Strategic Dialogue: Afghanistan

These pieces are part of a strategic dialogue on Afghanistan, as part of our new South Asia focus. You can read Ed Corcoran’s piece here and Erik Leaver’s piece here.

Erik Leaver

Ed Corcoran’s piece, “Why Afghanistan,” focuses less on Afghanistan and more on advocating for a “global development program.” Corcoran writes that “the United States faces an entirely new type of threat to its security and well being, namely that global turmoil will disrupt the economic network on which the U.S. economy, and ultimately its defense establishment, depends.” He concludes this line of thinking by saying that “it’s the prosperity of the nation that defense protects.” If one is concerned about the increase in number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, one should be extremely wary of the much larger number of troops needed to fulfill Corcoran’s vision.

The notion of nation-building rests on the proud tradition of the United States and allies after World War II. In the aftermath of the war the reconstruction spending by the United States greatly increased the security of the rest of the world. FPIF’s own “Just Security” report makes the case for increasing global security and addressing the socioeconomic roots of terrorism by “devoting resources to narrowing the gap between the global haves and have-nots.” And there are few places on the planet in greater need of a massive reconstruction program than Afghanistan currently.

However, while Corcoran has the right sentiment, the political, logistical, and economic challenges to reaching the goal of a global development program are too high. In the last several decades, the United States has a poor track record on development and reconstruction efforts. Iraq is a prime example of massive waste, fraud, and abuse in reconstruction efforts. The United States spent more than $20 billion on reconstruction in Iraq with little to show for its work.

In terms of the bigger development picture, the official aid arm of the U.S. government, USAID, still lacks a director, the United States continues to fall short of the global giving goal of .07% of GDP, and the few dollars of development aid that actually reach the ground of recipient nations actually go to U.S. companies or NGOs because U.S. legal requirements.

While some of the deficiencies in development and reconstruction could be resolved by better planning and management, the United States faces much greater political hurdles. In the Middle East the United States is seen both as a military and economic occupier (though less so in Afghanistan than in Iraq). The U.S. strategy for utilizing Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) has significantly blurred the lines between the military and development workers, essentially making development workers military targets. Other programs such as the Commanders Emergency Response Program (CERP), where the military directly hires locals for short-term jobs or gives short-term community grants, only add to this problem.

At this point, the United States has no capacity to implement Corcoran’s expansive strategy across Afghanistan, let alone the globe. Even his more limited proposal for development in the northern part of Afghanistan would be challenging to reach. After eight years of war and occupation popular opinion of the United States has plummeted. In a February 2009 poll, the job performance of the United States was ranked lower than the Afghan government and President Hamid Karzai. Without popular support for the United States, any development programs reliant on us will have high hurdles to overcome. And any program seen as favoring one area of the country over another will lead to greater resentment across the board.

Unfortunately, a “reset” button cannot be pushed to go back to day one after the initial invasion. If, as Corcoran argues, “Afghanistan is now a test of our interest and capability to promote the development of a vibrant, prosperous, open Muslim society,” then we will surely fail.

Yet, Corcoran is right that development should lie at the core of U.S. strategy toward Afghanistan. But the methods must be radically different from what we’ve seen in the past. First and foremost, the military must be removed from development programs. Aid should flow directly to projects like the National Solidarity Program, run out of Afghanistan’s Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development. The program is notable for the Community Development Councils that help guide the planning and development of projects at the local level. Second, the United States and the international community must get serious about providing significant levels of aid. To date, only $14 billion has been spent over eight years. And this past year, the United States approved $1 billion in economic aid, while spending $68 billion for the war. And finally, aid must be coordinated better. G.B. Adhikari, an on-the-ground aid worker, stressed the problems of intergovernmental coordination in a recent interview. He said, “Currently, each government has their own plan, agenda, and strategies. A better approach would be one plan, reinforced by each government. There needs to be coordination with all parties so resources are utilized effectively, and aid is given to the neediest people.”

Providing effective aid that is Afghan-led can help change the perception of the United States as an occupying power. Couple that with a flexible timetable for withdrawal and Afghans might have a chance to build a country that will be safer both domestically and for the world at large.

Ed Corcoran

I am in basic agreement with Erik Leaver’s analysis and commentary of the situation but disagree with his conclusion on the current significance of Afghanistan. Setting a timetable for withdrawal implies that we can eventually wash our hands of Afghanistan, a traditional approach of pulling back to Fortress America. But with globalization, there is no longer a Fortress America. The prosperity of the nation depends on U.S. leadership stabilizing the world so that challenges of food, water, and poor governance do not produce a chaotic world in which no nation can prosper.

Al-Qaeda and its extremist allies are a major destabilizing force in this effort. Afghanistan has become a focal point in the struggle with radical Islam. Our actions have clearly demonstrated that military efforts are not effective. They validate violence as the means of struggle and provide an example of armed Western suppression of dedicated Muslims. This is not a “clash of civilizations,” as Douglas Macgregor points out, but a clash of modernity with antiquity. The medieval version of Islam promoted by the Taliban and their ostentatious brutality intimidate many Afghans both religiously and physically.

We have to support those who have supported us and disabuse the Taliban of any expectations that the United States will soon leave the country to them. The Taliban motivates thousands of young men with its medieval program. We need to provide a counter to this, motivating Afghans to fight for their own future by showing them what modernity could bring them. We need to show an alternative not just to Afghans but to the entire Muslim world. Pakistan is indeed part of one struggle, and current U.S. efforts to promote socioeconomic development there are the same challenge as in Afghanistan, particularly with the Pashtun presence tying both countries together.

The problem with General McChrystal’s strategy is that he has interpreted the mission to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda and its extremist allies as a mission to control the whole of Afghanistan all at once. I agree with Leaver that this is not an achievable mission. We already have woefully inadequate civilian support groups behind the troops. More troops will only worsen this situation.

Leaver rightly stresses the need for development aid at the grassroots level. But aid cannot be successful without security. Troop assets need to be balanced with development assets. Sending more troops when development assets are already woefully inadequate will only be counterproductive. We simply do not have the assets to do the whole country all at once. A security and development strategy is our only option, but has to be applied in those areas of the country where we can provide enough combined assets to support real development. Disrupting radical Islam requires that we stay in Afghanistan, but we must de-emphasize military operations.

The struggle with radical Islam is a global mission. Afghanistan is important because of its relation to this global task. A longer commitment to Afghanistan is not supportable if it just bleeds us without results. As occupiers we will face the fate of previous occupiers. But as developers, we have to accept a long-term commitment. We have had a military and commercial presence in Germany, Japan, and South Korea for some 60 years, and can be proud of what we have accomplished there.

A scheduled U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan would demonstrate the failure of our American ideals, validate Taliban ideology, and show the world the shallowness of American commitments. This would undermine our position not only in Afghanistan but also in Pakistan (which already regards us as a fickle partner) and the entire Muslim world, greatly complicating the core task of leading the development of a stable and prosperous world.

Erik Leaver is a research fellow with Foreign Policy In Focus. Ed Corcoran is a senior fellow at GlobalSecurity.org and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus. He was a strategic analyst at the U.S. Army War College, where he chaired studies for the Office of the Deputy Chief of Operations.