Commentary

Escaping the Afghan Quicksand

The American public’s attention has refocused on Afghanistan, both because of President-elect Barack Obama’s stated commitment to the region and because of a recent uptick in high-profile Taliban violence. After seven years, 626 American fatalities, and reluctant allies clamoring for exit, America’s mission in Afghanistan is currently rudderless. Unless Obama defines the objective we hope to achieve in that country, America and its Western alliance will suffer an ignominious military debacle not unlike the Soviet Union’s 20 years ago.

Before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, then-KGB Director Yuri Andropov spoke out against sending more troops into that country: “The economy is backward, the Islamic religion predominates, and nearly all of the rural population is illiterate. I do not think we can uphold the revolution in Afghanistan with the help of our bayonets. The idea is intolerable and we cannot risk it.”

Though US policymakers are no doubt loathe to draw the comparison, Andropov’s words hold true for the US mission today.

Soviet ground forces entered the country nonetheless, hoping to pacify their recalcitrant satellite. The infusion of several hundred thousand Soviet troops, however, simply precipitated the country’s disunity.

The complex nature of the region and its people remains, while America and its NATO allies have unwisely drifted into a nation-building mission. US policy largely overlooks the fact that Afghans have a stronger allegiance to their tribal and ethnic clans, sub-clans and extended families than to a strong central state governed from Kabul.

NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) of nearly 70,000 troops and 25 Provincial Reconstruction Teams have to combat a resurgent Taliban while simultaneously attempting to stabilize the war-ravaged nation. The country’s rough mountainous terrain is difficult to infiltrate, inhibiting surveillance of militant activity. Distinguishing ordinary tribesmen from militant operatives is next to impossible.

The situation is exacerbated by low literacy levels and poor-to-nonexistent infrastructure. Today, in most villages, literacy is in the single digits. Many still live in mud huts. “Education here is just way too low,” said one US soldier, “and even if you’re just talking about bringing in electricity, it’s going to take years and years and years.”

Inevitably, NATO forces are finding their mission increasingly difficult. German commentator Ullrich Fichtner wrote in May, “Anyone who travels the country … speaking with Western ambassadors, UN directors, ISAF commanders and provincial governors, and meeting with women’s rights activists, narcotics officers and police chiefs - is bound to return with many dark questions and an ominous feeling that this mission is not a task to be measured in years, but in decades, many decades.”

Stability operations are politically, militarily and economically exhausting for the foreign nations providing assistance. Add to that the burden of building infrastructure, establishing a foreign political system and alien rule of law, all essentially from scratch in a country that is heavily militarized, notoriously resistant to outsiders, and largely absent of central government authority, and the mission appears nearly impossible. These issues are compounded by the spiraling financial crisis in the West, which will certainly sap political will among NATO electorates.

Certainly NATO’s efforts today are distinguishable from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Modern-day militants, at least according to open source information, are not being backed by millions of dollars in covert aid from an opposing superpower, and the Soviet forces of yesteryear were not nearly as well-equipped as US and NATO troops are today. It is also clear that NATO does not intend to turn Afghanistan into a client state.

President-elect Obama must engage his NATO allies and have a frank and serious discussion about the consequences of a long-term Western occupation of Afghanistan. Is NATO’s goal to defeat the Taliban? Eradicate opium? Establish a flourishing Jeffersonian democracy?

Although 4,500 US troops are scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan in February 2009, throwing more troops at an undefined mission is extraordinarily self-defeating. For an Obama administration, the question is not “is Afghanistan winnable?” but rather “what do we hope to accomplish?”

Malou Innocent is a foreign policy analyst at the Cato Institute.