WINNING THE PEACE in Afghanistan is not optional. It is a national necessity. Early American military victories, the current low level of fighting, and the recent completion of the loya jirga, or council of elders, all have contributed to a false sense of progress evident both in official U.S. statements and in the media. There is also, however, a growing discomfort, an as yet unarticulated perception that all is not well on the Afghan front.
The reality is that the situation is both worse and better than is often realized. Worse, because if current policies remain unchanged, we stand to lose all the gains achieved thus far, with Afghanistan plunged into a chaos worse than before. Better, because a stable, long-term settlement is within reach if we are willing to adopt a comprehensive strategy designed to help bring it about. To be sure, even if we are willing, this won't be easy. The key to a lasting solution lies outside the borders of Afghanistan, in the involvement of the surrounding countries and in unflagging, careful leadership from the United States.
Already, as the first major theater in the war on terror, Afghanistan has acquired enormous significance. Anything short of a decisive and complete victory would make further progress in the war on terror far more difficult if not impossible. If the United States does not have the will to stay the course in Afghanistan, why should terrorists and their sponsors believe that it will have it elsewhere?
Moreover, Washington is not operating from a blank slate in this domain. Its reputation for jumping in and out of crises is well known. Afghans and others in the region remember only too well how quickly the United States forgot about Afghanistan once Soviet troops left in 1989.
Although the situation now is vastly different, the same strong desire to finish the job and get out has been evident from the beginning. Even before military operations wound down, the United States was intimating that it wanted to withdraw and turn over the shaping and management of the country's reconstruction to others. The fact that military operations are taking longer than some anticipated has not altered that fundamental urge.
Certainly many in the region believe the United States will not remain engaged in Afghanistan for the long haul. As one diplomat put it, "Once the Americans believe they are finished with al Qaeda, the media will leave; and once that happens, the U.S. government will lose interest." Such views are reinforced by a broader questioning of American seriousness in the pursuit of the war on terror. Writing during the U.S. bombing in Afghanistan, a retired Pakistani general, former head of military intelligence (ISI) and currently Pakistan's ambassador to Saudi Arabia, described Washington as acting in anger. And, he said, when America is angry others should be ready to duck. But the anger will pass, and then everyone can continue as before.
Success in Afghanistan is important, however, not solely because the United States has invested its military might and honor there. It is also crucial to the peace and independence of the surrounding states--for the same Islamist terrorists who targeted the Twin Towers and the Pentagon dream of creating an Islamist empire across a swath of Asia
Strategically insignificant on its own, Afghanistan has been a bone of contention between empires. And it still is. It is this characteristic--that it sparks the desires of outsiders--that continues to dominate today. This is why any settlement of Afghanistan's massive problems has little chance of success unless it addresses adequately the regional context.
Contenders for control over Afghanistan in the nineteenth century were the British and Russian empires. In the second half of the twentieth there was a southward thrust by the Soviets (1979-1989), followed by an attempted northward thrust by the Pakistanis after the Soviet troop withdrawal and the collapse of the Soviet Union (1991-2001).
It was this second attempt to control Afghanistan from the outside that served to destabilize not just that country but also all those around it, a process that has not yet been brought to an end. And it is that destabilization that would be measurably increased should the United States fail in Afghanistan, with catastrophic consequences for all concerned.
Pakistan realized early on that the Afghans are not easily controlled. Its solution was to use Afghan Islamist leaders as Pakistani proxies. The Pakistanis' reasoning was simple: Extremist Muslims had never had any real popular support in Afghanistan and would need Islamabad's help not just to seize power, but also to hold it. The Taliban, whose leadership was made up of at best semi-literate individuals, inexperienced and incompetent in managing the affairs of state, was but the latest of Pakistan's unfortunate selections.