Note: This is part of a strategic dialogue on Afghanistan. You can read Erik Leaver’s piece here.

A major U.S. effort in Afghanistan makes no sense in its own right: a faraway country with very limited resources and a history of hostility to invaders. But Afghanistan was intimately involved with the World Trade Center attack — a major psychological blow to the American people, and that has given Afghanistan a major psychological tie in U.S. minds. The present focus on Afghanistan, as articulated by President Barack Obama, “has a clear mission and defined goals — to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda and its extremist allies.”

This very narrow focus on a ragtag band of misfits squirreled away in an obscure part of the world, however, has drawn much criticism. One very lucid critique by Senator Russell Feingold (D-WI), a congressional leader in advocating a withdrawal timetable, stresses that we “cannot support an open-ended commitment to an escalating war in Afghanistan when the al-Qaeda operatives we sought have largely been captured or killed or crossed the border to Pakistan.” Other critics raise questions about the president’s rationale (Dave Schuler), whether Afghanistan constitutes a vital national security interest (Andrew Bacevich), and why a multi-year commitment of American forces is needed to deny al-Qaeda sanctuary in Afghanistan (Bernard Finel).

These critiques center around the question of how Afghanistan fits into overall U.S. strategic objectives. Unfortunately, overall US strategic objectives are broad and dated. An updated set of strategic objectives, which takes into account both the impact of globalization and the importance of nation-building, leads to a different conclusion about U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. We should remain engaged, not as a military force but a force for economic development.

Updating Strategic Objectives

The most recent authoritative statement on U.S. strategic objectives is in President George W. Bush’s introductory letter to the last National Security Strategy, published in March 2006. He gives two pillars of national strategy: to promote effective democracies while expanding global prosperity and to lead a growing community of democracies. But there is no government element responsible for developing an overall national strategy, and so no authoritative overall statement of national strategic objectives. Defense has a natural priority — if the nation cannot defend itself, other considerations become moot. But defense and prosperity are intertwined. The prosperity of the nation provides the defense establishment the physical and human resources it requires, and it is the prosperity of the nation that defense protects.

In the coming decades, the United States faces an entirely new type of threat to its security and well being, namely that global turmoil will disrupt the economic network on which the U.S. economy, and ultimately its defense establishment, depends. The creation of a stable and prosperous world is the major challenge facing the nation in the 21st century. The United States may not be responsible for fixing the whole world, but if the whole world is not fixed, the United States will decline sharply. The United States obviously cannot do this alone, but there is no other nation capable of supplying the leadership needed to accomplish this. The task is to promote wide-ranging cooperative and intergovernmental programs that can provide rational approaches to existing problems of water and agriculture and a framework for addressing the more taxing problems that will surely arise. This will require an integrated application of the entire range of U.S. national assets and coordination of efforts by the entire global community. It means actively working with other governments, not just telling them what they should do. And it also means that the United States has to surge at home to improve its own society and set as attractive an example as possible to the world.

Global interdependence and cooperative development cannot take place if a major portion of the world remains alienated and disruptive. Yet, inept policies have widened the gulf between the West and the Muslim world. The United States spoke of democracy, yet supported tyrants; that was the core problem with Iran and underlies our present difficulties there. The Muslim world also feels exploited by the West; its ancient heritage of scientific and cultural achievements smothered under poverty and autocracy for the sake of oil. More recently, the obvious underclass status of Muslim immigrants in West Europe and U.S. military actions against Islamic elements in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan have further worsened Muslim perceptions. The information revolution has made this imbalance visible to all, naturally creating a sense of inferiority and frustration.

Radical fundamentalists have skillfully manipulated these perceptions by insisting that their Muslim brethren accept a medieval view of Islamic purity. At the same time, they thrive by exploiting globalization and modern information technology, which has lessened their dependence on physical havens. The fanatic dedication of the core cadre has inspired thousands to partake in holy war against the West. Suicide bombers vividly exemplify their willingness to die for their beliefs. Just as a lone serial killer can terrorize an entire metropolitan area, a handful of dedicated, brutal jihadists can terrorize an entire region. That is what we have in Afghanistan. It has become the center of gravity in the struggle with radical Islamic fundamentalists, a struggle pitting them not only against the West, but against a majority of Muslims who want to integrate their religion with the benefits of development; to see their societies prosper, their children learn, and Islamic culture once again flourish; to enjoy the benefits of the global economic system.

The Afghan Test Case

Afghanistan is now a test of our interest and capability to promote the development of a vibrant, prosperous, open Muslim society. Unfortunately, this test has evolved in one of the most backward Muslim areas in the entire world. But this also means that the opportunities are larger. Indeed, in 2002 when we had just ousted the Taliban, we had just such an opportunity. But we largely turned our back on Afghanistan to focus on Iraq. Developmental efforts in Afghanistan shriveled. There is now little to show for our efforts. And even the positive developments remain below the level of visibility, so we do not point to them.

We have moved the center of the struggle to rural Pashtunistan, where the people see no attractiveness of a central government and have an innate hostility to armed foreigners. This is the most fundamentalist section of the country. The population there is deeply skeptical of Western forces, intimidated by Taliban brutality, and determined to end up on the winning side — which they certainly do not see as NATO. There is zero potential for building up any local security force to protect against the Taliban. The locals are the Taliban, or at least the population that the Taliban arose from and that is supportive of them. The Taliban sees an inevitable victory on the ground and believes it can simply outwait U.S. forces. In the meantime, their visible ability to hold the United States at bay boosts their morale, strengthens their determination, and energizes their recruitment of new fighters. It is unrealistic to expect that the more moderate Taliban elements might negotiate agreement when they think the United States is about to pull up and leave. The military resources to pacify the area are clearly inadequate, and the civilian assets needed to help build it up are virtually nonexistent. An integrated civil-military approach there is simply not possible. We are struggling in the wrong place. We have bitten off too much.

In Afghanistan, we need to show real development in the areas we do control, particularly in the north and main cities. The Taliban has never controlled the northern areas, not even in the dismal 1990s. The populace there almost universally opposes the Taliban. Focused aid can develop local leaders who can gain the respect and dedication of the population and can build a very hostile environment for the Taliban. Aid can be based on the same criteria already developed by the World Bank and the Millennium Challenge Corporation, open criteria that give a true measure of local governance. A stable and prosperous Afghanistan can indeed be built, but only district by district, province by province. This does require a long-term U.S. commitment, not as a military occupier but rather transitioning to a development partner. The Taliban has a cohesive strategy; we need one also.

Looking North

Developing a vibrant presence in the north will not only reduce the need for military assets (and reduce resource requirements and casualties), but also disabuse the Taliban of any expectation that the United States will soon depart and leave the country to them. It can also serve as a vivid illustration of the difference between vibrant and developing areas supported by the United States and its allies and the stunted, miserable areas where the Taliban is dominant. This is a battle not only of ideas but of results, providing the essential government services the population needs: roads, electricity, clean water, health support, education, and effective courts. Local leaders need to develop the plans for this and support has to depend on development of good governance. Support to the central government has to be minimized until it too can demonstrate good governance. This requires focusing our limited civil support assets in areas where they really build rapport with the local population and can make the most difference.

Senator Feingold’s critique had one glaring deficiency. “We’ve become embroiled in a nation-building experiment that may distract us from combating al Qaeda and its affiliates,” he says of U.S. policy in Afghanistan. To the contrary, nation-building in Afghanistan is the central field of battle with Islamic radicalism. For better or worse, it is the battlefield we have. Developing Afghanistan resonates well with a longer-term, broader strategic objective of supporting global development; it plays an important role in an overall strategic objective of using development to build a stable and prosperous world. We need to broadly publicize the good news of what is happening in Afghanistan. We must show the entire Muslim world what U.S. support can mean to a Muslim area, that the United States stands with the people who have supported its efforts, and that the United States can indeed provide long-term commitments. This can support a vision not of an eventual Taliban victory, but of a Taliban shriveling in the light of true cultural and economic development.

We need to minimize our casualties and Afghan casualties as well. This demands that we reverse operations in the south. Instead of us trying to control rural areas and be picked away at by the Taliban, we should let the Taliban control them and be picked away at by us. Above all, we need to match resources to an achievable objective, to have a credible strategy to show to the American people. If we can’t convince the American people that this is worth it, no amount of thoughtful strategy will matter.

Of course, Afghanistan is not in a vacuum. Pakistan, in particular, is intimately involved with the Afghan insurgency and it requires much of the same support that Afghanistan does. There we face the same problem of brutal Taliban intimidation. Any comprehensive effort has to incorporate allied efforts and regional stabilization. Struggling in Afghanistan only makes sense as part of a larger effort that integrates the Muslim world into a global development program.

Ed Corcoran is a senior fellow at and a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus. He was a strategic analyst at the U.S. Army War College, where he chaired studies for the Office of the Deputy Chief of Operations.

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