An al­ter­na­tive course in Afghanistan

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary -

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.

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