As I listened to President Obama’s speech at West Point the other night, I wanted to believe that his announced policy is correct, that the commitment of 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan is a necessary antidote to the growing influence of the Taliban and al-Qaeda sponsored terrorism. The president reminded us that Americans “did not ask for this fight.” The men who attacked us on September 11, 2001, were members of al-Qaeda, an Islam-defiling terrorist group operating from Afghanistan under the protective eye of the Taliban. When we invaded Afghanistan shortly after the 9/11 attacks – with nearly unanimous Congressional approval – our objective was to capture bin-Laden and to overthrow the Taliban regime. Although we defeated the Taliban in less than three months, and a U.S.-supported administration, headed by President Hamid Karzai, was installed in Kabul, eight years later the United States is still fighting the Taliban. Because of our disproportional focus on the War in Iraq over the last eight years – we had 160,000 American troops stationed there at the war’s peak, compared to less than 10,000 troops in Afghanistan in 2003 and 32,000 when Obama took office – “the situation in Afghanistan has deteriorated.” Al-Qaeda has established a safe haven across the border in Pakistan, while the Taliban has gradually increased control over wide swaths of territory in Afghanistan.
I believe that Obama was sincere when he stated that he does not “lightly” make the decision to send more troops to Afghanistan. Although he advocated greater troop strength and more U.S. forces in Afghanistan during the presidential campaign, he opposed the War in Iraq because, as he told the cadets at West Point, “[W]e must exercise restraint in the use of military force, and always consider the long-term consequences of our actions.” I believe that he sincerely understands the incredible burdens and sacrifices that our military personnel and their families endure, and that he feels their pain when a loved one is lost or becomes permanently disabled. So when the President says as he did the other night, “If I did not think that the security of the United States and the safety of the American people were at stake in Afghanistan, I would gladly order every single one of our troops home tomorrow,” I believe him.
To justify his decision, the President emphasized, as he must, that he is “convinced that our security is at stake in Afghanistan and Pakistan. . . . This is no idle danger; no hypothetical threat. In the last few months alone, we have apprehended extremists within our borders that were sent here from the border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan to commit new acts of terror. And this danger will only grow if the region slides backwards and al-Qaeda can operate with impunity. We must keep pressure on al-Qaeda, and to do that, we must increase the stability and capacity of our partners in the region.” It is for this reason that the President is escalating the war in Afghanistan, committing more than ten times the number of troops that were there eight years ago, when we supposedly defeated the Taliban.
Afghanistan is now officially Obama’s war. His legacy and historical success or failure as President will be largely based on how things work out in Afghanistan and, as importantly, in Pakistan. Although I have expressed growing doubts concerning the wisdom of expanding our war effort, I hope and pray that the President is right and that we achieve all of our objectives in the eighteen months or less that he and General Stanley McChrystal have indicated will be sufficient to accomplish our goals. The task ahead seems incredibly difficult in that time frame, but if our efforts allow for the beginnings of a successful transition to a stable, secure Afghan society, it will arguably have been worth the effort.
Although it is hard to contend from the safe confines of my living room that the threats outlined by the President do not justify risking American lives and the expenditure of hundreds of billions of dollars, I continue to have my doubts as to whether the present escalation will be a successful strategy. As Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times recently noted, “many people working in Afghanistan at the grass roots are watching the Obama escalation with a sinking feeling.” Even General McChrystal has acknowledged the key to success in Afghanistan is winning hearts and minds. As McChrystal stated in his report to the President, “Our strategy cannot be focused on seizing terrain or destroying insurgent troops; our objective must be the population.”
For his column on December 3, 2009, Kristof spoke with Greg Mortenson, an Army veteran who wrote of his extraordinary work building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan in Three Cups of Tea and Stones Into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books Not Bombs in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Mortenson expressed concern about the apparent lack of consultation with Afghan elders over the decision to escalate the military conflict there. In Mortenson’s view, the elders believe “we don’t need firepower, we need brainpower. They want schools, health facilities, but not necessarily more physical troops.”
Moreover, as Obama acknowledged, the current Afghan government is “hampered by corruption, the drug trade, an under-developed economy, and insufficient security forces.” Without a reliable partner in President Karzai and the Afghan government, even unlimited American firepower cannot create long-term stability in that country. Our success in turning around Afghanistan – and stabilizing Pakistan – does not turn on how many troops we send or deadlines we set. It depends in the end on our Afghan partners. Despite our initial military success in Afghanistan in 2001, that country has gone into a tailspin largely because Karzai’s government became dysfunctional and massively corrupt, focused more on private gain and personal enrichment than on governing. It is why many Afghans who cheered Karzai’s arrival in 2001 now welcome Taliban security and justice. Unless and until Afghans take ownership of their government, until they believe that it is at least minimally decent and focused on the people’s best interests, they will not fight for it. We can win military victories and secure much of the Taliban controlled regions for now, but without Afghan ownership of their own government, our achievements will simply collapse when we leave.
With our mission defined and more U.S. troops involved, I have no doubt that we will temporarily succeed in reducing Taliban control and influence over Helmand Province and other Taliban dominant regions of Afghanistan. Our military is extremely good and professional – there has never been any doubt of that. But like it or not, and whether Obama or Secretary Gates admit it or not (they have not), we are indeed engaged in nation-building in Afghanistan. And that is something we have never been good at. Without a sense of ownership in their own government, police and security forces, the Afghan people will do what they need to survive. If that means accommodating to the Taliban when we leave – we cannot kill them all – that is what they will do.
Obama made it a point to remind us that 9/11 is why we are in Afghanistan, that we were attacked from Afghanistan and al-Qaeda continues to operate from there under Taliban protection. But by most accounts, there are very few al-Qaeda left in Afghanistan – most have crossed the border into safe havens in Pakistan. The terror networks we need to be most concerned about are there, as well as in Somalia and Yemen, yet we are planning no military incursions into those countries. And if the enemy in Afghanistan, whether al-Qaeda or the Taliban, pose the same existential threat to our security as they did on 9/11, why are we settling for half-measures? Is it because we are unwilling to make the national sacrifices necessary for an all-out war effort (i.e., increased taxes and the re-institution of the draft)? Is it because the American public is not fully behind this war, eight years later, and is unwilling to support it with its money and people?
For all of Obama’s serious deliberations over this decision – and I believe he is doing what he believes he must to protect American interests – did he give the same consideration to other less violent, less costly approaches? Did he consider the real-life work of Mortenson, who as of 2008 had built 74 schools for girls in Pakistan and Afghanistan, many in Taliban controlled regions? Did he consider that, as Kristof noted in his December 3rd column, that for “the cost of deploying one soldier for one year, it is possible to build about 20 schools”? Did he consider what has been done with the National Solidarity Program, “widely regarded as one of the most successful and least corrupt initiatives in Afghanistan” that helps villages build schools, clinics, irrigation projects, bridges, or whatever they choose based on the particular needs of the village? Did he consider that, over time, the single greatest force in stabilizing societies, in reducing birth rates, raising living standards, and preventing civil conflict and terrorism, is education? As Kristof stated, “My hunch is that if Mr. Obama wants success in Afghanistan, he would be far better off with 30,000 more schools than 30,000 more troops.”
In past columns, including one on Mortenson’s school-building efforts on July 13, 2008, Kristof has acknowledged that it would be naïve to think that a few dozen schools could turn the tide in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Nevertheless, because the Taliban recruit mostly from the ranks of the poor and illiterate, women who are educated are more likely to successfully restrain and positively influence their sons. For example, five of the teachers at Mortenson’s schools are former Taliban, and for each of these teachers, “it was their mothers who persuaded them to leave the Taliban.”
Pakistan is the key to the entire conflict, though exactly how it factors in is not as well understood by the American public. Obama only touched upon it briefly in his West Point speech. Yet as far back as 2001, there were fears that the war in Afghanistan would destabilize Pakistan because the Pashtun, an ethnic group that makes up a large part of the Taliban insurgency, straddles the border between the two countries. Everyone agrees that those fears are now reality; the Pakistani Taliban threatens nuclear-armed Pakistan's viability as a state even more than their Taliban cousins across the border jeopardize Afghanistan's. Indeed, it is because the war in Afghanistan threatens to destabilize an entire region that it has become America's biggest foreign policy challenge. Because of the Pakistani obsession with India, while they fight the Taliban inside of Pakistan, they nurture the Taliban in Afghanistan. This must cease for us to be successful in Afghanistan, but no U.S. President has yet succeeded in assuaging Pakistan’s security concerns over India.
Success in Afghanistan will mean nothing if fighters can find sanctuary in Pakistan; the Pakistani military has neither the skills nor the resources to conduct an effective counterinsurgency. It is largely for this reason that stabilizing Afghanistan is considered crucial to our security, if only to prevent the terrifying prospect of an Islamist takeover in Pakistan.
All of which brings me back to the wisdom of bombs versus books. As explained by Greg Mortenson, who has had intimate and extensive dealings with the people living in Pakistan and Afghanistan, “Schools are a much more effective bang for the buck than missiles or chasing some Taliban around the country.” Every Tomahawk missile that the United States fires in Afghanistan costs American taxpayers at least $500,000. As Kristof notes, “That’s enough for local aid groups to build more than 20 schools, and in the long run those schools probably do more to destroy the Taliban.” Even an American commander who works on the front lines of Afghanistan has told Kristof that “the long-term solution to terrorism in general, and Afghanistan specifically, is education. The conflict here will not be won with bombs but with books. . . . The thirst for education here is palpable.”
As Obama articulated at West Point, it may very well be that military force in Afghanistan is an essential component to combating the Taliban. I just hope that neither he nor McChrystal have lost sight of the reality that, over time, the best tonic against militant fundamentalism is education and economic opportunity.