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The Progressive Approach: Afghanistan
Principles for an Afghanistan Strategy
When the Obama Administration began a 60-day review of its Afghanistan strategy, a diverse group of progressive experts in development, counter-terrorism, regional politics and US politics came together to advise NSN on a set of principles that might guide both the Administration in building a new strategy and advocates in Congress, the media and the public in judging a proposed strategy. We begin from the premise that the situation in the United States, and the history and dynamics of the region, require a sharp differentiation between objectives that we might like to achieve and a baseline of what must be achieved for our national interests and our moral obligations – to our military, our citizens and the people of Afghanistan.
Realities: The ‘Why’ and ‘Why Not?’
Afghanistan and the border areas of Pakistan are in a crisis that was years in the making. Under President Bush’s neglect, the situation in Afghanistan grew steadily worse. The Afghan government has grown dysfunctional, the Taliban once again threaten large swaths of the country, al-Qaeda is reconstituted along the border with Pakistan, our allies’ commitment is waning and the Afghan people are losing hope.
National security interests are at stake in Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s continued deterioration would allow al-Qaeda central, which intelligence agencies identify as the greatest national security threat to the United States, to operate with impunity under a resurgent Taliban. It would also risk greater instability in Pakistan, a nuclear-armed state with a struggling civilian government.
Domestic and Afghan constraints severely limit what we can achieve. Americans are justifiably reluctant to redouble efforts in Afghanistan. Afghan history as well as fatigue from the Iraq War and the economic downturn all argue against a US presence that is massive and unlimited in time or scope.
The scale of the challenge demands broad vision but modest objectives. Larger than Iraq, with a population close to 32 million, Afghanistan suffers from one of the world’s lowest development levels, scant economic opportunity, crude infrastructure, and a dependence on the opium trade – interrelated problems that go beyond the near term issue of worsening security. Humanitarian and governance goals to which Afghans and many Americans rightly aspire will be better-served by a smaller-scale effort which can enable local, regional and non-governmental efforts than a massive one which cannot be sustained.
Principles: The ‘How’ and ‘For What?’
Prevent Afghanistan and the border areas of Pakistan from serving as a staging ground for terrorist attacks against the U.S. and other nations, and from being a source of instability that could lead to the collapse of the Pakistani state. These are America’s greatest priorities.
Prioritize Afghan state capacity. The U.S. cannot create a “Central Asian Valhalla,” but the Afghan state must satisfy baseline economic and security requirements of its citizens if it is to prevent a resurgent Taliban or other extremist group from offering Al Qaeda safe havens from which it can attack the U.S. and further destabilize Pakistan.
Implement a comprehensive strategy that recognizes the limits of military power, with the following objectives:
• Stronger governance, balanced between Kabul and traditional provincial power sources;
• Greater trust in government to deliver for its citizens and reduce corruption;
• An Afghan police force that protects citizens and enforces laws;
• Better economic opportunities for the Afghan people; and
• Pragmatic strategies that break the stranglehold of the opium trade.
Adopt a counter-insurgency strategy that reinforces, rather than works against, the principles above. The winners of counterinsurgencies outgovern their adversaries rather than outgun them. Military decisions should be made with an eye to meeting Afghan security concerns; developing an Afghan security force capable of controlling territory and offering protection; and, as many Afghans and some military observers have advocated, phasing out tactics that have increased civilian casualties with questionable payoffs.
Integrate Pakistan policy within strategy for Afghanistan. Afghanistan and Pakistan’s crises are deeply intertwined, with Taliban and al-Qaeda elements operating within Pakistan’s northwest frontier, threatening the stability of both governments. U.S. policy towards Pakistan should recalibrate away from overwhelmingly military approaches and emphasize efforts toward strengthening the civilian government and civil society.
Engage in vigorous diplomacy with all neighboring countries and our allies. The long-term challenge is a regional one and concerted diplomatic effort will be critical for stabilizing the region. This diplomatic strategy must encourage the constructive involvement in Afghanistan of every regional actor from India and Iran to Russia and the other Central Asian states and also wisely manage the contributions from the international coalition.
Define success through clear, measurable and realistic objectives. Any strategy must make a clear break with the past by announcing our intentions and objectives. It must place direct responsibility for Afghanistan’s future with its people and their government. It must clearly differentiate between many goals we might like to work toward in the long term and the relatively few foundational steps that the US must take along with its allies to help Afghanistan in the short term.