Afghanistan is a crucial front in the global struggle against the al-Qaeda terrorist network and Islamic radicalism. The U.S.-led coalition was unable to transform an overwhelming military victory in 2001 into a stable postwar political situation because of several factors, including Afghanistan's fractious politics and shattered economic, state, and civil society infrastructures; a minimalist American approach to committing military forces and foreign aid; Pakistan's failure to crack down decisively on Taliban forces that have taken refuge in Pashtun tribal areas along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border; and the Afghan government's failure to expand its authority and deliver services to rural Afghans.
Although the United States dealt the Taliban a devastating military defeat in 2001, the radical Islamic movement has made a limited but significant comeback in recent years and threatens to endanger Afghanistan's hard-won progress. The United States has tried to win the struggle in Afghanistan on the cheap. It did not deploy enough military forces or economic aid to fill the power vacuum outside Kabul in a timely manner. The post 9/11 alliance with Afghan warlords made sense in terms of hunting Taliban and al-Qaeda remnants but has undermined the authority of the Afghan government, which continues to struggle to extend its authority outside of the major cities.
Yet the Afghan conflict is still winnable. The Afghans generally support and appreciate American efforts to build a stable democracy, but many are frustrated with the slow pace of reconstruction, government ineffectiveness and corruption, and the absence of the rule of law in many places. As this frustration mounts, there is a growing danger that they will turn against the government. The United States and its allies need to do more to assist the Afghan government to build a stable and prosperous Afghanistan.
Revitalizing U.S. Policy. The Taliban poses more of a long-term political and ideological threat than a short-term military threat. Coalition forces have won important battlefield victories over the Taliban and have killed or captured many of its leaders, but the Taliban cannot be defeated merely by military means. The Afghan people are the center of gravity in the struggle against the Taliban and its allies. Ultimately, only the Afghans, not Westerners, can decisively defeat them. The U.S. and its allies need to convince Afghans that their long-term interests are better served by an inclusive democratic government with substantial economic aid from the West than by a radical Islamic regime. Building the capacity, effectiveness, and public support of the Afghan government should be the highest priority.
Afghanistan is larger in size and population than Iraq but has far fewer native and foreign troops. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) currently has about 36,000 troops from 37 NATO and non-NATO countries. There is a great need for more ISAF forces to secure and stabilize the countryside, but political opposition in several European countries is growing.
The United States and the other fully involved NATO members should press their reluctant NATO allies to remove national caveats that hinder joint operations against insurgents and threaten the long-term success of the NATO mission in Afghanistan. A failure in Afghanistan would gravely damage NATO's future. ISAF forces need to be able to launch integrated operations with common rules of engagement.
Washington initially underestimated the threat posed by the opium problem. Washington needs to focus immediately on disrupting the operations of major narcotics traffickers, who are lucrative enablers for the Taliban, rather than targeting poor farmers, who are likely to join the insurgency in greater numbers if their meager ability to support their families is threatened. Poppy eradication efforts should be accorded the highest priority in areas controlled by the Taliban.
The West's ability to defeat al-Qaeda's capabilities and ideology rests on a strategy that integrates diplomatic and security efforts toward Afghanistan and Pakistan and focuses more intently on improving relations between these two countries. Washington will need to take a more proactive role in mediating disputes between Afghanistan and Pakistan, prodding them to develop a fresh strategic perception of the region based on economic integration, political reconciliation, and respect for territorial boundaries. To achieve stability in the region, Pakistan must root out Taliban ideology from its own society and close down the madrassahs (religious schools) and training camps that perpetuate the Taliban insurgency. For its part, Afghanistan must acknowledge the sanctity of the border dividing Pashtun populations between the two countries and ensure adequate Pashtun representation in the Afghan government.
To secure counterterrorism cooperation from Islamabad, the U.S. must develop a realistic and hard-nosed policy that takes on Pakistan's ambivalence toward going head to head with the extremists. Despite well over $10 billion in U.S. aid to Pakistan over the past six years, the terrorist threat emanating from that country is as dangerous as ever. Washington needs to convince Islamabad to work more closely in joint operations that bring U.S. resources and military strength to bear on the situation in the tribal areas and employ a combination of targeted military operations and economic assistance programs aimed at driving a wedge between Pashtun tribal communities and international terrorists.
The U.S. should bolster the position of Senior Afghanistan Coordinator at the State Department to revitalize and better integrate large-scale assistance programs in Afghanistan.This official should be solely responsible for initiating and monitoring U.S. assistance programs to Afghanistan, coordinating programs and policies with European and Asian counterparts, and chairing regular interagency meetings.
Conclusion. Consolidating a stable Afghanistan that is free from Taliban influence and ideology will be expensive and will require a patient, long-term, integrated political, military, and economic strategy. However, allowing Afghanistan to revert to its pre-9/11 status of control by the al-Qaeda-friendly Taliban is not an option. To reach U.S. goals in Afghanistan, the U.S. will also need to prevail over Pakistani resistance to ending the Taliban's role in Afghanistan. This will require deft diplomacy that recognizes the need for improved Pakistan-Afghanistan relations through increased trade and economic linkages and joint political endeavors.
Lisa Curtis is Senior Research Fellow for South Asia in the Asian Studies Center and James Phillips is Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation.