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Wadhams on Afghanistan

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"Wadhams on Afghanistan"

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Last week I linked to a report for the Center for American Progress by Caroline Wadhams and Lawrence Korb called “The Forgotten Front” about Afghanistan. Some of you weren’t convinced by their argument that continued U.S. engagement in Afghanistan could, if married to a new strategic approach, bear fruit for Americans and Afghans alike. Wadhams was kind enough to email some thoughts in response to some of the issues raised in comments:

A number of readers question whether the Afghan government is legitimate and argue that President Karzai is just a puppet of the U.S. government. They appear to advocate a complete U.S. and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan.

First, the polls indicate that the majority of Afghans do not believe President Karzai is a puppet of the U.S. government or the international community. In a poll from September 2007, seven in 10 Afghans (71 percent) were very or somewhat positive in their general opinion of the Karzai government (versus 20% who are negative), and six in ten (59%) believe the Karzi government represents their interests as Afghans. Another poll conducted by the BBC in December 2007 and Asia Foundation confirmed this view. Furthermore, these polls show that the majority want an international troop presence.

Now that doesn’t mean that President Karzai is the perfect leader. He has not been sufficiently aggressive at battling corruption in his government or in removing officials who have links to the drug trade. And, he is gradually losing the support of the population. But he has been critical of the international community (for good reason) for civilian casualties, ineffective aid and the sidelining of the Afghan government. He has not just been a spokesperson for the US-NATO coalition.

Second, how does our withdrawal from Afghanistan help the Afghans or the region? The insurgency will continue and escalate if we leave. One of the biggest mistakes from our previous engagement in Afghanistan was that we poured billions of dollars into Afghanistan to support the mujhadeen during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s and then completely withdrew all aid after they left. That left the Afghans at the mercy of vying factions, and led to the Taliban’s rise. Withdrawing aid and troops from Afghanistan will leave them again vulnerable to insurgents and warlords, battling for control of the country. How does a failed state in Afghanistan help advance U.S. national security interests?

Third, labeling it as an occupation (and therefore writing off the whole endeavor) ignores the efforts by Afghans themselves to move their country forward. The Afghan government in consultation with the Afghan people just created their own Afghanistan National Development Strategy, which is a 5 year roadmap for rebuilding and developing their country. What’s more, there are very successful programs underway, such as the National Solidarity Program, which is driven by local Afghan interests, not by “occupying forces.” The international community is also undertaking efforts to build the capacity of the Afghan government, both in Kabul and at the provincial level, so that the effort can be turned over to them. While there are problems with the sidelining of the Afghan government, a lack of coordination among the Afghan government and the international community, and too much decision-making occurring in foreign capitals, many are trying to remedy this, and the United States and NATO do not want to stay there forever.

Fourth, Al Qaeda remains a threat, and its central location is along on the Afghanistan and Pakistan border. Senior military and intelligence officials have been raising this issue with increasing intensity over the past year. They predict that the next terrorist attack will most likely come from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan, along the border with Afghanistan. If you withdraw from Afghanistan and allow a complete power vacuum to develop, you offer increased space for this group to operate. Doesn’t seem like a great strategy to me.

Counterinsurgency is an inherently difficult undertaking. But this seems like the kind of situation where it can be made to work — the public is broadly supportive of the national government and of the idea of foreign military support for that government and the international community is broadly supportive of the same. In Iraq, by contrast, it’s been clear for a long time that a majority of people want us gone and the largest bloc of people who welcome our presence, the Kurds, don’t believe in the existence of Iraq at all. In Iraq, the key to our ability to sustain our presence there is that the same internal divisions among Iraqis that are preventing political consolidation are also preventing the consolidation of a broad anti-American movement. In Afghanistan, the trend lines are pointing in the wrong direction but there’s a real basis for the possibility of success.

DoD photo by Master Sgt. Andy Dunaway, U.S. Air Force.

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