A Dual Track Strategy to Secure America's Interests in Afghanistan
By Scott Payne and Peter O'Brien
Numbers are antiseptic in war - it is anecdotes that tell the story. In Afghanistan, one vital part of that story is the brutality and depravity of our enemy. In a recent opinion piece in the New York Times, Afghanistan veteran Lt. Kristen Rouse notes that the Taliban routinely
targets children "for maiming, dismemberment and attack." She writes of the aftermath of a Taliban assault on a school, where one of her fellow soldiers watched a Marine fight tears as he tried vainly to save a dying boy and attempted to treat a little girl with a massive open wound on her skull.
This is the enemy we are fighting. Security to Afghanis is not an abstract concept. That's why the US and NATO cannot succeed in any meaningful way in Afghanistan without restoring some semblance of security for the people.
The situation is dire. The Taliban has gained control over large sections of southern Afghanistan, violence is up dramatically and the Karzai government is corrupt and weak. According to a new poll, the Afghani public is becoming more pessimistic and this skepticism is based equally on the worsening security situation and the underwhelming economic performance since US forces invaded in 2001. On its current track, Afghanistan seems doomed to collapse back into chaos.
It is important to remember what chaos in Afghanistan means: a safe haven for al Qaeda to plan attacks against the US, a launching pad to destabilize Pakistan, and a return to power for truly brutal elements of the Taliban that are more than willing to kill children to enforce their beliefs. This is why the United States must implement the new dual track strategy for Afghanistan that President Obama is set to announce. For the first time, this conflict will have a plan to secure the population in Afghanistan while improving economic opportunity throughout the region.
Track one must focus on restoring security. President Obama's announced deployment of 21,000 US troops will allow the international mission to finally reach the troops-to-population ratio in southern Afghanistan recommended by the Army Counterinsurgency Manual. Reaching this ratio will allow forces to undertake a more sustained and sophisticated effort against the Taliban in its stronghold.
Poppy cultivation in southern Afghanistan provides the Taliban with $300 million annually and funds the insurgency. Attacking the drug trade is a key to succeeding in Afghanistan. The United States needs a comprehensive approach that provides international agriculture advisors to assist in crop substitution, targets Afghani drug lords, including extraditing captured drug lords and trying them in US courts, and when necessary, forcefully eradicating poppy crops by hand or aerial spraying of herbicides.
Finally, in order to restore security, we must focus on strengthening the Afghan national security forces. Ultimately, the forces that will provide security for Afghanistan and connect the Afghani people to the central government are the Afghan National Army and Police. The President's plan to send 4,000 military advisors is crucial to this effort.
Track two of this strategy must build stability through diplomacy and development aid.
Afghanistan's history has been one of regional instability and proxy wars fought on Afghani territory. To bring this cycle to an end the United States should work with all the regional powers to resolve outstanding disputes, such as a final agreement on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan and the dispute in the Kashmir. Such negotiations would free these countries to work for a more stable Afghanistan rather than pursue their narrow interests in chaos.
To create an incentive to work for stability, development aid needs to be redirected to reward success. As former British Foreign Service officer Rory Stewart has noted, international aid programs perversely reward failing provinces in Afghanistan while ignoring more stable ones, and has lead Afghan regional leaders to joke that they need to set off bombs in their province to get aid. The international community should begin funneling its aid to more secure provinces in central and northern Afghanistan and away from the insecure south. Focusing aid in secure regions would create an incentive for local leaders to work for security, rather than the current system that allows corrupt local officials to pocket cash while chaos reigns around them.
Succeeding in Afghanistan will be hard, but that does not mean success cannot be achieved. With the President's new dual track strategy for Afghanistan and the region, we can secure America's interests in Afghanistan.
Scott Payne is a Policy Advisor at Third Way. Peter O'Brien is an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran and served in Afghanistan in 2001-2002. He is a resident of Whitman, MA and is the Massachusetts State Captain for VoteVets.org.
This is a longer version of the op-ed published today in the Boston Globe.