General McChrystal told a visiting NATO delegation last week how to prevail in Afghanistan. “You need to be able to take a risk. My country will tolerate sacrifices if they [sic.] think what we do matters, and we are doing it fairly well.”
Despite the current refrain of the pundits, what we do in Afghanistan does matter and General McChrystal and his team are the last hope that the United States and its allies will get it right.
Afghanistan matters because we have a national security interest in denying anti-American terrorists the ability to train and plot against us, and having invaded, we have a moral obligation to stack the decks in favor of those locals whose hopes were raised by our intervention.
I was in Bosnia when the U.S. and NATO first began their civil-military effort, and pundits and politicians said it was a wasted effort. Those of us working on the ground paid no heed to the naysayers. And we succeeded.
In Afghan-American Khaled Hosseini’s book, A Thousand Splendid Suns, he describes how Afghan refugees who fled to Pakistan during the 30-year civil war decided to return and rebuild Afghanistan in 2002. The main character, Laila, returns to Afghanistan from her refuge in Pakistan because she is hopeful after the international invasion. In convincing her husband they must return, she says, “This isn’t home. Kabul is, and back there so much is happening, a lot of it good. I want to be part of it all… I want to contribute.”
What I heard while in Kabul and Kandahar last week is that Afghans do not loathe and fear the internationals. They reserve fear and loathing for the Taliban. General McChrystal understands this sentiment and that is why his new strategy is “population centric”—aimed at protecting civilians and helping the international effort to induce better governance out of the Afghans. And while the recent elections failed to further this objective, they also did not suddenly give rise to a new corrupt reality in Afghanistan. They highlighted what Afghans already knew—their government is rotten with corruption and fraud. But now the international public knows it too.
U.S. policy towards Afghanistan since 2001 and the Bonn Conference has been one focused on counterterrorism—the narrow approach that is reportedly now being advocated by some policymakers and analysts. The deal the United States made with the Europeans in Bonn was that they would take care of the nation-building—rule of law (Italy), policing (Germany), and counternarcotics (United Kingdom)—and the United States would go after the bad guys. A Special Operations Force commander asserted last week, with justifiable pride, that his forces went down the target lists and completed their homework time and again. The problem was it wasn’t enough to win the war. And in some cases, because of civilian casualties, these military efforts alienated the Afghan public.
Aside from a limited counterterrorism option, there are no other alternative strategies. All other commentary has been nay-saying. We’ve heard that before. I was in Bosnia 1996 when the U.S. and NATO first began their civil-military effort, and pundits and politicians in Washington said it was a wasted effort; that the Bosnians had been fighting one another for centuries and wouldn’t be able to stop. We weren’t even losing American lives and Congress railed against the cost with the Warner-Byrd Amendment, which threatened to cut off funding. President Clinton was forced to say we’d only be there for a year. That was a long year—nine years to be exact—and we still have a couple hundred troops there. Those of us working on the ground paid no heed to the naysayers—even on our worst cynical days. And we succeeded. For 13 years, peace prevailed in Bosnia. And so it is that last week in Afghanistan, a Canadian Army major in charge of stabilizing a southern village near Kandahar asserted that the Afghans “are sick of being at war.” He is already implementing the counterinsurgency strategy espoused by his top commander, General McChrystal, and the comprehensive approach defined by President Obama in March. His plan: “to carpet bomb them with projects.”
Evelyn N. Farkas, Senior Fellow at the American Security Project, participated in NATO’s Transatlantic Opinion Leaders’ delegation to Afghanistan last week and was an International Republican Institute election monitor in Afghanistan last month. She was executive director of the Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism and is the author of Fractured States and US Foreign Policy: Iraq, Ethiopia and Bosnia in the 1990s.