A Commitment Strategy for Afghanistan

A few weeks ago, I was riding my bike home past the White House. Out front, a group of activists gathered to protest a US troop increase in Afghanistan. I stopped to read the signs and was encouraged by one held aloft by an older, white-haired gentleman. It said: "No to Troop Increase: Yes to Regional Peace Conference." This half-wonk, half-activist message is significant. To me, it meant that many concerned Americans are willing to move beyond a purely oppositional stance and engage in the debate about policy options. It signified a willingness to commit in a new way, an intention that is not reflected in the confusing public debate. The left and the right are too often defaulting to Iraq-era talking points for Afghanistan. On the right, Vets for Freedom is running anti-Obama ads, using the Iraq surge as a bludgeon against him. On the left, the California Democratic Party just adopted a resolution calling for increased humanitarian aid along with a military withdrawal.

But what if you can't have one with the other? The consequences of a complete withdrawal would leave a violent, chaotic hole in the middle of a tense neighborhood. The US would deal a potential death blow to the world's premier military alliance (NATO) and crackpot messiahs across the globe will claim credit. Troops need to be in the mix. Most Afghans want us there. They overwhelmingly dislike the Taliban. Girls attending school has risen to 44% since we've been present. Far more Afghans have access to basic health care. We need to start seeing these benchmarks as part of a broader set of objectives -- all thus far achieved with the help of American troops.

Afghanistan is not Iraq. Obama is not Bush. We are not the Soviets. And this is not Vietnam. Historical analogies must be very carefully considered.

If conservatives really want to help forward the policy discussion, they would point out that the 2007 "surge" of US military troops in Iraq coincided with game-changing political breakthroughs and negotiations. These diplomatic changes had just as much to do with the reduction in violence as an increase in troop levels.

If progressives really want to help forward the policy discussion, they should develop a set of alternatives premised on enduring commitment and solidarity with the Afghan people (local grants through the National Solidarity Program is a good example), and not pose them as a tradeoff for troop levels. Heck, even the commanding general in Afghanistan says this conflict has no military solution. Take that and run with it. But doing so means exercising forbearance when talking about the military presence. Uniforms are going to be part of the picture for a while. What the alliance is actually doing on the ground will determine the outcome. Tactics are already changing. But prioritizing civilians will mean that soldiers bear more of the risk. We need to come to terms with that. Any success must also include a significant shift in resources and coordination to make sure Afghans actually receive support to own their future. This kind of partnered consultation can start despite Karzai in office. The Afghan people know who isn't corrupt. We need to go national and local at the same time because promising upstarts exist at both levels. The goal is a process -- and so will be tough to measure, which is why a commitment is important. All sorts of policies here at home provide illustrations. From building the national highway system to public education, broadly distributed achievement through time take time. The laser-focused message the Afghan people need to hear is "we're on this path with you." We need to commit.

America's over-reliance on the military in Afghanistan is not desirable, but it is explainable. It reflects a challenge here at home. Over the past two decades, we've lost our institutional memory. We've hollowed-out our personnel ranks for economic development and diplomacy, for legal and technical advice. Our military has only slowly adapted to peace and stabilization activities. Privatization is a problem across the U.S. Government. Private security companies like Blackwater may have grabbed headlines, but commercial interests have invaded every aspect of U.S. security policy to an unhealthy level. Progressives should demand that most of these skills and funding return to the American people via the U.S. government so our policies are premised on public goods, not private profits. As a country, we need to face up to the fact that we've shattered our own government -- the military is really the only healthy public institution left, which is why we use it for everything. This is not smart for any self-respecting democracy.

The president will put forward his decision soon. It will involve a troop increase. If progressives stay in full opposition mode, they will exist on the margin of the debate right when we need them setting the agenda. Exit to the sidelines will also undercut future efforts to advocate a new strategy for US security. We are moving from a time when we could contain threats to one where we must minimize them. This can only happen through sustained engagement. It will require mass adaptation of policies and tools that place the safety and health of people in the center. And this kind of security won't come via uniformed presence alone. The fact that the military's activities in Afghanistan dominate the news reflects our obsolete belief that security is still about armed forces. Our obsession exposes a much deeper challenge for the USA: how do we change our presence in a world that is beyond the protection of the military? How do we set forth in a world where killing people loses the war? How do we move from a definition of security that was linear, technical and rational to one that is random, chaotic and very human? A commitment strategy for Afghanistan will help us answer these pivotal questions.