President Obama has said many times that America must succeed in Afghanistan. He is right, and he deserves our full support in that effort.
Afghanistan is in many respects harder to understand than Iraq was. Even with a good strategy and sufficient resources, success will almost certainly come much more slowly. But as a great man said two years ago, hard is not hopeless.
The keys to finding the right approach lie in nine fundamental principles.
1. UNDERSTAND WHY WE’RE THEREPakistan itself is another reason Afghanistan is vitally important to America. It’s a country with 170 million people, nuclear weapons, and numerous terrorist groups. As long as Afghanistan is unstable, Pakistan will be unable to bring order to its own tribal areas, where many terrorist sanctuaries persist. It will also be distracted from addressing the more fundamental problems of Islamic radicalism that threaten its very survival as a state. Further, Afghan instability makes the U.S. dependent on Pakistan logistically–there is no way to replace completely the land route from Karachi with another route through Central Asia. This dependence in turn reduces our ability to influence Islamabad on other matters of great importance, such as stabilizing civilian rule in Pakistan and stopping support for terrorist groups like the one that attacked Bombay.
Afghanistan is not now a sanctuary for al-Qaeda, but it would likely become one again if we abandoned it. Mullah Omar, the head of the Taliban government we removed in 2001, is alive and well in Pakistan. He maintains contacts with Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and the other key al-Qaeda leaders, who are also based in Pakistan (although in a different area). Mullah Omar supports Taliban fighters in southern Afghanistan from his Pakistani havens, while al-Qaeda and its affiliates support insurgents in eastern Afghanistan. Allowing Afghanistan to fail would mean allowing these determined enemies of the United States to regain the freedom they had before 9/11.
2. KNOW WHAT WE HAVE TO ACHIEVE
Success in Afghanistan does not require creating a paradise in one of the poorest countries on earth, but we cannot define victory down. Preventing Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terrorists again, helping Pakistan fight its own terrorist problems, and liberating ourselves from dependence on Pakistan will require building an Afghan state with a representative government.
Afghanistan has a longer tradition of such political organization than Iraq has. It has been independent since 1747, and had a functioning constitutional and parliamentary monarchy in the middle of the 20th century. Centrifugal forces in Afghanistan have always been powerful, making the prospects for a strong centralized government in Kabul poor, but the country is neither ungovernable nor artificial. It cannot be stable at this point in history, however, without a representative system. Its multiethnic makeup and decades of internal war mean that any attempt to impose a strongman or to break the country up into effectively independent, warlord-ruled fiefdoms will lead to perpetual violence.
3. UNDERSTAND OUR ENEMIES AND FRIENDS
There is no such thing as “the Taliban” today. Many different groups with different leaders and aims call themselves “Taliban,” and many more are called “Taliban” by their enemies. In addition to Mullah Omar’s Taliban based in Pakistan and indigenous Taliban forces in Afghanistan, there is an indigenous Pakistani Taliban controlled by Baitullah Mehsud (this group is thought to have been responsible for assassinating Benazir Bhutto). Both are linked with al-Qaeda, and both are dangerous and determined. In other areas, however, “Taliban” groups are primarily disaffected tribesmen who find it more convenient to get help from the Taliban than from other sources.
In general terms, any group that calls itself “Taliban” is identifying itself as against the government in Kabul, the U.S., and U.S. allies. Our job is to understand which groups are truly dangerous, which are irreconcilable with our goals for Afghanistan–and which can be fractured or persuaded to rejoin the Afghan polity. We can’t fight them all, and we can’t negotiate with them all. Dropping the term “Taliban” and referring to specific groups instead would be a good way to start understanding who is really causing problems.