A Military Surge Isn't Enough to Fix Afghanistan

During his campaign for the presidency, Barack Obama repeatedly stressed the need to deploy more U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Earlier this week, Defense Secretary Robert Gates described the insurgency in Afghanistan as the "greatest military challenge" facing the United States, but he warned that there is no purely military solution. This conclusion may be based on information from both private and public sources in Washington, who are increasingly worried that the United States may not be able to deliver the civil components that would make a new military surge effective.

As Gates politely put it, coordination of international efforts to help Afghanistan have been "less than stellar." That's hardly breaking news. In Congressional testimony in January 2008, other leading members of what is now the new Obama team—including Richard Holbrooke, now the special envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and National Security Advisor General James Jones—were even blunter. They lamented the glaring deficiencies of U.S. and international strategies, noting in particular the lack of focus on providing civil aid and bolstering local police resources, both of which are essential to help defeat the insurgency.

While the Pentagon's policy reviews acknowledge the importance of multilateral civilian aid, all indicators suggest that the internal U.S. policy debate remains overly dominated by old-style thinking. It still tends to be unilateralist with a focus on the military side of the equation. According to a report in The New York Times, the Obama team still thinks it can leave the civilian aid and development issues mostly to the Europeans while it focuses on producing a largely American military solution.

The Obama administration needs to shed any remaining illusions that the United States will achieve a political or military victory in Afghanistan of any kind through a new surge of forces without urgent and massive repairs of short-term and long-term development efforts. Farmers, for instance, need livestock, seed and equipment and better ways to transport their produce to market. The nation's judiciary system needs support for resolving land disputes, and communities need to beef up their police. Aid to these areas would help instill confidence in Afghanistan's government, as opposed to the Taliban.

A Rand Corporation study prepared last year for Secretary Gates provided a grim assessment of American capabilities to provide such aid. It warned that the United States does not now possess and probably cannot mobilize in time enough people trained to work at the grass roots level and economic resources needed to fight a successful counter-insurgency campaign in a country like Afghanistan. "There is no pretense that organizational innovations" in the United States government in recent years "would provide adequate people or money needed for serious civil [counter-insurgency] operations," it concluded. "The U.S. government currently lacks the capability to conduct adequate civil operations in all but the smallest countries".

The U.S. military has noted that a top priority must be to provide food and water in the areas hardest hit by the fighting. But there's a lack of clear focus on just how much food and water is needed, who will deliver the food and water on a sustained basis, and what will be the political impact in the most troubled areas. Afghan farming families, living at or below subsistence levels and under threats from the Taliban, might not want to run the risk of accepting temporary U.S. humanitarian aid.

Ambassador Holbrooke will need all his talents to assert genuine civilian authority over a new set of civil and military counter-insurgency operations by U.S. forces and other American agencies in Afghanistan. But he will at the same time need to deliver real intensity and much sharper focus to the international aid effort in the country.

Ultimately, only Afghanistan's citizens can ensure that they will live in a secure country with a system of their own choosing. The United States should not be dictating political outcomes. It would be catastrophic, for example, if Washington attempted to remove President Hamid Karzai, opening up fissures that could split the country further.

Instead, the Obama administration should encourage an effective renegotiation of regional, national and sub-national interests with actors at all of those levels. As part of this process, the United States and its allies should provide new security guarantees along with new commitments for effective and rapid economic reconstruction. All of which would demonstrate "smart power" instead of raw power. Afghanistan's citizens cannot afford to become yet another case study of how purely military solutions always fail on their terrain.

Austin is Vice President of the EastWest Institute, which has offices in New York, Brussels and Moscow. He heads the Brussels office.