President Obama is right to be deliberate in contemplating General Stanley McChrystal’s request for a troop surge in Afghanistan, as that decision may determine the outcome of the eight-year U.S. engagement in Afghanistan and perhaps even the broader state-building process.

In the wake of the tainted Afghan presidential election, which will go to a runoff on November 7th, and spiraling insecurity that is no longer confined to the Pashtun belt but spreading to previously stable areas of the country, the president is understandably reticent to stake his first term in office on a potentially unwinnable war. Obama’s “war of necessity” is rapidly turning into a quagmire in the eyes of many within his administration, as well as with a growing number of U.S. citizens.

Chief among the skeptics is Vice President Joe Biden, who has advocated more limited objectives in Afghanistan that would focus on attacking the remnants of al-Qaeda and the hardcore Taliban with airpower, drones, and Special Forces. The Biden approach would effectively abandon large swaths of territory to the Taliban, sending a signal to the Afghan government and people that the United States isn’t serious about reconstruction. In effect, such an approach would involve a shift in U.S. objectives from state building to containment. The problem is that this almost Rumsfeldian approach — placing undue faith in technology and local proxies to overcome deficiencies in troop numbers — has been tried and failed in Afghanistan. Let’s not forget that the escape of Osama bin Laden and his inner circle of al-Qaeda lieutenants into the tribal areas of Pakistan was made possible because of insufficient coalition troops to cut off the escape routes and an overreliance on Afghan militia proxies, who turned out to be untrustworthy and may have even aided the exodus.

Between 2002 and 2006, U.S. forces in Afghanistan operated outside the UN-mandated International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) umbrella. In contrast to today’s NATO-led mission, the mandate for U.S. forces didn’t include any provision for creating an enabling environment for reconstruction and development, focusing instead on disrupting and destroying the remnants of al-Qaeda and its allies. In fact, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld initially blocked the expansion of ISAF across the country, requested by the Afghan government and several donor states, on the basis that it could interfere with U.S. operations.

During this period U.S. forces, whose numbers ranged from roughly 10,000 to 25,000, a fraction of the more than 60,000 deployed today, relied heavily on unmanned aerial vehicles, airpower, and Afghan proxies as force multipliers. NATO’s gradual expansion across the country beginning in 2003, and the absorption of the bulk of U.S. forces under the NATO command in 2006, reflected a realization that the minimalist objectives of the first four years of U.S. engagement in Afghanistan had not borne fruit and only a more expansive military and state building agenda could prevent Afghanistan from slipping into chaos. The gradual expansion of the international military mission under McChrystal’s strategy isn’t an end in itself, but intended to provide a buffer for the state-building process to gain ground amidst difficult security conditions.

McChrystal’s assessment correctly recognizes the deleterious impact of civilian casualties on the mission and the need to prioritize the protection of the Afghan population. It’s a fundamental tenet of counterinsurgency doctrine that without the support of the local population success is simply not feasible. The assessment also calls for, among other things, an expanded effort to develop the Afghan national security forces and greater attention to assisting the Afghan government to promote better governance.

The report and its recommendations were broadly endorsed at a NATO Defense Ministers Meeting in Bratislava, Slovakia on October 23rd, although the meeting stopped short of discussing actual resource figures. The greater willingness of NATO member states to consider an expansion of the Afghan mission, something that they have been reticent to do in recent years due to declining domestic support for the engagement among their electorates, is significant. Defense Secretary Gates expressed encouragement over the NATO commitment to Afghanistan, but Obama administration officials will understandably reserve optimism until actual increases in troop contributions materialize.

While the McChrystal report has been widely endorsed by the donor community in Afghanistan and many key Afghan stakeholders, it perhaps underestimates the importance of a renewed political strategy to anchor a more muscular counter-insurgency mission. Before more troops are deployed to Afghanistan, a new political strategy for the country must be devised that seeks to advance stalled governance reforms, address corrosive problems like corruption, and restore public faith in the state after the contested election. This strategy should have five elements:

  1. Resolve the Election Crisis: Public trust in the state was declining before the tainted election, which has taken such disillusionment to unprecedented levels. It has fed into the Taliban propaganda campaign, which has portrayed the Karzai administration as corrupt, criminal, and a puppet of the West. It is a positive sign that President Karzai has accepted the need for a run-off election after initially resisting the idea and disputing the credibility of the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) report that called for the nullification of almost of a third of the votes cast for him. The November 7th election will be a major challenge and it is important that the United States and international community commit the necessary money, logistical support, and election monitors to ensure the smooth running of the poll and to minimize the potential for further grievance. If the run-off election is derailed due to security incidents or mired in allegations of fraud and irregularities, it could irrevocably harm the legitimacy of the democratic process in Afghanistan, which is already on life support.

Moreover, another failed election would likely trigger a political crisis in Kabul featuring widespread street protests that could have the potential to turn violent. The last time a large-scale demonstration took place in Kabul, in May 2006 after an accident involving a U.S. military convoy killed several Afghan civilians, a riot quickly ensued that engulfed the capital and prompted fears that it could unseat the government. Another flawed election could have the potential to create an even more explosive situation.

Whatever the result of the runoff election, and Karzai will most likely prevail, the winning candidate should be urged to form an inclusive national unity government. This will help to minimize the chance of more lasting political fissures within Afghanistan. If such tensions assume an ethnic or factional tone, with much of the country already voting along ethnic lines, the potentiality for conflict increases. Encouragingly, Karzai has already declared that he would welcome Dr. Abdallah Abdallah into his cabinet in the event that he won the election.

  1. Renew the Political Process: The last major political conference for Afghanistan was held in early 2006 in London, resulting in the signing of the Afghanistan Compact. The document set out a vision for the future of the Afghan state-building process, but largely failed to imbue it with the clarity, unity of effort and purpose that was lacking. Moreover, the facts on the ground have changed quite dramatically since 2006, necessitating the convening of a new inclusive stakeholder conference to produce a recalibrated vision for the future of Afghanistan.

To make an impact, any agreement resulting from this conference should lay out realistic benchmarks and objectives linked to clear indicators or metrics to assess progress. The benchmarks should cover everything from progress to improving basic development indicators and improving state revenue generating capacity to assessments of the reach of the public administration and public perceptions toward state security institutions. The agreement should be considered a dual contract, between the Afghan government and population and between the Afghan government and international donor community. Laying out new terms for the partnership between the Afghan administration and donor community, may help restore trust in the relationship which has frayed over the past two years.

  1. Provide a Framework for Regional Cooperation: In 2002, Afghanistan’s immediate neighbors signed a Declaration on Good Neighborly Relations, a commitment to halt interference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs, one of the main drivers of conflict in the country over the past three decades. The initial promise of that agreement seemed to evaporate before the ink was dry, as proxy competition in Afghanistan primarily involving Iran and Pakistan, resumed shortly thereafter and has continued ever since.

The conflict in Afghanistan can partially be attributed to a difficult neighborhood. As a landlocked country with strong ethno-linguistic ties to its neighbors, sustainable peace and prosperity will never be possible in Afghanistan without regional engagement and cooperation. The time may be ripe for another effort to establish a framework for regional cooperation with Afghanistan at its core, one that should include not only its immediate neighbors but also regional powers like Russia, India, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the United States. Pakistan is facing its own bloody insurgency against the Pakistani offshoot of the Taliban, and is eager to stabilize its border with Afghanistan. Relations between Tehran and Washington, despite some setbacks, have shown signs of détente. China and Russia have both demonstrated a desire for greater constructive engagement in Afghanistan, China largely for commercial interests and concerns that a return of the Taliban regime could feed a restive Uighur Muslim population, and Russia to curb the influx of Afghan narcotics and Islamic extremism.

Ideally, the United Nations would oversee such a regional framework, as it did with the 6 + 2 talks that included all of Afghanistan’s immediate neighbors (6) as well as the United States and Russia (2) from 1999-2001. The framework should not focus solely on improving security conditions in the region, but crack down on transnational crime; establish protocols for resource sharing and environmental protection; and break down barriers to trade, perhaps opening the way for Afghanistan to realize its aspiration to re-establish itself as a modern transit trade hub for the region, a modern silk route.

  1. Expand the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF): The cost of deploying a single NATO soldier to Afghanistan is roughly equivalent to the cost of training five Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers. Accordingly, increasing the current investment in the development of the ANSF doesn’t only make strategic sense — local security forces invariably fight in a more determined way to defend their land than do foreign forces — but is more cost effective and sustainable. General McChrystal recognizes this reality in his report, calling for the expansion of the force ceilings of the ANA from 134,000 to 240,000, and for the ANP from 82,000 to 160,000.

The cost of expanding the ANSF will be imposing in the short and long term. In the short term, a major new infusion of resources will be needed to expand and accelerate the force development program at a time when the U.S.-led effort already faces debilitating shortfalls in mentors and trainers. Over the long-term, the meager revenue generating capacity of the Afghan state will render it incapable of sustaining a security establishment of this size, meaning generous international subsidies will be required for the foreseeable future to ensure its viability. Moreover, it’s important to note that a large cadre of international military and police trainers and observers will be needed to mentor the force for at least a decade to expand its operational capacity and to nurture a democratic political culture.

This issue of domestic sustainability forms the crux of the argument against the expansion of the ANSF. However, such an argument seemingly ignores the reality that expanding the security forces in this manner would certainly expedite the handover of security responsibility from international forces to the ANSF, saving billions of donor dollars and countless U.S. and NATO troop lives. It will also give the Afghan state a basic building block of statehood that it presently lacks, a monopoly over the use of force.

Either approach — a longer-term deployment of international troops or an immediate expansion of Afghan security forces — will involve significant costs. What matters is which solution is more likely to bring security and stability in the medium and long-term. It increasingly appears that the latter is more viable, as current force numbers — both Afghan and international — have been unable to contain the growing insurgency and an additional commitment of 40,000-50,000 U.S. troops, as it is believed McChrystal has requested, likely won’t be enough to tip the balance in NATO’s favor. In the end, only the Afghans can win the insurgency against the Taliban and maintain stability; they need to be endowed with the capacity to do so.

  1. Create a Process of National Reconciliation: Simply put, the Afghan conflict cannot be won through military means alone. Military action can only create the conditions for a political process to succeed, by convincing the Taliban and associated insurgent groups that they cannot achieve outright military victory and that only through compromise can any of their objectives be met. A domestic process of reconciliation is needed that will reach out both to receptive elements of the Taliban movement and disgruntled factional actors. This will involve not only talks with militant groups, but dialogue with traditional leaders and authorities at the local level, actors who have often felt alienated from political happenings in Kabul but whose participation in Afghan political life is crucial for the country’s stability. Empowering communities to support the state and advance reconciliation must be based on more than crude and clumsy initiatives to recruit local militias, but by investing in local governance structures and traditional authorities. While a number of initiatives have been launched to pursue the broad goal of reconciliation, a coherent Afghan owned policy, with international backing is still lacking.

Afghanistan is beyond the point of quick fixes or half measures. A scaling back in the level of U.S. engagement, both symbolically and materially, could deal a fatal blow to the Afghan state-building process. Despite growing instability in Afghanistan, success is possible, but what is a successful end state? Afghanistan will not be a Switzerland of the Hindu Kush in this lifetime, but with robust, long-term assistance it can achieve within the coming decade the level of stability and human development present in countries like Bangladesh or Nepal. For Afghanistan, the goal should be a state capable of providing rudimentary services, most importantly security; govern according to the rule of law; and prevent their territory from serving as a base for militant groups and transitional criminal networks.

Any successful strategy to stabilize the situation in Afghanistan must involve renewed efforts to earn the support of the Afghan population. It isn’t just about winning the hearts and minds of Afghan citizens, but empowering communities to support stabilization efforts. The United States and donors must assist the Afghan government to establish a new partnership between state and society. Growing dissatisfaction with the Karzai government and international community, spurred by perceptions of mismanagement and frustration over a lack of change, risks permanently alienating Afghans. It isn’t that the majority of Afghans are turning to the Taliban out of frustration, although some are, but growing numbers are sitting on the fence. Regaining their support requires patience from donors like the United States to see through to fruition the reforms and development initiatives that will improve the quality of the Afghan administration and deliver key public goods to the population.

This people-centered approach, emphasizing the protection of the Afghan population and the improvement of their living conditions, should be the linchpin of any new U.S. strategy for Afghanistan and will create the enabling conditions for success to be achieved.

Foreign Policy In Focus contributor Mark Sedra is a Senior Fellow at the Center for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) and a research assistant professor at the University of Waterloo.

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