Afghanistan is still worth fighting for

A Q&A with foreign affairs scholar Francis Fukuyama

Nathan Gardels: President Obama has stated the US objective in Afghanistan is "disrupting, defeating and dismantling Al Qaeda." Defense Secretary [Robert] Gates has said that we are not seeking to build some democratic "Valhalla" there. Yet, now a new surge of troops is being called for to "stabilize" and "hold" areas until effective governance can take place. Yet, the recent election disputes clearly show that is not coming any time soon. Isn't this, therefore, mission creep toward nation-building and a long commitment in the wrong place, especially since the consensus among intelligence officials is that Al Qaeda has now moved to Pakistan?

Francis Fukuyama: No, this isn't mission creep, this is just good counterinsurgency warfare. Counterinsurgency is a political strategy for winning hearts and minds, and you can't do that without effective governance.

Gardels: Secretary Gates has also said that [NATO commander in Afghanistan] General [Stanley] McChrystal's new counterinsurgency strategy – avoid killing civilians, clear and hold – will have a year to show that it is working. We've been here before watching the mujahideen fighting the Soviets. A year is less than a moment to the Taliban who are still fighting against the contamination of Buddhism millennia ago, not to speak of the Soviet infidels only a couple of decades ago. Surely they will wait out any surge and just return later?

Fukuyama: The other dynamic variable that needs to be taken into account is the strengthening of the Afghan state. We haven't made nearly the progress that we should have due to lack of attention, resources, false starts (particularly with the police), but it's not an impossible task to imagine it filling the existing vacuum.

Gardels: Graham Fuller, a former CIA station chief in Kabul during the Soviet invasion, simply says that the US presence, by generating Pashtun tribal/nationalist resistance in both Afghanistan and Pakistan and driving them into the hands of the Taliban, is more the problem than the solution. In his view, more troops will only exacerbate the sense of occupation, creating more resistance. Musn't you agree?

Fukuyama: That's obviously true to some extent, but the real question is whether our interests will be better served by being in or out. On balance, I think they still favor our being in.

Gardels: Why not just seek to contain Al Qaeda – as we seek to do in Yemen and Somalia – instead of seeking to transform Afghanistan, a prospect that would take decades?

Fukuyama: Again, nation building isn't something we're doing as a favor to them, but as an integral part of a counterinsurgency strategy. You don't get people to turn against insurgents unless you can offer them some concrete benefits for doing so.

Gardels: Is there another alternative?

Fukuyama: You could try to wall them off in Pashtunistan and create a rump Afghan state in the Tajik areas to the north. It's probably possible to contain Al Qaeda with drones and air power. But this new Pashtunistan will still present a threat to Pakistan and Afghanistan, and possibly to us as well. It is also likely to lead to unpredictable consequences for our broader credibility in the region. This is not to say that it's an obviously bad option, but one that needs to be thought through carefully.

Gardels: It is already clear that, after eight years, Americans increasingly don't support this war. What is the logic of building schools in Afghanistan for a corrupt and ineffective government when, in California for example, we are letting prisoners go and firing teachers because of the fiscal crisis?

Fukuyama: To try to answer this question in yet a third way, we are not building schools because we are interested in development per se in Afghanistan. It is part of a military counterinsurgency strategy. You do not win a counterinsurgency war "kinetically," you win it politically by offering the broader population a better deal than the insurgents.

Gardels: The inconvenient reality seems that the lacking will of the American public does not match the deep commitment of the Pashtun tribal mentaity against foreigners that has gone on for centuries. Haven't we been here before in another war, namely, Vietnam?

Fukuyama: Yes, but every war is different. There's actually not a whole lot of political pressure on the Obama administration for a near-term withdrawal. The costs of the war have mounted, but they are ones we could bear almost indefinitely.

Gardels: On the advice of the "best and brightest" minds in counterinsurgency theory and practice, isn't President Obama making a mistake by getting more deeply involved in Afghanistan?

Fukuyama: Yes, he is getting more involved on the advice of the best and brightest, but whether that's a mistake or not remains to be seen.

Francis Fukuyama, author of the seminal "The End of History and the Last Man," is director of the International Development Program at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University. Nathan Gardels is editor in chief of New Perspectives Quarterly and the Global Viewpoint Network syndicated by Tribune Media Services and hosted online by The Christian Science Monitor.

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