The Magazine

Don't Dumb Down Afghanistan

Lower expectations would lead to lesser results.

Feb 23, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 22 • By DANIEL TWINING and GARY SCHMITT
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A minimalist military surge, as some within the administration are advocating, cannot succeed in securing our strategic goal of an Afghanistan able to deny safe haven to terrorists. A pseudo-surge of this sort, followed by trimming our commitment, will send exactly the wrong signals to (1) the Taliban, who know they only have to wait us out, (2) our allies, many of whom are already looking for ways to edge away from the mission, (3) Afghanistan's neighbors, including Iran and Pakistan, who will intensify their support for the Taliban or other tribal factions so as to secure their interests, and (4) the Afghan people, who will find it increasingly risky to cooperate with the Afghan government and international forces if it appears that the Taliban will outlast both.

At the recent Munich Security Conference, General David Petraeus, former commanding general in Iraq and now Central Command's lead officer, laid out a sensible strategy. In his words, the Afghan people are the decisive "terrain" in this struggle--implying that a focus on finding and fighting Taliban and al Qaeda insurgents is viewing the problem from the wrong end of the telescope. Our strategy, instead, must focus on protecting the population and connecting them with the Afghan state. Giving short shrift to that mission--by failing to put sufficient boots on the ground, provide the level of assistance needed, implement a comprehensive civil-military campaign plan, tackle pervasive corruption, or invest in building Afghan governing capacity--will only make it more likely that we will face a resurgent Taliban and al Qaeda presence in Afghanistan.

As difficult as all this might be, the particular irony in the administration's possibly emerging verdict that building a democratic state in Afghanistan is too hard is that Afghans themselves disagree. Recent polling by the Asia Foundation shows that, despite insecurity and misgovernance, 78 percent of Afghans still believe democracy is the best form of government, and 65 percent believe free and fair elections can deliver a better future. But only 38 percent of Afghans believe their country is moving in the right direction--because of the pervasive insecurity and corruption that characterize life there today. Afghans have not given up on democracy; it would be a sad and self-defeating commentary if we did.

Gary Schmitt is director of the program on advanced strategic studies at the American Enterprise Institute and Daniel Twining
is senior fellow for Asia at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.