One would be hard-pressed to find a news article or editorial on the Afghan election that did not mention the word "legitimacy." Success in Afghanistan, it has been repeated ad nauseam, hinges on winning popular support through governmental legitimacy, with elections crucial to that process. Yet if that were true, why has the Taliban been so effective at gaining supporters? Mullah Muhammad Omar has not organized elections, nor has he enacted the "reforms" Westerners demand of the regime in Kabul, such as the inclusion of diverse groups in the government.

The short answer is that in Afghanistan how power is acquired matters less than how it is used. Two factors determine the political allegiance of the elites who dominate Afghanistan's rural politics: security and basic governance. And on both counts the Taliban often score higher than the government in Kabul. The key to improving the government's fortunes lies not in better election monitors but in maintaining order and providing governance.

From decades of bitter experience, Afghans know that those who support the stronger side in a military conflict are less likely to suffer bodily harm, now and in the future. Accordingly, popular assistance to the Taliban and other Afghan insurgents has risen sharply in areas where those insurgents have increased their military presence and inflicted casualties on NATO or Afghan government personnel. Calculations about future military power, meanwhile, have been affected by growing fears that the United States will eventually abandon Hamid Karzai to the Taliban wolves. "At the beginning everyone supported the Americans," according to Hanif Shah Hosseini, a member of the Afghan parliament interviewed recently by The Wall Street Journal's Yochi Dreazen and Anand Gopal. "But now a lot of locals don't believe in a U.S. or government victory anymore. They expect the Americans to leave, so they are casting their support to the Taliban."

Afghans want a government, meanwhile, that performs traditional administrative functions, such as resolving disputes, in a just fashion. If someone violates their irrigation rights, they want the authorities to exact the standard fine of 31 pounds of wheat. If a thief takes one of their goats, they expect that the culprit will be found and compelled to transfer five of his goats to the victim. In such administrative matters, the Taliban's shadow governments have generally proven more energetic and impartial than Karzai's government.

Good governance also includes preventing officials from abusing their power. In many places, the Afghan National Police have acquired a reputation for thievery and sexually abusing girls and boys. Civil servants have routinely demanded bribes in return for construction permits, medical care, and most everything else they control. In terms of preventing corruption, once again, the Taliban has outperformed the Afghan government with regrettable frequency.

If Washington is to help Kabul turn its fortunes around, it is going to have to address both security and governance with equal fervor. In the short term, reversing the deterioration requires more American troops. Events over the past year have shown that existing NATO and competent Afghan forces together cannot meet the challenges at hand. Gaining the military dominance required to build popular support requires a persistent presence, not 30 minutes in a village every few days, as is often the case today. By increasing its troop levels, the United States will also beef up the number of capable Afghan forces, because when American and Afghan units partner together (as General Stanley McChrystal is advocating), the Americans can get hitherto passive Afghan policemen and soldiers to patrol and fight.

Placing American combat advisers and troops alongside the Afghans will help address the governance problem as well. In provinces where U.S. troops go everywhere with the Afghan National Police, the American presence deters the police from setting up the roadside checkpoints they have customarily used to shake down passers-by. The Americans do not allow the Afghan policemen to beat civilians over the head with rocks or burn detainees with hot oil, which they have been known to do elsewhere.

Ultimately, Afghanistan's own elites will have to provide the leadership necessary for adequate security and governance. While Western development experts tend to focus on building national institutions, such institutions are worthless if their leaders are dolts or thieves, as is true in many Afghan institutions today. American tutelage has helped troubled nations, from South Korea to El Salvador, produce new leaders that privilege national well-being over personal welfare. Historically, however, such results have taken at least a decade to achieve. This process has started only recently in most Afghan ministries, so one should not expect a self-sufficient Afghanistan anytime soon.

The American public and its politicians may be unwilling to keep American troops in Afghanistan for another decade if casualties continue at present levels. But if McChrystal receives the troops he has requested and forges fruitful partnerships with Afghan forces, the infusion of American troops may succeed in sharply bringing the violence down within the next one to two years, as occurred in Iraq during the surge.

The United States is not ready to abandon Afghanistan yet, nor is it satisfied with the status quo. The best option is to let our highly touted field commander fight the war with the resources and strategy he has recommended.

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  • MARK MOYAR is Professor of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Marine Corps University.
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