At the heart of Gen. Stanley McChrystal's request for a major surge in troops is the assumption that we are failing in Afghanistan. But are we really? The United States has had one central objective: to deny Al Qaeda the means to reconstitute, train, and plan major terror attacks. This mission has been largely successful for the past eight years. Al Qaeda is dispersed, on the run, and unable to direct attacks of the kind it planned and executed routinely in the 1990s. Fourteen of the top 20 leaders of the group have been killed by drone attacks. Its funding sources are drying up, and its political appeal is at an all-time low. All this is not an accident but rather a product of the U.S. presence in the region and efforts to disrupt terrorists, track funds, gain intelligence, aid development, help allies, and kill enemies. (Click here to follow Fareed Zakaria)
It's true that the security situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated considerably. While it is nothing like Iraq in 2006—civilian deaths are a 10th as numerous—parts of the country are effectively controlled by the Taliban. Other parts are no man's land. But these areas are sparsely populated tracts of countryside. All the major population centers remain in the hands of the Kabul government. Is it worth the effort to gain control of all 35,000 Afghan villages scattered throughout the country? That goal has eluded most Afghan governments for the last 200 years and is a very high bar to set for the U.S. mission there.
Why has security gotten worse? Largely because Hamid Karzai's government is ineffective and corrupt and has alienated large numbers of Pashtuns, who have migrated to the Taliban. It is not clear that this problem can be solved by force, even using a smart counterinsurgency strategy. In fact, more troops injected into the current climate could provoke an antigovernment or nationalist backlash.
It's important to remember that the crucial, lasting element of the surge in Iraq was not the influx of troops, but getting Sunni tribes to switch sides by offering them security, money, and a place at the table. U.S. troops are now drawing down, and yet—despite some violence—the Sunnis have not resumed fighting because Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki is courting their support.
The United States and the Afghan government need to make much greater efforts to wean Pashtun tribes away from the most radical Taliban factions. It is unclear how many Taliban fighters believe in a global jihadist ideology, but most U.S. commanders with whom I've spoken feel that the number is less than 30 percent. The other 70 percent are driven by money, gangland peer pressure, or opposition to Karzai.
And when we think through our strategy in Afghanistan, let's please remember that there is virtually no Qaeda presence there. Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen recently acknowledged what U.S. intelligence and all independent observers have long said: Al Qaeda is in Pakistan, as is the leadership of the hard-core Afghan Taliban. (That's why it's called the Quetta Shura, Quetta being a Pakistani city.) All attacks against Western targets that have emanated from the region in the past eight years have come from Pakistan and not Afghanistan. Even the most recently foiled plot in the United States, which involved the first Afghan that I know of to be implicated in global terrorism, originated in Pakistan. Yet we spend $30 in Afghanistan for every dollar in Pakistan.
There's little evidence that Pakistan's generals have truly accepted that they must defeat all the jihadis in their country (as opposed to just those who threaten the Pakistani state). But they have been more cooperative and active in the past year than ever before. A civilian government, the jihadi takeover of the Swat Valley, a change in public attitudes, and increased American aid have all contributed to a more effective U.S.-Pakistan relationship. Greater energy, attention, and resources will surely yield even more.
What about the argument that Osama bin Laden and his minions will simply shift back across the border if the Taliban is allowed free rein? Well, they haven't done so yet, despite the pockets of turf the insurgents control. And it is easier for us to deny them territory than to insist that we control it all ourselves—we can fight like guerrillas too. Remember that the U.S. and its allies have close to 100,000 troops in Afghanistan now. Keeping them there is the right commitment, one that keeps in mind the stakes, but also the costs and, most important, the other vital interests around the world to which U.S. foreign policy must also be attentive.