Building A Basis For Success in Afghanistan

As Gen. Stanley McChrystal settles into command in Kabul on behalf of the United States and the entire NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) for Afghanistan, the basic contours of our new strategy are clear.

We will try to follow the twin precepts of proper counterinsurgency – protecting the population while also building up indigenous forces’ capacity to do so themselves. We also will focus on minimizing casualties in our own use of force, increasing the strength and legitimacy of the Afghan government in general and helping Afghan citizens establish a more stable and prosperous way of life. Gen. McChrystal’s predecessor, Gen. David D. McKiernan, as well as Gen. David H. Petraeus, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Ambassador Richard C. Holbrooke, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and, most of all, President Obama, deserve credit for truly committing the United States to this mission for the first time.

Nevertheless, many other questions and issues remain. In the military domain, many are at the tactical level, such as where to station our forces and how to conduct patrols with Afghan units. But a whole range of questions go beyond military matters to the realms of economics and quality of life – as Gen. McChrystal himself likes to emphasize. As he prepares to write a joint campaign plan in conjunction with Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, these nonmilitary matters will need to be scrutinized seriously, too. The questions range from the grand to the more mundane, but all are important. They include the following (several suggested by other scholars and practitioners and gathered here):

  • Should we further increase economic aid to Afghanistan? To follow the military’s own “clear, hold, build” strategy, we obviously need enough resources to do the building part. At current rates of construction, it will take decades to build all the (limited number of) roads Afghanistan needs to connect all its villages to the national highway grid, for example. The pace of construction needs to increase. New ideas, such as subsidy programs to encourage Afghan farms to plant orchards (to compensate for lost revenue from poppies as the trees grow) also should be studied.
  • Are Afghan government salaries adequate to hold onto good people? As we hire more Afghans for these and other reasons, we need to ensure that the Afghan government has an ability to hire and retain its country’s best minds. That may require more use of aid dollars to subsidize government salaries. This is not a traditional preference of development specialists because it can create dependencies, but it’s essential in a wartime mission like this where our first goals must be to quell the violence, build up government capacity and increase popular support for the government.
  • Should NATO forces buy more produce and bottled water from the local economy? Buy America laws, combined with fears over security, have discouraged us from feeding Afghan food to our troops for most of the war. But the security of food supplies can be enhanced in multiple ways – and Buy America laws should not work at cross-purposes with the security and mission effectiveness of our troops. Injecting $1 billion a year into the Afghan economy in this way could immediately increase gross domestic product by 10 percent and give local farmers more legal alternatives to opium – and more reason to view NATO forces as their friends.
  • Should Afghanistan have a free-trade arrangement with Europe and the United States to further strengthen its economy – and perhaps even have interim use of some NATO aircraft flying home (which otherwise often would be empty) to send produce abroad?
  • Should a European or Japanese official be given special authorities as an aid coordinator? This person need not follow the “Paddy Ashdown” model from Bosnia and gain wide prerogatives over Afghan politics; in fact, he or she should not. But there are dozens of donors in Afghanistan today whose efforts often are uncoordinated at best, and entirely overwhelming and incomprehensible to Afghan officials at worst. In exchange for persuading our allies to allow Lt. Gen. David Rodriguez, a U.S. Army officer, to take operational command of the International Security Assistance Force, we might allow a European or Japanese expert to play this role of aid coordinator.

Many of the big military decisions regarding Afghanistan have been made already. But this summer and fall, in Kabul and Washington and other key capitals, decisions almost as crucial on a range of economic matters will need to be made, and they go well beyond the question of whether we need a “civilian surge” in Afghanistan to go along with our military one. (We do, but that’s hardly the end of it.) Congress should follow the ongoing Afghanistan assessment and review process closely – not just for refinements to our military strategy, but for the economics components of our joint campaign plan as well.