The South Asia Channel

The wrong question

By Caroline Wadhams

In his recent assessment of the war in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, argued that focusing on increasing troop levels and resources misses the point. Despite this assertion, the U.S. public debate barrels along focused almost exclusively on one question: should the United States send more U.S. troops to Afghanistan?

Sending another 5,000 to 40,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan will not salvage the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. That's just tinkering at the margins.

The right questions to be asking are these: is a counterinsurgency strategy actually the best way to achieve the Obama administration's stated objectives in Afghanistan -- to "disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda" while preventing the reestablishment of a safe haven in Afghanistan? And if so, does the United States have the will and capacity, especially on the civilian side, to conduct an effective counterinsurgency campaign?  

A look at the origins of the Afghan insurgency demands a broader conversation than mere troop levels. American diplomats and military officials on the ground agree that the bulk of insurgent fighters are not ideologically driven. Rather, they are looking for a paycheck, disillusioned or marginalized by corrupt local government officials, coerced into cooperation by insurgent intimidation, or angry at NATO and U.S. troops for their actions in Afghanistan.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) and others who oppose an increase in U.S. troop levels but seek to dramatically increase the size of the Afghan National Security Forces also overemphasize the military component of achieving success in Afghanistan. It's just that they focus on the Afghan military, not the U.S. military.

This fixation on troop levels -- Afghan, U.S., or NATO -- appears to be an example of a popular mindset that military force alone can solve our greatest foreign policy challenges. This is demonstrated by the budgets of the Department of Defense compared with our development and diplomatic agencies - DOD surpasses the latter by a ratio of 13 to 1.

The Obama administration has stated that the civilian component is as critical to U.S. and NATO efforts as the military component in Afghanistan, and Gen. McChrystal argued in his assessment that ISAF "cannot succeed without a corresponding cadre of civilian experts." Yet policymakers are not focused enough on the nonmilitary aspects of the U.S. strategy, which will ultimately determine its success.

Policymakers and the public should be asking questions such as these: 

  • What levers do we possess to encourage the reduction of corruption and improve representative governance at the local, provincial, and national levels in Afghanistan, and are they synchronized with those of the Afghan government?
  • Does the United States have the capacity to undertake the civilian aspects of a counterinsurgency strategy, given that currently only about 100 of the 450 civilian diplomats and technical specialists promised in the civilian surge have thus far reached the Afghan theater and that U.S. agencies are scrambling to find additional civilians to deploy?
  • What is the best strategy for ensuring aid money provided by the United States and other countries has maximum impact in building Afghanistan's economy? More than 60 international donors and entities are providing aid to Afghanistan, and efforts remain fragmented and poorly coordinated across the country.
  • What measures are we taking to build the long-term sustainability of Afghan government institutions for an eventual transition away from dependence on international donors?

The systematic fraud that occurred in the August 20 presidential and provincial council elections forces deep questions about the sustainability of a counterinsurgency strategy in which we lack a committed partner government that is legitimate in the estimation of its own people. Additional military deployments or training missions miss the larger questions of how to forge a power-sharing agreement in this tense post-election environment, and whether our diplomatic efforts should be turning toward a constitutional reassessment, through a loya jirga grand council process, which would help address the tensions between Afghanistan's centralized presidential system and highly decentralized history of governance.

While the security situation in Afghanistan is dire and deteriorating, more U.S. and NATO troops alone are not going to solve Afghanistan's greatest challenges of weak governance, a growing insurgency, entrenched criminal and narcotics trafficking networks, and deep poverty. Gen. McChrystal and other military officials evidently recognize this fact, but absent a fundamental reinvigoration of our nonmilitary efforts, they see little recourse but to turn to the tools most readily at hand.

Instead of getting caught up in headlines over American troop levels, policymakers both inside and outside the administration need to seriously debate and take steps toward resolving the civilian side of the issues, which might actually make a difference in weakening the insurgency and giving Afghanistan the ability to control its territory.

Caroline Wadhams is a Senior Policy Analyst at the Center for American Progress and was a member of an election observation team in Pakistan in February 2008.  She is the co-author of The Forgotten Front and Partnership for Progress: Advancing a New Strategy for Prosperity and Stability in Pakistan and the Region.



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