July 27, 2009 | Commentary on National Security and Defense, Terrorism

Worth Fighting for Security, Stability

A popular complaint about the war in Afghanistan is the lack of international coordination.

This isn't surprising. This complex endeavor involves military forces from 42 countries, multiple U.N. agencies, and dozens of international non-governmental organizations doing everything from electoral reform to agricultural development.

But during a recent trip to Afghanistan as part of a NATO-led experts' delegation, I saw signs that this multinational effort is becoming more harmonious.

The NATO partners are enthusiastically backing a shift in the U.S. focus to protecting the population and minimizing use of air strikes and artillery that risks civilian casualties - a strategy Commander of U.S. and NATO Forces Gen. Stanley McChrystal laid out earlier this month.

In fact, the adjustments to the U.S. strategy started with the previous administration's appointment of CENTCOM Commander Gen. David Petraeus last fall. Based on his experience in Iraq, Petraeus understands the importance of making the people the center of counter-insurgency operations. That's why he emphasizes local patrolling, engaging with the population, and conducting humanitarian operations in Afghanistan.

But will the larger NATO nations demonstrate their buy-in to the new strategy by contributing more fighting forces? The United States provides most of the troops, which will total 68,000 by year's end, while other countries provide some 34,000 forces. The United Kingdom, Canada, the Netherlands, Poland and Denmark are doing their share of the fighting.

But other, larger NATO nations - which arguably have the most to lose in the event we fail to stabilize Afghanistan - need to share more of the burden. Outgoing NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer drove this point home in a recent speech when he declared the mission in Afghanistan essential to the security of all NATO nations.

The first test of the new population-centric approach comes as the United States pushes forces into Helmand Province in an effort to regain the initiative from insurgents in the restive south. The idea is to clear insurgents from so-called "black districts" now under Taliban sway, bring in development and reconstruction aid, and establish government authority.

The NATO commanders we met with in Regional Command-South welcomed the additional U.S. troops, noting that up until now they had lacked sufficient resources to implement an effective counter-insurgency strategy. The commanders believe the U.S. troop influx will help shift the momentum against the Taliban, perhaps as early as this fall.

The upcoming Aug. 20 elections will also be a key marker of overall progress in the country. The elections must be conducted in a credible manner. It would be devastating if, just as the international community is getting its act together and implementing a winning strategy, the Afghan people lose faith in the democratic process because of a flawed election.

Once the election hurdle is crossed, we can expect to see more concerted efforts to foster reconciliation at the local level. Containing the insurgency requires reconciliation at both the local and national political level.

The strategy of the insurgents is to go wherever they can and gain influence by capitalizing on local grievances and the lack of government presence. This needs to be countered with coalition and Afghan government efforts to reach out to local populations with offers of reconciliation and development assistance. Insurgents often have different incentives for fighting, and thus reconciliation programs must be tailored to specific local situations.

There are no signs, however, that the top Taliban leadership, mostly based in Pakistan, is prepared to reconcile. They believe they're winning and that they can wear down the international community.

The release of a Taliban propaganda video of a captured U.S. soldier being forced to call for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan shows the insurgents believe they are on the cusp of weakening American resolve. Hearing Defense Secretary Robert Gates recently say U.S. troops are tired and had no "appetite for a long slog in Afghanistan" unfortunately only reinforces this view.

Some believe the sheer enormity and complexity of the Afghan war makes it unwinnable. But as the coalition nations begin cooperating and the mission receives the resources it deserves- and if all coalition members do their fair share - there is a good chance the scales will tip in favor of a stable and secure Afghanistan.

The benefit -a clear increase in the safety of the civilized world - certainly makes it a goal worth fighting for.

Lisa Curtis is a senior research fellow in the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation

About the Author

Lisa Curtis Senior Research Fellow
Asian Studies Center

First Appeared in the Des Moines Register