Opinion

Afghanistan war: Is the US in it to win it?

America's engagement in Afghanistan remains vital. Now is the time to renew our resolve and pursue our broad-based strategy, not look for an exit.

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When Gen. David Petraeus assumed command of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, he delivered exactly the right message: “We are in this to win.”

Surely, that message was welcomed by Afghan women who fear subjugation; by parents who fear seeing their daughters sprayed with acid for attending school; by decent people trying to build a future, but who fear retribution for being “collaborators” should the Taliban return.

Washington is thinking about an exit

Yet the general’s message – “we are in this to win” – is not something one often hears in Washington these days. Much of the Beltway crowd is absorbed by Bob Woodward’s new book that highlights the policy and personnel disputes among the war’s main players. And most of the public debate seems aimed at justifying a reduction in America's engagement, rather than affirming our resolve, our long-term commitment, and our willingness to pursue our strategy to success. With an American public angry over the economy, jobs, deficits, and a tone-deaf Washington, the congressional midterm elections could become a tipping point.

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Clearly, the American people do not want a prolonged and pointless war. But neither do they want failure. No one wants: a Taliban take-over; retribution and human rights abuses, with women and children especially vulnerable; increased risks to destabilization of Pakistan; expanded “safe havens” for terrorists; a shot-in-the-arm for global extremism and its hateful ideology that inspired the September 11 attacks; and a message to friend and foe alike that America cannot be trusted for the long-haul.

Faced with a choice between pointless war or failure, there is only one palatable option: success. While the military effort in Afghanistan is struggling, the broader issue driving our engagement remains the right cause: reversing the tide of global terrorism and extremism by working with local populations and the international community to help the vast majority of people who want to build society, not destroy it.

Not pursuing our own strategy

So why are we faltering? We are still not pursuing effectively our own stated strategy.

We talk about a regional “Af-Pak” policy. But the reality is that our policy remains Afghanistan-centric. We need a greater focus on helping Pakistan, on building bridges across the region, and on linking to India, China, and the global economy.

We talk about a broad, civil-military strategy. But the reality is that the military is still the principal focus. Efforts to strengthen the economy and governance are lagging. Without macro-level economic projects and trade corridors – combined with micro-level entrepreneurship – the entire region will continue to suffer from unemployment, despair, and the appeal of those with money and guns.

We talk about good governance. But we have failed to build local governance trusted by local populations while simultaneously working with Afghanistan’s and Pakistan’s presidents to improve state machinery and root out corruption.

And perhaps most serious of all – despite General Petraeus saying “We are in this to win –” by emphasizing timelines and limitations to our commitment, we undercut our own message. Our enemies are encouraged while our allies and supporters are hedging their bets.

The irony is that while our stated strategy is on target, we need a fundamental rethink about many of our own actions, which undercut rather than implement that strategy.

Must upgrade leadership and execution

Getting there requires vast improvement in two areas: leadership and execution.

On leadership, President Obama must articulate again (and repeatedly) our goals and commitment in Afghanistan and the wider region. We need a determined, long-term, regional, political-economic commitment. The military effort must be seen and supported as an essential pillar in a larger, long-term strategy, not the lead factor in a time-limited engagement. No matter how able Petraeus may be – and able he is– our field general cannot carry the water in this wider strategy.

Equally, those Republicans and Democrats in Congress and the Senate who support our engagement must work together to build a sustainable political coalition behind such a strategy – ideally, one that could withstand a midterm shake-up.

Then there is execution. The Obama administration will embark on its third Afghanistan review in just a few months. The Bush administration conducted at least as many. The conclusions are always the same – we need a broad-based, civil-military, regional strategy.

Yet we have never, under either administration, truly implemented what both agreed must be done. It may take a radical restructuring of the interagency apparatus, where all our assets – trade, commercial, assistance, business development, NGO liaison, diplomacy, military – are brought together in a single group, under an empowered leader. But we cannot fall flat on execution yet again.

The stakes in Afghanistan and the region are high, and the cause remains vital. Now is the time to renew our resolve and pursue our broad-based strategy, not look for an exit.

Kurt Volker, a former US ambassador to NATO, is with the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.

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