An alternative course in Afghanistan
We must build up the strength and role of indigenous forces in our drive for victory in Afghanistan and deliver on the promises we made to the Afghans decades ago when their fierce resistance, with our aid, led to the signal defeat of Soviet forces and helped end the Cold War.
But policy flaws, rather like those that turned liberation into quagmire in Iraq, may well undermine our renewed efforts in Afghanistan as President Obama shifts the U.S. focus away from Iraq. We need to recognize that “boots on the ground” are not the primary factor of success.
We only had about 150 “boots on the ground” when the Taliban was defeated and driven out of Kabul seven years ago. In Iraq, contrary to what the military mavens claim, a lack of policy, not a lack of manpower, turned victory into four years of mayhem. Our amazing initial success in Afghanistan, in contrast, was due to relying on an established local power base, the Northern Alliance, a loose-knit yet powerful alternative to the Taliban and al Qaeda.
(Corrected paragraph:) In the 1990s, House International Relations Committee Chairman Ben Gilman, and I along with other veterans of the mujahideen war against the Soviets, nurtured this opposition coalition. The Clinton adminis- tration at the time was involved in covertly supporting Taliban rule.
After Sept. 11, 2001, the fighting power of this northern/ethnic coalition was mobilized, and with U.S. air support, al Qaeda terrorists and their Taliban hosts were forcibly expelled from the country. This was done with a minimal loss of American lives and relatively few American “boots on the ground.”
In Iraq, our troops destroyed Sadam Hussein’s military forces magnificently, thus ending his genocidal regime. But because we did the fighting, no local forces or commanders were readily available to fill the power vacuum. We exacerbated that problem with a stunning display of naivete and arrogance after the liberation.
In short, President Bush’s personal choice as boss of occupied Iraq, Paul Bremer, was an unmitigated disaster. Hubris is too mild a description of the ego-driven elitism surrounding his management of Iraq. Instead of recognizing and using the traditional social-political institution, Mr. Bremer, acting as a Douglas McArthur wannabe, set out to redo the entire society.
We alienated a host of influential Iraqis who should have been our allies. It was not until Gen. David Petraeus initiated an effort to recruit Iraq’s tribal leaders that the situation began to turn around. The progress continues, and there is ample reason for optimism in Iraq.
Afghanistan, in contrast, started out successfully and is now on a downhill slide. This negative turnabout can be traced to a misconception about the Northern Alliance. Apprehension about armed ethnic and tribal forces led our government to disarm those very same militias that defeated the Taliban, even as the Taliban regrouped and rearmed across the border in Pakistan.
America then put its emphasis on establishing a central government based in Kabul as the dominant authority in Afghanistan, something no one — foreign or Afghan — has been able to do for centuries.
Rather than lack of “boots on the ground,” victory is being turned into defeat by the insistence on centralized power. That takes the form of a grandiose plan to train and equip a 135,000-man National Army. “It won’t work,” I sadly told a U.S. general who briefed me in Afghanistan over the recess. “This plan will fail.”
The general could not fathom how his plan, based on centralizing power in Kabul, was totally unworkable. I predicted all the militias and ethnic and provincial power brokers left out of the general’s plan soon would be hired on by the drug cartels and Taliban fanatics. The situation, I cautioned, would worsen, not improve.
A genuine commitment to decentralizing power and authority in Afghanistan is only part of the solution, but a critical one. This is difficult for military leaders, schooled in chains of command and top-down structure, to comprehend.
Afghanistan needs elections at the provincial level. Education, police and local services should then be administered by the elections’ winners.
A strong national army is needed. The militias, tribal forces and so-called “war lords” must be part of the plan. These battle-hardened forces must be incorporated into the Afghan version of our National Guard. The elected provincial governor would be the commander in chief, but the “provisional guard” would also be part of the overall Afghan military, as the National Guard is here. This would undermine the Taliban resurgence from the bottom up just as the “tribal awakening” undercut the Sunni insurgency in Iraq.
Though the trend in Afghanistan is disturbing, it is not unsalvageable. Opium production obviously remains a great challenge. Micro-herbicide can provide a solution. The State Department for years has refused to test this anti-opium poppy-killing fungus, though I saw to it that money was budgeted for such testing.
If we have the courage to use this option, the entire Afghan poppy crop could disappear for decades and no other crop would be affected. Of course, this strategy would also require instituting a major economic recovery plan as soon as the fungus is used.
Reconfiguring the political landscape in Afghanistan is not enough. Inclusion of the diverse fighting forces in that country is not enough. Just destroying the poppies is not enough. We as a nation need to rebuild Afghanistan as we promised.
We broke our promises after the brave Afghan people, at tremendous personal sacrifice, defeated the Soviet Army and helped bring an end to the Cold War. We broke our word again after the defeat of the Taliban.
The United States went into Iraq and spent a trillion dollars, part of which should have been used to rebuild Afghanistan. Now we have a second chance to prove our respect of and gratitude to the Afghan people, and to keep our word.
The way to win in Afghanistan is to help rebuild the country from the bottom up. Do that and the whole Muslim world will know it is good to be America’s friend in more ways than one.
Dana Rohrabacher, California Republican, is a senior member of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Foreign Affairs Committee and recently returned from a trip to Afghanistan.