U.S. Must Work to Keep Victory from Unraveling

Ivo H. Daalder and
Ivo H. Daalder, President, Chicago Council on Global Affairs
Ivo H. Daalder Former Brookings Expert, President - Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO
James M. Lindsay

March 1, 2002

Americans take justified pride in our decisive victory in Afghanistan. But there is still much to do to win the peace. And according to both the CIA and a senior administration aide, if we don’t step up our efforts, Afghanistan may well descend into renewed civil chaos.

The United States must make sure this does not happen.

Our goal in Afghanistan was not just to destroy al-Qaida and depose the Taliban, but also to create a stable country that would no longer be a terrorist haven. President Bush understands the importance of this goal and has repeatedly pledged to rebuild Afghanistan. If we fail, we will confirm the belief of many in the Islamic world that Americans are more interested in destroying societies than in making them work.

Unfortunately, the news from Afghanistan is not good. The CIA warned the White House last week that Chairman Hamid Karzai’s interim government, which runs the capital city of Kabul and not much else, is threatened by the struggle for power among rival warlords in the countryside.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the administration’s special envoy to Afghanistan, echoed this view over the weekend. “Our concern is that because of the lack of trust and security, warlords might do things that lead to war.”

Even inside Kabul—where the 4,000-man International Security Assistance Force provides security—the situation is troubling.

Recent fighting at a soccer match escalated into a deadly riot, and the aviation and tourism minister was killed, perhaps at the direction of rival government officials.

Afghanistan’s current predicament partly results from the Pentagon’s strategy for fighting the war. Looking to minimize casualties to American troops and fearful of becoming embroiled in a quagmire, it armed and paid Afghan warlords to do the fighting on the ground. This strategy looked good as long as the warlords needed us to regain power. Now that they are in control, it looks much less appealing.

But hindsight is 20/20. What should the Bush administration do to prevent Afghanistan from plunging into chaos?

Everyone agrees that Washington should help Afghanistan build a national army, develop its law enforcement capabilities and establish the rule of law. The issue is what, if anything, must be done as these time-consuming policies are put into effect.

Mr. Karzai asked President Bush last month to support increasing ISAF’s size to 20,000 or more peacekeepers and extend its mission to other major Afghan cities. No U.S. troops would participate directly in the peacekeeping operations—Mr. Bush opposes that—but they would help support the mission. Mr. Khalilzad, the U.S. envoy, said during his trip to Kabul that the administration was considering ISAF’s “possible expansion.”

The Pentagon opposes ISAF’s expansion. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld asked pointedly last week, “Why put all the time and money and effort into that? Why not put it into helping them develop a national army so that they can look out for themselves over time?” Gen. Tommy Franks, who commands U.S. forces in Afghanistan, echoed that same theme this week when he was asked to respond to Mr. Khalilzad’s comments.

But the Pentagon’s thinking offers a false choice. It would be one thing if focusing single-mindedly today on building an Afghan army could produce an effective fighting force by tomorrow. But it will take months to build even a rudimentary force. It will be even longer before that army can convince the warlords, flush with American-supplied weapons and cash, to submit to its authority.

Moreover, while the Pentagon justifiably fears that involvement in Afghan politics could turn our troops into targets—as happened in Lebanon in 1983 and Somalia in 1993—the reality is that we are already involved. The only question is whether we are prepared to use our presence to shape Afghanistan’s future in our favor.

To that end, Mr. Bush should act quickly to expand ISAF—and, better still, reverse his decision not to have American troops participate. Afghan warlords have shown time and again that they respect the power of the gun. And until an Afghan army is built, only the United States and its allies will be able to wield that power effectively.

What is happening in Afghanistan also offers a larger lesson as Americans contemplate whether to attack Iraq.

Toppling Saddam Hussein would be the easy task. Creating a stable, pro-Western Iraq would be the difficult job. So before the administration sets off on a march to Baghdad, it needs to have a plan to win the peace as well as one to win the war.