Send Stronger ‘Stability Force’ to Afghanistan

Michael E. O’Hanlon and Roberta Cohen
Roberta Cohen Former Brookings Expert, Co-Chair Emeritus - Committee for Human Rights in North Korea

June 14, 2002

Afghanistan’s military situation today is better than could have been predicted eight months ago.

The Taliban are gone from power; al-Qaida is on the run and appears confined primarily to the southeast border near Pakistan; the new interim government of Hamid Karzai remains in control in Kabul; more than a million refugees are returning from abroad; and fears of large-scale fighting between competing warlords have not yet become fact.

Yet all is not well in Afghanistan.

The absence of large-scale warfare hardly implies true peace or stability. Central government structures are extremely weak, and warlords are reasserting control in many areas, using their power for personal enrichment. Economic construction lags badly, and political violence continues.

Eight parliamentary candidates for the loya jirga—or grand council—have been assassinated in recent weeks; six others have received death threats; and several more have been beaten or detained by local commanders.

U.S. relief workers dare not venture out of Kabul without armed escort. Local aid workers have been kidnapped, robbed and killed. Ethnic minorities in the north have been persecuted and attacked by local militias, forcing thousands to flee.

Returning refugees are relocating primarily in the capital, afraid of what could happen to them in their home villages or other cities. Women are being threatened for taking off their burqas, going to jobs outside the home and participating in the loya jirga.

Largely because of the absence of security in the country, economic recovery has barely advanced.

The Bush administration needs to recognize the severity of the problem. To be sure, the United States is helping the government build a national army and Germany is training a police force, but these are long-term goals.

The key to rebuilding Afghanistan is to expand the international security force—let’s call it the “stability force,” for stability is its true aim. Now less than 5,000 troops and confined to Kabul, its reach should be extended to most of the rest of the country. Only in this way can enough law and order be created for political violence to diminish, economic life to resume and a real sense of nationhood to be rebuilt.

But simply deploying more troops will not do the trick by itself. We need to think hard about what those troops can and cannot do. Otherwise, they could wind up creating more problems than they solve, getting a lot of soldiers killed in the process.

Advocates of a larger force often suggest that about 25,000 troops could do the job nationwide. That may be true, but such a force would be small given the size of Afghanistan. Just consider that the international community sent 50,000 troops to Bosnia, a small country with only one-fifth the population of Afghanistan, after the war ended in 1995; today, 20,000 troops remain. To Kosovo, an area less than half the size and population of Bosnia, NATO sent nearly 50,000 troops in 1999.

If 25,000 troops are deployed throughout Afghanistan, only a couple thousand could be stationed in any large city and its immediate environs. This means they would be outnumbered, since the warlords running those cities typically each control fighting forces several thousand strong.

With the right mix of military, political and economic leverage exercised throughout Afghanistan, a couple thousand troops in each major province could accomplish much.

Such a capability could help protect political leaders. It could deter generalized violence, banditry and attacks on women. It could ensure fair distribution of relief supplies, even to returning refugees and internally displaced persons who don’t share the ethnic identity of local authorities.

It could help protect aid workers as they try to return to more of Afghanistan’s villages and cities. And it could be a liaison between Afghanistan’s local militias and its fledgling national army—providing training in military tactics as well as proper human rights behavior.

The United States need not contribute large numbers of troops, if any, to an enhanced stabilization force. But it must be willing to expand its military capabilities in order to support such an expanded force in the outer regions of the country.

If we do not finish the security job in Afghanistan, the country will not be stable, and the threat posed by the Taliban and al-Qaida—to that country and from that country—may flare up again. Or Afghanistan may descend once more into tribal warfare.

Either way, we will have broken faith with the Afghan people to whom we promised a better future when we asked for their collaboration last year against the Taliban and al-Qaida. If that happens, where will the United States ever again find allies in its war against terrorism?