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Afghanistan's Other Time Warp

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Many talk about Afghanistan's time warp. Afghanistan is stuck in the 13th century, claimed British Defense Secretary Liam Fox. The country's major period of modernization was in the 1960s and 1970s, before the Soviet invasion, others lament.

Now, we are discussing a new time marker: on June 7, 2010 Afghanistan surpassed Vietnam to become America's longest war. The irony is, we didn't really start focusing on this war until 2009.

We need to look honestly at why we are still in Afghanistan after almost nine years: we let a success narrative carry us through much of the war's duration. We thought we had banished the Taliban from Mazar-I-Sharif, Konduz, Kabul, and then Kandahar in just 30 days. Life in Afghanistan had been so bleak that quotidian things like girls attending school, women leaving their homes, people dancing, and children flying kites were hailed as extraordinary events. We--the government, media, punditry, and public--collectively looked at the situation in Afghanistan and thought: "success." We then wanted to believe that it would be sustainable, that the Taliban could not return easily to a country with little physical or human infrastructure, and a dearth of U.S. troops, civilians, and funding. For years, rarely did anyone challenge the success narrative.

To make meaning of our role in the world, Americans often create such standard progress narratives and our experiences in the 1980s and 1990s conditioned us to expect quick exits for U.S.-led wars. Grenada lasted 51 days. Our invasion of Panama lasted two weeks. The 1991 Gulf War was six months. And our troop engagement with Yugoslavia, Somalia, and Kosovo lasted no longer than one-two years each. If the Afghanistan war is surpassing Vietnam, our experiences are telling us that it must be a quagmire.

I played a direct role in heralding Afghanistan's early success. From 2003-04 my job was to help create messages of progress from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. Then, with less than $2 billion and a staff of approximately 200, the U.S. diplomatic mission worked with Afghans and the international community to fulfill the Bonn Process, a framework for a democratic government. In 2004, the Afghan Constitution was established and the first-ever presidential election took place. However, progress made in 2004 seemed to have had an adverse effect: it fed into the consensus in Washington that Afghanistan did not need the United States' full and sustained attention.

In 2005, as the Iraq war raged, development funding for Afghanistan dropped by 40 percent just as the Taliban insurgency was beginning. It would take the Bush Administration another year to publicly acknowledge a Taliban resurgence and three more years for a new American president to make Afghanistan the priority. Another year would pass before the Afghan National Army and 26-member NATO coalition rallied behind today's strategy: counter-insurgency, or COIN.

General Stanley McChrystal's firing moved COIN from an area of consensus to controversy in Washington. After one year in action, critics who never paid attention to Afghanistan before 2009 are calling COIN a failure. But one of COIN's key principles is to build trust and relationships, which takes time in any context. Anyone who has been to Afghanistan knows what an especially complex and dizzying environment it is. Everything there does and will require sustained attention. This includes not just governance development and security, but the complementary growth of Afghan media, civil society, and livelihoods--and the vital diplomatic work with Pakistan and other regional partners to eliminate terrorist safe havens afflicting global security.

As a nation, we have developed our own warped sense of time in relation to Afghanistan. We've treated Afghanistan with episodic attention, and yet feel impatient. We regularly disrupt our work with our own bureaucratic and political timetables. The majority of Afghans want us there, but they are forced to create relationships with our soldiers and civilians on yearly cycles.

The current situation is severe for many reasons, but it's also because we spent years allocating a fraction of the troops, funds, and attention necessary. One-to-two years alone cannot reverse this. The Obama Administration feels pressure to show results in the pivotal year ahead, while the rest of us contest what July 2011 should mean for U.S. strategy. We need to allow July 2011 to be what Obama stated, a time: "to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan...taking into account conditions on the ground."

In the meanwhile, let's keep our attention on Afghanistan, but since we are finally giving this war priority status, let's also give this policy time.

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