Afghanistan: Time to Take the Long-View
By Matt Southworth on 08/23/2011 @ 01:25 PM
Violence is not inevitable, but the U.S. must move away from the current failed war policy now, as there is literally no time to lose.
I returned from a week in Afghanistan on Sunday. Over the week, a delegation of eight people—including two Hill staffers—which I helped organize met with over 20 different groups and Afghan officials. We met with international aid agencies, former Taliban representatives, Afghan women and even the Mayor of Kabul. I’m back with a simple but urgent message: the war is not working; it is time to change the strategy.
The overwhelming consensus of people we talked with was that President Obama’s “surge”—which started in summer of 2009—has failed to deliver stability or security to Afghanistan. Afghanistan is a more dangerous place today than it was even two years ago. In Kabul, it is easy to slip into a false sense of security. That is until a car bomb rattles the windows at 5:30am and reminds one exactly where they are—as was the case when the British Council was attacked on August 19th, just two miles from our hotel. Even in Kabul, where security is as good as anywhere else in the country, safety is little more than an illusion.
The decreasing security is fueled by the uncertainty of U.S. intentions. Nearly every Afghan and international group our delegation spoke with expressed concern that the United States will abandon Afghanistan, much as it did in 1989 when the Soviet occupation ended. Afghan concern resonates as one travels around Kabul, where the scars of the civil war of the 1990’s are abundantly evident; the deep lines in the faces of the people who survived that horrific time in Afghan history also tell the story. At the end of the day, it is in no one's interest—not Afghans, the U.S. Congress or President Obama—to see Afghanistan slide into civil war.
This doesn’t mean the U.S. military should stay in Afghanistan. The majority of people we talked to believe the U.S. military should leave the country, but that U.S. aid and assistance should not. A responsible withdrawal requires ensuring that both security and political transitions are underway as US military forces leave. This means the U.S. must sort out its long-term non-military policy in Afghanistan and commit to as robust political and economic engagement after the war. Unfortunately, what is unclear to many Afghans we spoke with is what the U.S. really plans to do in Afghanistan.
The ambiguity of U.S. intensions—plans to (mostly) leave by 2014, but an insistence that Afghanistan won’t be abandoned, for example—could be diminished if a transition strategy reaching beyond security were developed. As the former Deputy Minister of the Interior Shahmahmood Miakhel, now country director for the United States Institute of Peace, put it, foreign governments need a political transition strategy. The absence of such a strategy only sets the stage for an improbable, if not impossible transition to a fragile Afghan government, which is consistently undermined by Western media and ongoing U.S. support of warlords.
Indeed, U.S. policy in Afghanistan seems to be charging headlong in the exact opposite direction of stability. After a decade of empowering, funding and arming Afghanistan’s anti-Taliban warlords and drug lords, the U.S. has inadvertently fueled ethnic tensions to a flashpoint. On top of conflicts brewing between Afghans, there are also layers of conflict with several proxy wars taking place in addition. From the Karzai government to Iran to the Pakistani ISI, everyone is hedging their bets on what the U.S. will do next. In refusing to talk to the Iranian government and allowing U.S. relations with Pakistan to deteriorate, the U.S. is not only fueling civil strife in the country, but also exacerbating the proxy wars happening at the top layer of the conflict.
The picture is bleak, but the cause is not lost. Violence is not inevitable, but the U.S. must move away from the current failed war policy now, as there is literally no time to lose. When the United States clearly articulates its long term non-military strategy for robust political and economic engagement in Afghanistan, it will undoubtedly ease some of these overwhelming tensions. It will also make it more difficult for the spoilers to play both sides. This is, of course, only the first in many steps the U.S. must take. Moving beyond the failed war policy, the U.S. must also work to strengthen the Afghan government, open all diplomatic channels, build a viable Afghan economy, strengthen civil society and thus articulate its own long term non-military involvement in the country. Without taking these steps, Afghanistan’s future will remain treacherous and uncertain. The time to take bolds steps is now.