Now that President Obama has authorized Gen. David Petraeus to continue to execute the current strategy in Afghanistan, the question is: Can the U.S. strategy succeed? The administration’s review of its policy identified areas of progress but noted that “the challenge remains to make our gains durable and sustainable.” We are confident this is possible.
Military progress in Afghanistan this year is undeniable. The campaign in Afghanistan has correctly aimed at eliminating insurgent and terrorist havens and creating conditions that will prevent their reestablishment. Coalition forces have eliminated the most important Taliban havens in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, places that had gone unchallenged for years. Military operations have disrupted a concerted Taliban campaign to launch spectacular attacks within Kabul. The dramatic increase in American, allied and Afghan special-forces operations against insurgent leaders and facilitators has damaged enemy networks. Coalition forces have seized unprecedented amounts of explosives, narcotics and other weapons, reducing their supply and steeply raising the price of a key ingredient in explosives. These gains are far more consequential than the very limited expansion of Taliban activity in the north, to which coalition and Afghan forces are in any case responding.
Progress has been much more limited, however, in addressing the problem posed by insurgent havens in Pakistan. The Obama administration has been too generous in its assessment of some efforts of the government in Islamabad. Pakistan has confined its military operations strictly to those groups that target Pakistan. Its army has three divisions in Quetta and Waziristan, the principal sanctuaries for Afghan Taliban, Haqqani militants, al-Qaeda leaders and other Taliban-affiliated groups. If Islamabad wanted to act against those groups, it would have done so.
More dialogue will not solve this problem. The Pakistanis know what we want them to do and why, and they are choosing not to do it despite long conversations and enormous amounts of financial aid. Only increased pressure on Pakistan’s proxies in Afghanistan can fundamentally alter Islamabad’s strategic calculus. Simply put, the United States and its allies must persuade the Taliban, Pakistan and Afghanistan that we will win. The president’s renewed commitment to long-term engagement, including a long-term military presence in Afghanistan, is important. But it is more important to make good on his words to American soldiers in Afghanistan last month: “We will prevail.”
We can continue to make progress in Afghanistan while the insurgents retain their Pakistani sanctuaries so as long as our comprehensive counterinsurgency efforts continue. Gen. James E. Cartwright noted Thursday that “we have the advantage in Afghanistan of having boots on the ground” so that we can “defeat” rather than “disrupt” our most dangerous enemies there – a sharp contrast to our situation in Pakistan. As our strategy evolves we must avoid becoming so focused on problems we cannot readily solve, such as Pakistan’s policies, that we lose sight of the tools we can use in Afghanistan to change the overall situation to our advantage.
The administration has been clear about its desire to avoid expanding our goals and mission in Afghanistan beyond what our vital national interests require. We must also avoid focusing too narrowly on conducting a smooth transition of security responsibilities from U.S. to Afghan forces. President Obama must make clear that our objective in Afghanistan is success and not just transition and withdrawal. “Durable and sustainable” success requires more than simply expanding the size and capabilities of the Afghan National Security Forces while reducing the enemy’s capabilities. We must consider the stability and legitimacy of the political order in any province or district, too, when handing over security responsibilities to Afghans. Premature transitions risk our long-term goals.
The cornerstone of the administration’s long-term strategy to prevent the reemergence of al-Qaeda havens in the region is a strong partnership with a stable, functional, unitary Afghan state. Such a state must be accepted by all of Afghanistan’s ethnic groups. For Pashtuns, the state must become more compatible with local traditions of representation, decision making and governance. Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras require an absolute guarantee that the Taliban will not return to power in any form. Afghanistan has a long history of central government balanced by local arrangements that satisfy its various ethnic groups. Current efforts to address the shortcomings of Afghan central and local governance – including corruption that fuels the insurgency – are not “mission creep,” as some have argued, but are necessary to restore that balance in support of the overall approach the administration has outlined.
This strategy, like any good counter-insurgency strategy, is not partible. Separating direct strikes against terrorist and insurgent leaders from efforts to reduce popular support and tolerance for their presence will lead to failure. A balanced approach to these challenges, as we are pursuing, is by far the most likely to succeed.
The U.S. presence in Afghanistan is driven also by our struggle with al-Qaeda senior leadership and the future of Pakistan. International forces stationed along the Durand Line are about 30 miles from many of the most dangerous centers of Islamist terrorism in Pakistan. From those positions, we can understand what is happening in Pakistan and, occasionally, take action. We should never underestimate the importance of this positional advantage. It cannot be replaced by technology, discussion with Islamabad or anything else. From the Afghan border we have a unique vantage point on the groups that most directly threaten the American homeland and the stability of the entire nuclear-armed subcontinent.
The ultimate goal of American strategy in the region must be ensuring that Afghanistan is sufficiently stable and friendly so that we can make the best use of that vantage point. The president’s strategy gives us the best chance of doing that.
By Frederick W. Kagan, director of the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute and Kimberly Kagan, president of the Institute for the Study of War. They are independent military analysts who have conducted research for commanders in Afghanistan.