry up support for the Taliban effort in Afghanistan. But doing so entails significant risk for Pakistan, both internally and regionally. No Pakistani government, military or civilian led, will take those risks unless it knows U.S. power will remain engaged to backstop the effort.
The only way to change the poisonous regional security dynamic that keeps Pakistan a safe haven for terrorists and jeopardizes Afghanistan’s future is to alter fundamentally the convoluted U.S. political strategy that has gone unchallenged over the past six years. There are understandable reasons for portraying the U.S. presence in Afghanistan as temporary, and for mixing into ISAF as many non-U.S. contributions as possible. The United States is not an imperial power and does not wish to be perceived as such in a region justifiably allergic to European colonial legacies. Nevertheless, those reasons do not outweigh the liabilities that the present policy brings. We must eliminate the uncertainty about U.S. staying power by strengthening and institutionalizing the U.S. security commitment to the region. The next administration, if not the present one, has a difficult but necessary choice to make that has been ducked for far too long.