After eight years of war, a serious debate about the role of the U.S. military in Afghanistan is taking place in Washington - finally. The White House has begun deliberations about U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, centering on a request by Gen. McChrystal, the top American and NATO commander there, for an expanded counterinsurgency campaign that will require more U.S. troops.
That there is even a debate over what course to take demonstrates we have yet to learn lessons from the past 30 years in Afghanistan. If President Obama ignores those lessons, he risks losing the fragile international good will that currently exists and makes matters worse for the Afghan people, their neighbors in Pakistan, and eventually Americans.
In the late 1970s, as its part of the Cold War, the U.S. began what became the largest covert CIA operation in history, arming and financing Islamist resistance forces, funneling billions through the Pakistani Intelligence Service. When the Soviet troops withdrew and the Soviet Union disintegrated we "cut and ran." We withheld development assistance and aid critical to revitalizing Afghan institutions. Afghans call that period the "lost years" when the Taliban seized control of Kabul and gave al-Qaeda a safe haven.
After the Soviet withdrawal, the Afghan people suffered a brutal civil war for 11 years, fueled by those, including warlords, armed by both the U.S. and Pakistan. The battle over Kabul emptied the city, one quarter of the population fled to Iran and Pakistan as refugees, malnutrition rates skyrocketed, and the collapse of any nationwide government structure complicated efforts to provide any relief. The international community did little to help. Afghanistan turned into the world's largest humanitarian disaster.
Afghans suffer the impact of that history today. The 2001 U.S./U.K. invasion employed some of the same warlords as allies in overthrowing the Taliban and controlling the country. The recent presidential elections in Afghanistan saw widespread corruption, an embrace of warlords, and vote rigging mostly attributed to supporters of President Karzai. Many Afghans are outraged that individuals accused of major human rights violations continue to serve with impunity in the U.S.-backed government.
Three decades of foreign intervention in Afghanistan has failed the Afghan people. It also has made the rest of the world more insecure. The U.S. cannot undo this legacy with half measures or engaging with a specific set of "allies" again. What both Afghans and Americans deserve is a full, public discussion of the policy choices looming in the next weeks. We must choose to demonstrate a commitment to the rule of law, not violence, as the most important foundation for real security.
We will not achieve that goal with a "better" occupation, more troops, or more weapons. The answer will not be found with the tools of counterinsurgency featuring covert special operations, extra-judicial killings and the increased use of drones. We should not arm the "right" set of warlords and militia. Instead, we should help Afghans to include all stakeholders in a transparent, fair political process which is key to a reduction of violence in Afghanistan. Most importantly, we must institute a military withdrawal.
Far from "abandoning" Afghanistan again, a withdrawal is only the first step toward a serious campaign of sustained support for Afghanistan's people as they rebuild.
While most Americans do not support a further buildup in U.S. forces, there is, as yet, little support for providing billions in real repair and assistance funds that must be provided even as troops are withdrawn. To once again abandon Afghanistan will be a tragedy for us all - Americans and Afghans.