Executive Summary: After the Victory: America's Role in Afghanistan's Future

Report Middle East

Executive Summary: After the Victory: America's Role in Afghanistan's Future

July 30, 2002 4 min read Download Report

Authors: James Phillips , Jack Spencer and John Hulsman

The United States has scored a decisive military victory in Afghanistan against the al-Qaeda terrorist network and the radical Taliban regime. Now it must work to assure a stable peace. The Taliban and its al-Qaeda allies remain a potentially destabilizing force in both Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan. The priority for U.S. policy must be to hunt down the terrorist leaders and bring them to justice. Long-term political stability will require secure international economic support and multilateral cooperation from Afghanistan's neighbors, particularly a reformed Pakistan.

In attempting to shore up the Afghan state, Washington must not succumb to the temptation of nation building. Afghanistan has long been divided by deep-seated geographic, ethnic, religious, and tribal cleavages, and it would be foolhardy to assume that these divisions can be overcome by foreign social engineering imposed by Washington or the United Nations. To create a stable political environment favorable to regional peace as well as U.S. interests, the quarrelsome factional leaders in Afghanistan must be convinced that they have much to gain by cooperating with the U.S.-backed central government and much to lose by opposing it.

Specifically, the United States should now:
  • Revise its strategy and reconfigure its military forces in Afghanistan for a low-intensity counter-guerrilla war. To root out the remaining small contingents al-Qaeda and Taliban forces, the United States should rely increasingly on small, mobile, special forces units backed by air power and air-mobile ground troops. These units should work with Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) paramilitary units and the Afghan central government to cultivate intelligence sources among the local populations, and to help identify, locate, and capture fugitive al-Qaeda bands and the top Taliban leadership.
  • Provide military resources to support limited non-combat functions, as appropriate. Though the United States should not commit its overburdened military resources to additional humanitarian, basic security, or peacekeeping functions, its resources could be used to support those activities in cases of emergency.
  • Help train the Afghanistan army. Afghanistan's stability will depend largely on its ability to raise and maintain a self-sustaining army. The United States and a few of its allies are uniquely equipped carry out this vital mission.
  • Provide expertise to the Afghan government on building infrastructure and civil institutions. Limited teams of civil affairs, public affairs, and psychological warfare experts, as well as military engineers and American international development personnel, should provide their expertise to help rebuild Afghanistan's infrastructure and civil institutions.
  • Make clear that America's primary interest is to prevent agents of international terrorism from using any part of the country as a base of operations. The United States should maintain a limited but highly mobile force to prevent the reappearance of terrorist cells in Afghanistan.
  • Create realistic timetables for the operation based on war aims. Though the President has done an outstanding job in setting the war aims, he must not succumb to pressure to define victory by arbitrary time constraints. Doing so would result in a strategy driven by time rather than by objectives.
  • Rule out committing U.S. combat troops to a U.N. peacekeeping effort. At no time should the United States commit troops to the International Security Assistance Force, which could take limited resources away from the broader war on terrorism.
  • Resist efforts to expand the mission of the international peacekeeping force beyond its present limited role. The overused suggestion that the United Sates should replicate its efforts in postwar Germany and Japan is the wrong way to bolster the interim government in Kabul. The best approach is to win over regional leaders, not to bully or attack them head-on. This approach would limit the possibilities that the international force would get caught up in the bitter internal rivalries that dominate Afghan politics.
  • Support a new political arrangement that conforms to the facts on the ground. U.S. policy must be based on Afghanistan's political and ethnic conditions. The best framework for a new Afghan government would be stable but limited central authority with much power devolved to the tribal level. The United States should broker a settlement between the interim government and the country's powerful regional leaders. Such a confederalist approach would lock those leaders into the postwar settlement as positive forces for stability rather than as potentially disruptive agents.
  • Offer limited technical advice and aid geared toward judicial reform to bolster Afghan economic opportunities. The Karzai government and certain regional leaders will need technical assistance to establish a judiciary that safeguards property rights. Wherever possible, the United States should encourage regional free trade initiatives, particularly on textiles and agricultural products, to speed economic growth.
The United States decisively won the first phase of the war in Afghanistan, but now it must adjust its strategy and win the peace. To achieve this next victory, the United States should remain engaged militarily for several years to root out the pockets of al-Qaeda and Taliban forces that have burrowed into remote areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. But it should not commit military forces to an open-ended peacekeeping mission or a nation-building experiment. Washington should help the Afghans rebuild a stable political system and functioning economy, but only the Afghans themselves can build a nation.

James A. Phillips is Research Fellow in Middle Eastern Studies, Jack Spencer is Policy Analyst for Defense and National Security, and John C. Hulsman, Ph.D., is Research Fellow in European Affairs in the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies at The Heritage Foundation.


James Phillips

Senior Research Fellow, The Heritage Foundation

Jack Spencer
Jack Spencer

Vice President, the Institute for Economic Freedom

John Hulsman

Former Senior Research Fellow