Kagan: Why Afghanistan Won't Be Obama's Vietnam

Just three months ago, Afghanistan was the "good" war. It was, according to all the conventional wisdom, the "real" central front in the war on terror, the war we had to win, the place to fight Al Qaeda, and the war we should have been focusing on all along. Nothing much has changed in Afghanistan since Barack Obama won the election, but conventional wisdom is swinging fast to the opposite viewpoint. Opinion makers on the left and the right are discovering that Afghanistan is hard to fix, that Al Qaeda is really in Pakistan, and that the "good war" might not be so good after all.

One thing that has not changed, apparently, is Obama's determination to succeed in Afghanistan. He's right to hold firm. Afghanistan is hard, and always was, but we can still succeed. It has not been the sanctuary for Al Qaeda since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, but it is still important. Afghanistan may have lost its luster as a stick with which to beat the Bush administration for invading Iraq, but it has not lost its importance to American national security. Obama is right to try to win, and he deserves the full support of the nation.

But once again the policy debate seems to be focusing on the philosophical problem of defining success rather than the practical problem of actually succeeding. It is essential, of course, to consider what American national security really requires in Afghanistan before committing to some arbitrary set of goals. And the challenges of making any real progress in Afghanistan are daunting, especially to a country exhausted not so much by the war in Iraq as by the bitter and emotionally draining debate about that war. The current economic crisis is naturally the emergency uppermost on the minds of Americans and their leaders, and "fixing" Afghanistan has come to seem like a very unpleasant distraction. The chorus of voices insisting that we redefine our aims in Afghanistan to something more readily attainable is therefore growing loud. Afghanistan is one of the world's poorest countries, racked by civil war and foreign invasions for 30 years, riven with ethnic seams and ancient tribal enmities, and utterly unsuited to the growth of modern liberal democracy, so it is said. Our real interests in Afghanistan consist of preventing Al Qaeda from re-establishing safe havens there, and we can do that, according to many, by focusing narrowly on killing terrorists rather than trying to build an Afghan state.

As in Iraq since 2006, the search is on for a middle-way strategy in Afghanistan that will achieve our minimal national-security requirements without forcing us to defeat a determined set of enemies and create a modern state. Unfortunately, as in Iraq, there is no such strategy. Attempts to use targeted attacks on key individuals to destroy a well-established terrorist network over the past decade have failed repeatedly. Limited and discriminate attacks in Afghanistan and Africa in the 1990s failed to weaken Al Qaeda seriously. "Small footprint" operations in the Horn of Africa failed to prevent Islamist terrorists from seizing most of Somalia in 2006, from making millions of dollars out of maritime piracy, or from re-emerging recently as a renewed threat to the region. Pinpoint attacks backing local armed forces in Afghanistan in 2001 did not destroy Al Qaeda—they merely disrupted the group and forced it to flee to Pakistan, where it reformed. Ongoing targeted strikes in Pakistan continue to disrupt the network, but show no signs and offer no promise of destroying it. Even when we have had large numbers of troops in a country—as in Iraq or Afghanistan since 2002—targeted strikes have killed hundreds of key terrorist leaders, but could not on their own destroy enemy networks. In both countries, in fact, terrorist activities and reach grew in spite of the success of targeted attacks when such attacks were the focus of our efforts. There is simply no recent historical evidence to support the assertion that small-footprint targeted attacks against key nodes of a terrorist network will by themselves destroy that network or even seriously degrade it over time.

There is considerable evidence, however, that effective counterinsurgency operations can render large areas extremely inhospitable to terrorist networks, destroying some and forcing others to leave. That was the result of the surge strategy implemented in Iraq in 2007 and 2008. Targeted attacks against key terrorist leaders continued throughout the surge and played an extremely important role in its success. But we were able to inflict enormous damage on Al Qaeda in Iraq and numerous other insurgent and terrorist groups by complementing this skillful counterterrorism method with concerted efforts to provide security to the population, improve the provision of services and work toward political resolutions of disputes that had been generating support for, or at least tolerance of, the terrorists' presence. In the areas of Afghanistan where similar approaches have been used, the results have been comparable.

The task of applying counterinsurgency lessons learned in Iraq and elsewhere to Afghanistan is not straightforward. Afghanistan, particularly the Pashtun areas where the insurgency is concentrated, has its own very distinctive culture and even way of fighting. Whereas Iraqis accept the movement of fighters through cities and villages, and even fighting within settled areas, as a regrettable but normal part of warfare, many Afghans do not. From the days of the Soviet invasion, Afghan armed conflicts have been primarily rural. The Soviets occupied all of Afghanistan's major cities rapidly, and the enemy never really contested them. The mujahedin instead concentrated on attacking the roads connecting key population centers, isolated Soviet outposts and Soviet convoys. The Taliban uses similar methods against us today. "Living among the people" and "protecting the population," key elements of our success in Iraq and key tenets of successful counterinsurgency anywhere, must be appropriately adapted to the cultural environment of Afghanistan. Our skillful battalion and brigade commanders have developed an understanding of how to do this in some areas. What we must do now is build a flexible and comprehensive approach suitably tailored to the variations among Afghanistan's various regions.

Counterinsurgency also requires helping to establish adequate governmental structures that are seen as legitimate by the overwhelming majority of the population. So-called realists argue that the United States should not attempt to "impose" a "Jeffersonian democracy" on so benighted a land as Afghanistan (they said the same of Iraq as well). The reality is that no one is proposing to impose democracy on Afghans—Afghans want representative government. There is no significant movement within Afghanistan (other than by the Taliban and other extremist groups that can be collectively labeled "the enemy") to adopt any system other than representative government. And no one imagines that Afghan democracy will look like American democracy or even like Italian or Israeli democracy. Recognition of the uniqueness of democracy in Iraq led to the neologism "Iraqracy," which perfectly encapsulates Iraqi politics today. Afghanistan's name does not lend itself to the same sort of literary legerdemain, but the idea is the same. A multiethnic, multisectarian state can be stable only if it is ruled by a strongman willing and able to use force and brutality to suppress minorities or if it has a representative government. Considering that the Soviets killed hundreds of thousands of Afghans and generated more than 5 million refugees with a deliberate campaign aimed at dehousing large sections of the population but still lost, it is difficult to imagine an Afghan strongman succeeding in such a fashion. Even the brutal but indigenous Taliban were able only to create a weak state that was quickly toppled by a handful of CIA agents with bags of cash supported by American aviation. The options before us are therefore stark: we can proceed with efforts to build a stable, multiethnic, representative state; we can simply leave and hope that Afghanistan's internal power struggles play out differently from the way they have for the past 20 years; or we can pull back to a small-footprint posture focused on whacking bad guys, knowing that we won't be able to destroy their networks but that we will have to keep hitting them forever.

The sensible approach—one might say the most realistic approach—is to continue with efforts to help the Afghans establish a stable state that rejects terrorism. The key problem we face is that the current government is neither effective nor seen as legitimate. Once hailed as Afghanistan's savior, President Hamid Karzai looks increasingly like a liability. His government is deeply corrupt and he has done very little to address the corruption. He appointed governors and district leaders (who are not elected in Afghanistan as they just were in Iraq) with an eye toward consolidating his own power rather than enfranchising the population. And now he is adopting an increasingly strident anti-American tone while turning ever more to Iran and Russia for support of all varieties to offset the waning of American backing.

What to do? Many, but by no means all, of the problems we now face in Afghanistan result from errors made by the Bush administration and NATO. President Bush consistently overpersonalized foreign policy, as is well known, focusing on his personal ties to key leaders. President Obama has an opportunity to reverse that policy by emphasizing that the United States does not back individuals in other states' political contests, but instead supports legitimate democratic processes and their outcomes.

A recently returned U.S. commander offered an anecdote that explains the overall challenge well. Having helped to clear a village of the enemy, he earned the trust of the village elders in large part by interacting productively with them and respecting their authority and traditions. When the elders came to a problem that they could not readily solve, they brought it to him and asked him to offer a solution, which they swore they would all accept. He demurred, realizing that even with their promise to accept his decision, it would still be his decision and not theirs. The elders withdrew to consider the matter, and the process iterated several times. When the American commander had finally convinced the elders that he really would not resolve the problem for them but that he would support a solution they came up with, they found a solution themselves.

This is a key element of counterinsurgency in a nutshell. American forces must play the necessary role in providing security. In Afghanistan, as in Iraq or anywhere else, the only thing that can legitimize the presence of foreign military forces is that they deliver safety to the people (something, it should be noted, that the Soviets and the imperial British before them never did or tried to do). But the United States and its allies do not impose their own solutions on local problems except in the most dire circumstances where all indigenous authority has collapsed. The results of forcing local leaders to step up and resolve their own issues often generate solutions that Americans find bemusing—we would never do things that way. But one of the most important lessons we learned the hard way in Iraq is that helping the Iraqis figure out how to find Iraqi solutions to Iraq's problems was both a key to success and something in which Americans could play an essential role as moderators, brokers, peacekeepers and a source of pressure to compromise. The same is true in Afghanistan.

Success will not be quick or easy. The enemy is not that strong; hyperventilating reports that the "Taliban" controls some huge percentage of the country completely misrepresent the reality. Afghan public support for the Taliban's policies, or for a return of the Taliban to power, remains very low. Nor is there one single "Taliban"—the term has been abused so much that it now encompasses many disparate groups with tenuous relationships and sometimes conflicting aims. But getting at the enemy and, more important, protecting the population from the enemy is in many respects harder in Afghanistan than it was in Iraq because of the terrain. Most of Iraq's threatened population was concentrated in and around a handful of cities and towns along three river valleys interwoven with relatively dense and high-quality road and highway systems. A significant portion of Afghanistan's population is also concentrated in and around a relatively small number of cities, but the enemy does not reside in the cities, roads are extremely poor and in some areas nonexistent, and the poverty of the country is such that enemy attacks on key lines of communication can lead rapidly to starvation. Protecting the population that is now harboring insurgents and terrorists—either willingly or out of fear—requires projecting both force and civilian assistance up valleys via tracks that are often not even Humvee-accessible and working village by village at altitudes sometimes above 10,000 feet.

The Afghan theater is also much sparser than Iraq in every sense. Saddam Hussein's vast armies littered the landscape with military bases and infrastructure that U.S. forces could easily fall in on. Protecting an urban population allowed U.S. troops to move straight into abandoned houses and other buildings to live with the people. Afghanistan offers neither kind of basing. If we want to put more troops in Afghanistan and get them out among the population, we will have to build camps and bases for them at every level. There is simply a limit to how fast the Afghan theater can usefully absorb more American troops at this stage.

Success will also require fixing structural problems within the U.S. and NATO headquarters. The Afghan mission was turned over to NATO in 2006 primarily for the purpose of giving NATO a purpose in the post–Cold War world. The assumption was that the task was primarily one of nation-building and peacekeeping, not counterinsurgency. As a result, the supreme headquarters in Afghanistan, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), now commanded by Gen. David McKiernan, is not built to plan and conduct theaterwide counterinsurgency operations. Nor is there a three-star headquarters in Afghanistan similar to the Multinational Corps-Iraq, which then–Lt. Gen. Ray Odierno used to develop the plans in 2007 that implemented the counterinsurgency concepts of Gen. David Petraeus. These deficiencies will have to be rectified before we can reasonably hope to have a detailed and coherent military plan.

Then there is the problem of the civilian side. The internationalization of the aid effort in Afghanistan came at the expense of coordination. Many agencies operate in the country independently, reporting to their own headquarters and pursuing their own agendas. The U.S. Embassy in Kabul is infinitely weaker in its ability to coordinate these efforts than the American mission in Iraq was, and the appointment of a U.N. coordinator has not been sufficient either. But the international community cannot hope to achieve any goals in Afghanistan unless everyone's efforts are part of a coherent overall program that is integrated with the military operations against insurgents and terrorists. Resolving this conundrum may require the hardest trade-offs at all. Unless the various countries, NGOs and international bodies now working in Afghanistan can accept that enlightened self-interest requires subordinating their efforts to a larger program, the key players will have to decide at what point the broad coalition becomes a liability rather than an asset. All of these bodies, of course, can quite reasonably insist that we develop a coherent and comprehensive civil-military plan with their involvement before agreeing to be guided by it, something we have not yet done.

The bottom line is that we are almost certainly not going to win in Afghanistan in 2009 or even 2010, although we are unlikely to lose, either. A sound strategy—now being developed by General Petraeus and his team at CENTCOM, by the commands within Afghanistan and in coordination with Richard Holbrooke, the new special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan—can succeed, but it will take time, effort and patience. We can reasonably hope to set the conditions in 2009 for the beginning of a more decisive effort in 2010, with lasting success coming slowly and possibly fitfully over the following several years. The magnitude of the effort will almost certainly be smaller than what Iraq required—current plans will put a total of 6 American brigades in Afghanistan compared with the 22 that were in Iraq at the height of the surge. The pace of change, on the other hand, will likely be much slower.

Afghanistan is not Vietnam any more than Iraq was Vietnam. It is, like most insurgencies, a difficult problem, but one that we have every reason to believe we can solve. It is important to keep our expectations realistic, both in terms of what we hope to achieve and of the costs and speed of success, but we must not pursue the path of redefining success to be whatever we feel like we can accomplish with the effort we feel like putting forth. America does have vital national-security interests in Afghanistan, as it does in Iraq. President Obama is right to commit to pursuing those interests. His efforts, and those of Generals Petraeus and McKiernan, special envoy Holbrooke and U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry, deserve the support of the entire nation.