In Afghanistan, A Job Half Done

Michael E. O’Hanlon and Peter W. Singer
Peter W. Singer Former Brookings Expert, Strategist and Senior Fellow - New America

September 15, 2002

Despite all the current focus on Iraq and the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, crisis may be returning to Afghanistan—and the United States needs to do something about it fast.

While the Karzai government is a vast improvement over its Taliban predecessors and communist stooges running the country two decades ago, it has only a tenuous grip on power. It lacks control over the Afghan countryside and has only a minimal hold over its own capital. Indeed, Russian observers have noted that the United States is at roughly the same stage where they were in 1981, supporting a weak central government, faced with a bubbling opposition.

A coalition is now building, made up of Taliban remnants, Al Qaeda fighters, and extremist Pashtuns attached to the former warlord and radical Islamist Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. In a pointed reference to the war against the Soviets, they have entitled themselves ”the Sons of the Mujahideen,” and are adapting many of the same tactics that eventually wore down the Red Army.

While little noticed in the American media, US garrisons in Afghanistan have come under rocket attacks on a near weekly basis, and US patrols increasingly face ambushes when they venture off base. There have also been a series of assassination attempts and bombings, which culminated in last week’s deadly blast in Kabul and bore all the hallmarks of a planned terrorist strike.

A critical problem is that the Karzai regime and the limited military forces that it holds sway over are both underdeveloped and highly unrepresentative. A small group of former Northern Alliance commanders are the real power brokers, while the majority of the population is excluded. Indeed, President Hamid Karzai was so suspicious of these elements that he does not even trust them to supply his own security team – for likely good reason, as it took US-provided bodyguards to shoot down his most recent attacker, who was even wearing the uniform of the Afghan army.

At the same time, the Afghan economy remains broken after a quarter century of war. With far less international donor support arriving than expected, the fruits of peace are yet to be delivered to the Afghan people. Pockets of hunger still remain, and basic services, from health care to education, remain little improved in much of the country’s vast territory. This state of affairs belies President Bush’s promise last year of a ”new Marshall Plan” to the Afghan people that would improve their lot once the Taliban were gone.

Therefore, the United States must rededicate itself to getting the Afghan operation right. If we are ever to establish a viable and representative Afghan state, able to prevent terrorists from using it as a base of operations, the Bush administration has to overcome its reluctance to ”nation-build.” This requires three efforts, each to match rhetoric with real action.

First, the United States should stop throwing around suggestive rumors about how it would condone an expansion of the International Security Assistance Force, and actually lead the effort. Rather than the present 5,000 troops limited to Kabul, 20,000 international troops, deployed around the country, are needed to help restore a sense of stability. We should provide American military support, to handle such critical tasks as communications and logistics, and actively recruit more help from other countries. The United States should also consider contributing the backup of a rapid-reaction force of Marines or Army troops, perhaps one to two battalions strong (roughly 1,000 to 2,000 personnel), to be based in the western part of Afghanistan where foreign forces are now absent.

Second, the United States must take the lead in building an effective Afghan military partner that can solve its own problems, rather than conducting the limited and half-hearted training programs going on now. The present pace of training for the new Afghan army is generating only a few hundred troops every few months. The program needs to increase roughly tenfold, as well as seek to create a representative and competent officer corps. This need not require large numbers of active-duty American personnel; private contractors made up largely of retired military officers can do much of the job.

Finally, a civilian parallel is required to match our military efforts. Afghanistan is in desperate need of economic assistance and political support in rebuilding. The country deserves a similar infusion of civilian advisers, training programs, and aid funds that other war-torn states, such as Angola, Bosnia, and Kosovo have received. International aid programs must be expanded and donors pressed to live up to their promises.

Bush’s ”list of 20” top Al Qaeda leaders may have been put back in his desk in lieu of plans for Saddam, but bin Laden, Zawahiri, Mullah Omar, et al., are still on the loose. More important, they are apparently back in business. Afghanistan is where the war to stamp out terrorism was begun. It remains a job only half done.