November 6, 2008 | Commentary on International Conflicts, National Security and Defense

Focusing on Afghanistan: The president-elect must not ignore realities on the ground

The two presidential candidates did not agree on much of anything, but they did on the importance of winning in Afghanistan, which has become the politically correct mirror image of Iraq. If you are against the U.S. military presence in Iraq, at least you can burnish your credentials by saying you are for the engagement in Afghanistan. But that is as far as the consensus went. What to do about Afghanistan is a different matter. While Sen. Barack Obama spoke of launching U.S. military incursions into U.S. ally Pakistan, Sen. John McCain advocated an Iraq surge strategy to seize and hold rebel territory in Afghanistan.

In other quarters as well, Afghanistan is characterized as a cause for major concern. The violence is at its highest levels since 2001, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Mike Mullen has said he is "not convinced that we're winning it." Also, Afghans are looking at very bleak prospects as the winter settles in. According to a new report by Britain's Royal United Services Institute, nearly one-third of Afghanistan's population (8.4 million people) is facing a potentially catastrophic food shortage. The failure to improve infrastructure and prepare for winter will leave the Afghan population further disillusioned about the commitment of the international community, the report says. In other words, the effort to "win the hearts and minds" of the Afghan people will have foundered.

In a very different assessment, Bing West, former assistant secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs in the Reagan administration and a historian of the Iraq war, writes in a hard-hitting piece in the National Interest: "It's strange to hear a military commander during war saying he can't kill his way to victory."

"Our police don't tell us they can't catch all the criminals. We expect our police to provide security even in impoverished areas. Similarly, we expect our military to destroy al Qaeda by killing its members. The American military mission is not nation building. To prevent more recruits for the Islamic extremists, we'd like to have a tolerant democracy and a thriving economy in Pakistan and in Afghanistan. But if we make that a precondition for crushing al Qaeda, we will be in Afghanistan for decades," Mr. West writes.

Some might say that even if we have a more limited goal of winning a military victory against al Qaeda and the Taliban, it might still take us decades if we do not have the cooperation of the Afghan people. Mr. West advocates that the president-elect take personal charge of the war in Afghanistan and fight the congressional urge to slash defense budgets. He also said the president-elect should advocate fighting the "good war," which is about to become a lot bigger, and explain to the American people that this country is still a nation at war.

Britain's report brings a different perspective on the meaning of winning, harking back to the lessons of winning German hearts and minds after World War II. It calls for nothing less than a Berlin Airlift for Afghanistan to turn the loyalties of the local population our way -- thereby denying the Taliban and al Qaeda their power base. It recalls another beleaguered population facing crushing food shortages. "Exactly sixty years ago, the Berlin Airlift was underway," the report said. "It brought food to millions and prevented a strategic defeat. Today, a much smaller, yet strategically significant operation could have similar effect in Afghanistan."

In August, the U.N. World Food program estimated Afghanistan will need an emergency infusion of 25,000 tons of supplies before the coming winter, and an additional 70,000 tons before February 2009. That is a lot of lifting to be done and a lot of airdrops into very inhospitable terrain -- where the chances that they will be located by the people who need them are much less certain than they were in Berlin.

Still, the fact of the matter is that our military victories -- where they materialize -- will not be decisive unless the Afghan people believe in the intentions and the promises of the West. The same goes for the people of that shaky ally of the United States, Pakistan. It will be worth the investment of resources to show the Afghans that the United States and its allies are serious about helping them through the tough winter, because next spring we will again need them to fight the terrorist scourge.

The Pentagon always resists this kind of effective outreach, yet when ordered to act usually shows that no one can do it better.

Helle Dale is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in the Washington Times