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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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.Skip to next paragraph
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.