Washington policymakers and others are increasingly recognizing that we need to return our attention to Afghanistan and the threat of Al Qaeda. While the administration has pursued a misguided war in Iraq, the Taliban has regrouped in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda has established a stronghold across the border in Pakistan, and Al Qaeda affiliates have gained strength around the world.
But few people seem willing to ask whether the main solution that's being talked about– sending more troops to Afghanistan – will actually work.
If the devastating policies of the current administration have proved anything, it's that we need to ask tough questions before deploying our brave service members – and that we need to be suspicious of Washington "group think." Otherwise, we are setting ourselves up for failure.
For far too long, we have been fighting in Afghanistan with too few troops. It has been an "economy of force" campaign, as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff put it. But we can't just assume that additional troops will undo the damage caused by years of neglect.
Sending more US troops made sense in, say, 2006, and it may still make sense today. The situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated badly over the past year, however, despite a larger US and coalition military presence.
We need to ask: After seven years of war, will more troops help us achieve our strategic goals in Afghanistan? How many troops would be needed and for how long? Is there a danger that a heavier military footprint will further alienate the population, and, if so, what are the alternatives? And – with the lessons of Iraq in mind – will this approach advance our top national security priority, namely defeating Al Qaeda?
We must target Al Qaeda aggressively, and we cannot allow Afghanistan to be used again as a launching pad for attacks on America. It is far from clear, however, that a larger military presence there would advance these goals.
To the contrary, it might only perpetuate a counterproductive game of cat and mouse that has led to a steep erosion in Afghans' support for foreign forces in southwestern Afghanistan, the main Taliban stronghold. One of the most recent polls found that, while most Afghans support the US presence, only a minority rate it positively.
Regardless of whether we send more troops, we need to understand that, as in Iraq, there is ultimately no military solution to Afghanistan's problems. Unless we push for diplomacy and a regional approach, work to root out corruption, stamp out the country's narcotics trade, and step up development and reconstruction efforts, Afghanistan will probably continue its downward trajectory.
Many of the biggest threats we face in Afghanistan emanate from across its long border with Pakistan. The US intelligence community concluded last year that Al Qaeda has "a safe haven in the Pakistani Federal Administered Tribal Areas."
The Taliban also enjoys a haven in Pakistan from which it launches cross-border attacks into Afghanistan. No policy in Afghanistan will succeed without a change in our policy toward Pakistan, to one that encourages a sustained pursuit of Al Qaeda leadership as well as broad engagement with Pakistan's civilian institutions, its population, and civil society.
We must also work with other key nations, such as Saudi Arabia and China. In late 2001, the Bush administration was able to bring all the regional players together to develop an internationally recognized, post-Taliban framework for Afghanistan. We should consider a similar high-level diplomatic initiative. The way forward requires a renewed strategy that has the support of Afghanistan's neighbors and stakeholders.
In addition, we need to help build a more stable, more representative, less corrupt Afghan government. We cannot rely on a single leader while turning a blind eye to corruption and repression, as we did in Pakistan.
The establishment of the rule of law and strong civil institutions is critical. Otherwise, Afghanistan may end up being devoured by parasitic warlords who hold sway over key ministries and impede critical reform.
Afghanistan's massive opium production, and the involvement of prominent government officials in the narcotics business, are serious problems. So far, we have relied too much on poppy eradication, even though similar efforts have not been effective in other parts of the world.
The US government should provide support for robust rural development programs, which provide alternative opportunities for farmers, thereby undermining the incentive to grow poppies.
Finally, the US has yet to deliver on much of the development assistance it had planned for Afghanistan. Its infrastructure needs are immense, from decent hospitals to functioning schools and passable roads. Every day that those needs go unmet, more Afghan people may turn away from their own government and allow the Taliban to move in.
In the long run, regional diplomacy, government reforms, and infrastructure development may be more important to Afghanistan's success – and to our own national security – than committing additional troops.
The decision to go to war in Afghanistan was the right one, but after years of misplaced priorities and muddling through, we have to do some hard thinking before asking our military to create the stability and security that are badly needed there.