Afghanistan: Calm thoughts in hard times

The situation is rotten: U.S. soldiers urinating on bodies, Quran-burning and now, a soldier running amuck. Real or purported Afghan security personnel have murdered U.S. troops. A cacophony of voices has erupted in instant soundbite analysis demanding retreat. 

True, our mission in Afghanistan is getting harder. It is pressed by U.S. budget stringencies and Afghan suspicions of our vaguely defined political and negotiating strategies. We might fail in helping Afghans create a state and Army that can keep insurgents and terrorists at bay with reduced foreign assistance. Yet it is exactly at difficult times that it is most essential to think calmly through the issues.

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U.S. domestic discontent is growing steeply. Still, Afghanistan is not in the top issues governing how Americans vote. President Obama will not gain many votes he doesn’t have already by leaving quickly. Nor is Afghanistan a major decider for Republicans. The grumbling will get louder but need not yet drive policy. Nor will the current dissatisfaction make future criticism one jot less virulent if early withdrawal leads to al Qaeda’s return and new strikes against the United States. That danger is still real.

Al Qaeda is badly battered but capable of regeneration. It has solidified ties with the Haqqani part of the insurgency and is poised to expand in Afghanistan. It is hard to imagine a better way to reinvigorate al Qaeda’s threat to the United States than to rapidly withdraw and leave it claiming victory as proof of God’s support for its worldwide operations.

There is no reasonable alternative to the current strategy of turning the security lead over to the Afghans at the end of 2014 — only bad alternatives based on ignorance of Afghanistan. 

Some would rely on counterterrorism (CT) — just leave small forces to strike al Qaeda. Because such forces would bring nothing for Afghans but endless killing, Afghan popular support essential to sustain our CT bases would vanish. Our forces would end up as isolated islands in a hostile sea without the human intelligence essential for CT action. 

Another alternative suggests putting CT forces in northern Afghanistan in return for supporting ethnic groups there in splitting the country. This ignores the crazy quilt of interwoven ethnic groups across Afghanistan. Division would likely lead to civil war, with our bases in the middle of it, dependent for their existence on backing one side no matter how repressive or egregious its behavior. These are not sustainable options.

If current policy serves a major national purpose, as I argue it does, how are we doing? The real answer is that we are just about to find out. To use a college analogy, we are in the course but we haven’t yet taken the test. 

The United States and its NATO partners met last year’s goals for expanding the size of Afghan security forces. Now the task is building quality and confidence. The time remaining, until the end of 2014, is reasonable, although U.S. forces only just gained real victories in southern Afghanistan and we do not yet know if Afghans can keep what we won. 

We know that some hard fighting remains in the east before those areas can be handed over to Afghan forces, but succeeding, while dealing with this year’s troop withdrawals and without jeopardizing the rest of transition, is a plan, not a fact. If speeding up U.S. troop withdrawals throws green Afghan forces into combat too fast, failure will ensue and waste the lives of U.S. troops remaining to make the policy work. 

We know there are major problems with Afghan governance. Equally, we should know that Afghan doubts about U.S. policy intentions make the problems worse as fears for personal safety lead Afghan politicians to fall back on militia ties for security, no matter how bad the governance. We hope that the NATO summit in May will lead to clearer definition of allied purposes and intentions — including our own — but do not know yet to what degree we will succeed. 

We are going through a rough time — not nearly as bad as we have gone through in many other wars, but bad enough. We might not succeed. But it is too early to know that. The current matching of resources to strategy is only in its third year, the first seven having seen repeated failures to resource what we envisaged. We have major interests to protect and threats to guard against. An alternative policy that can realistically protect those interests does not exist. 

That is why this is a time for steadiness of operation rather than jerky policy reassessments, for systematic analysis of what happens in areas transitioned to Afghan power over the next year. It is time for clarity about our policy rather than spot judgments on anecdotes and daily headlines. That might be too much to ask in an election year, yet it is what the nation needs. 

Neumann served as U.S. ambassador 
to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007.