This question has new urgency, given the recent upswing in violence in Afghanistan and the sense emerging among many US leaders – from both parties – that military resources need to be speedily diverted there from Iraq.
One thing is clear. Neither of these victories will look like your grandfather's victory in the Pacific in 1945. Back then, Japan's army chief and top-hatted foreign minister traveled to the USS Missouri to sign a surrender document and hand it with full pomp to Gen. Douglas MacArthur.
But victory in Iraq and Afghanistan will not depend, as in Japan, on defeating a standing national army. Instead, in each country, it will depend on defeating or defanging antigovernment insurgencies and helping midwife a governing system that:
•Enjoys domestic political "legitimacy," that is, it has the support of the vast majority of the country's citizens,
•Is sustainably able to deliver public security and other basic services to citizens throughout the whole country, and
•Has the tools to resolve in nonviolent ways the still-unresolved and yet-to-emerge conflicts among its citizens.
What we don't want is a replay of what happened in Vietnam, where the US declared "victory" but then withdrew humiliatingly, under fire, leaving the victors free to enact brutal retribution against our former allies.
Only one body can provide the leadership that's needed to defeat the insurgencies in both Iraq and – over a longer time frame – Afghanistan. That is the United Nations. Though it's far from a perfect institution, only the UN has the vital quality of worldwide legitimacy that allows it to mobilize global resources and expertise and make the tough decisions required in these two countries.
Regarding Iraq, we need to ask the UN to urgently convene two negotiating forums. One would sort out the thorny political dilemmas that remain inside the country. The other would bring together Iraq, all its neighbors, the US, and perhaps also the Arab League to agree on a plan for the drawdown – or total withdrawal – of US forces in a way that will not result in Iraq's neighbors moving in to exploit the resulting vacuum.
Americans have a similar need for a greatly increased UN leadership in Afghanistan. Given the current state of world politics, it is quite improbable that the US and its NATO allies can ever achieve the "pacification" of a country so far distant from NATO in geography, culture, and politics.
Former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski is just one of those now warning the US against being drawn into the same trap that confounded the Soviets in Afghanistan. Other non-NATO governments need to be brought into the decisionmaking. (The stakes that many of them have in preventing the Afghan state from failing yet again are just as high, or higher than, our own.)
Remember, too, that NATO – unlike the UN – has always been, and remains, a military alliance. Only the UN can amass the broad range of tools needed to carry out the tasks of long-term peace-building in Afghanistan, as it has successfully done in Mozambique, Cambodia, and elsewhere. Those tools will likely include military-style units for peacekeeping or peace enforcement.
But many nonmilitary tools will be required as well. The goal is to have Afghanistan become a functioning, independent country whose people have no incentive to provide safe harbor to terrorists or drug lords.
Again, only the UN has the worldwide legitimacy and the technical and cultural capacities needed to spearhead this effort.
These tasks will require, certainly, a strong new compact between our country and the UN, whose capacities have been badly hobbled by Washington's deep estrangement from it in recent years. We should recall that the UN was created by an earlier, much wiser generation of American leaders, and it still stands as one of our country's finest achievements.
So yes, there is a way for everyone, including our country, to win in Iraq and Afghanistan. It means stepping back from the urge to have Washington "control" all the big decisions in both countries. It also means understanding that in this century, the world's peoples are all dependent for our security upon each other. Security is no longer a function mainly of military might, but of helping people everywhere build flourishing and hope-filled communities.
The UN embodies those ideals of human security and global interdependence. In the 21st century, we and the peoples of Iraq and Afghanistan need it more than ever before.
Helena Cobban, a former Monitor correspondent, is a "Friend in Washington" with the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Her latest book is "Re-engage: America and the World After Bush."