How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Pessimism abounds in Afghanistan. Violence, NATO casualties, corruption, drug production, and public disapproval in the United States are at record levels. Ahmed Rashid, a prominent Pakistani journalist and an expert on the region, declared the U.S. mission in Afghanistan a failure in his scathing 2008 book, Descent Into Chaos. Seth Jones, the leading U.S. scholar on the Taliban insurgency, has argued that the United States had an opening to make a difference in Afghanistan after 2001, but that it "squandered this extraordinary opportunity." U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates attempted to manage expectations when he testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee in January 2009. "If we set ourselves the objective of creating some sort of Central Asian Valhalla over there, we will lose," he argued, "because nobody in the world has that kind of time, patience, and money." U.S. policymakers and the public increasingly doubt that the war can be won. These assessments are based on real and credible concerns about the rising insurgency, the drug trade, endemic corruption, and perennial government weakness.
Yet the stabilization and reconstruction effort in Afghanistan has gone better than is widely believed. The pessimists fail to understand how badly the Afghan state had failed in 2001 and thus are blind to how much it has improved in many areas -- particularly in economic and political reconstruction. The pessimists are right to be worried about the rise of the Taliban insurgency and the weak rule of law, but they also tend to overstate the competence and scale of the insurgency.
Many analysts critical of the war effort have drawn misguided lessons from cartoonish and caricatured versions of Afghan history -- comparing ISAF to the armies of Alexander the Great, William Elphinstone, or Boris Gromov -- to conclude that the laws of history bar foreign militaries from accomplishing anything in the land of the Hindu Kush. They sound dire warnings about U.S. and NATO staying power after a nine-year-old war. But they are wrong on all counts. The insurgency did not pick up steam until late 2005, and ISAF, which started changing its posture and strategy in late 2006, arguably did not implement a coherent counterinsurgency campaign until 2009. It would be myopic and irresponsible to conclude that the international community should walk away from the mission due to a lack of adequate progress.
The greatest threat to long-term success in Afghanistan is not the Taliban, who are fairly weak compared to other insurgent movements around the world. It is the Afghan government's endemic weakness and the international community's failure to address it. Although the international community helped rebuild economic institutions and infrastructure and facilitated elections, it did not invest significantly in government ministries, the justice system, the army and the police, or local governance for the first five years of the intervention, which permitted the Taliban to regroup and challenge the nascent Afghan government.
If additional U.S. and NATO soldiers are matched by a comparable civilian surge, a continuing donor commitment, and a heightened focus on capacity development -- increasing the capabilities and performance of civilian institutions of governance, including the ministries in Kabul, their provincial counterparts, and the legal system -- the international community is likely to achieve its core goals and Afghanistan will have a genuine chance of becoming stable for the first time in a generation. Although serious challenges remain, victory is attainable -- if the troops and their civilian counterparts are given time to complete their mission.
THE WORLD'S WORST COUNTRY
In 2001, Afghanistan was the world's most failed state. The security environment was anarchic, large-scale fighting against the Taliban and al Qaeda continued until March 2002, and following the fall of the Taliban, 50,000-70,000 Northern Alliance militiamen became a poorly managed, largely unaccountable force deployed across the country. There was no professional army or police force, leaving warlords to wage mini wars against one another. The United Nations judged in early 2002 that "banditry continues as a lingering manifestation of the war economy." The drug trade, suppressed during the Taliban's last year in power, sprang back into existence as the poppy crop expanded almost tenfold -- from 20,000 acres to 183,000 acres -- between 2001 and 2002. The resurgence of opium production enriched a new set of elites and created a wealthy criminal class that was neither loyal to Kabul nor cooperative with international forces.
The security environment in 2001 and 2002 was chaotic largely because the Afghan state had ceased to function. The World Bank estimates that in 2000 the Afghan state was in the lowest percentile in all six areas of governance that the bank tracks: voice and accountability, the rule of law, control of corruption, government effectiveness, regulatory quality, and political stability. At that time, the Taliban government collected less than one percent of GDP in revenue, compared to an average of 11 percent across South Asia and 26 percent worldwide. Consequently, the state had an annual budget of merely $27 million -- roughly $1 per person. The Afghan government could not hire skilled workers to run public institutions; in 2001, there were only 1,417 government employees who had graduated from an institution of higher education. And most ministries and the justice sector had effectively ceased to function because they lacked the basic levels of staff, money, and equipment required to do anything. For most practical purposes, such as education, access to clean water, or the protection of property, there was no government.
With an anarchic security situation and a nonfunctional state, the Afghan economy had collapsed by the end of the Taliban's misrule. Afghans were the world's seventh-poorest people in 2001. The International Monetary Fund estimates that in 2002, GDP per capita was about $176 in current U.S. dollars: Afghans lived on about 48 cents per day, comparable to the poorest people in sub-Saharan Africa. Lacking a national currency, different factions issued their own bills for use within their fiefdoms. What little infrastructure the country once had was in ruins: little more than a tenth of the roads were paved, less than one-third of Afghans had access to sanitation, and only a fifth had clean water. Economic collapse led to a generation of lost human capital. A third or less of Afghans could read and write, and only roughly a quarter of school-aged children were enrolled in the country's nearly defunct educational system. In a country of approximately 25 million people, there was just one TV station, eight airplanes, 60 trained pilots, and fewer than 50,000 passenger cars.
The humanitarian situation, in short, was catastrophic. Larry Goodson, professor of Middle East studies at the U.S. Army War College, has estimated that even before the civil war of the 1990s, 50 percent of all Afghans had been killed, wounded, or displaced by the Soviet invasion. There were at least 3.8 million Afghan refugees in neighboring countries and another 1.2 million internally displaced persons in Afghanistan in 2001. Within a year, almost two million refugees and more than 750,000 internally displaced persons had returned to their homes, overwhelming urban areas and creating massive, overcrowded slums. The devastation and neglect took its toll on the Afghan population. Only a third of Afghans survived to age 65. Afghans had the absolute shortest life expectancy and highest infant mortality in the world, according to the World Bank, at 42 years and 165 dead infants per 1,000 live births.
Somalia is often cited as the archetype of a failed state. It is not. Despite Somalia's infamous anarchy, Somalis are still relatively free from government oppression and have not experienced ethnic cleansing or genocide. The Afghans, by contrast, had the worst of all worlds under the Taliban. They had Somalian anarchy, Haitian poverty, Congolese institutions, Balkan fractiousness, and a North Korean-style government. In January 2001, The Economist awarded Afghanistan the title of the world's "worst country." Any judgments about the international community's success or failure in Afghanistan need to begin with this benchmark.
A DELICATE CONSTITUTION
The United Nations set about rebuilding the Afghan state immediately after the fall of the Taliban. Just one day after the liberation of Kabul in November, the Security Council outlined its vision for the next Afghan government. It should be "broad-based, multi-ethnic and fully representative," and "respect the human rights of all Afghan people." The UN, with U.S. help, convened a conference in Bonn, Germany, to select an interim administration and outline a process for reconstruction. The resulting Bonn agreement became a road map for establishing and legitimizing a new Afghan government. The UN endorsed the Bonn agreement, formed and authorized the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to help provide security in the capital, and, in March 2002, created the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) to coordinate international civilian assistance to Afghanistan.
A principal step in the Bonn process was the drafting and ratification of a new constitution, which UN advisers helped a commission of Afghans draft in 2003. The resulting document protects equal rights for men and women, individual liberty, freedom of expression and association, the right to vote and stand for office, property, and religious freedom. But the document also acknowledges Afghanistan's traditional sources of legitimacy. Article 1 establishes Afghanistan as an "Islamic Republic," Article 2 enshrines Islam as the state religion, Article 3 states that "no law shall contravene the tenets and provisions of the holy religion of Islam in Afghanistan," and Article 62 requires that the president and the two vice presidents of Afghanistan be Muslims. Although the Afghan government's efforts to balance modern law with traditional customs have not always satisfied human rights activists, this constitution is nonetheless an unmitigated improvement over Taliban lawlessness and one of the most progressive constitutions in Central Asia or the Middle East.
The Afghan people's reaction to the constitution was overwhelmingly positive. One member of the loya jirga (grand council of elders) convened to ratify the document said after voting for its approval that it was "99 percent based on the will of the people." A group calling itself the National Democratic Front and claiming to represent 47 interest groups endorsed the new constitution, as did a tribal gathering in the borderlands of Paktia Province, illustrating the document's broad base of support among both urban politicos and rural dwellers. Qala-e Naw, a major radio station, rejoiced that Afghans would now enjoy the same rights as the rest of the world.
After the constitution was ratified, the international community funded and administered a voter registration drive and two elections: over eight million Afghans voted in the nation's first-ever presidential contest in October 2004, and 6.4 million voted for the nation's legislature in September 2005 -- Afghanistan's first freely elected legislature since 1973. In 2006, Freedom House upgraded the country to "partly free," and 76 percent of those Afghans surveyed said they were satisfied with democracy, according to the Asia Foundation. Afghans' enthusiastic embrace of voting, representative institutions, and majority rule undermined the arguments of critics who claimed that democracy was an alien transplant doomed to fail in inhospitable Afghan soil. But the success of the Bonn process was not a foregone conclusion. Similar UN-sponsored processes in postconflict countries have collapsed and led to renewed violence, including in Angola and Liberia in the 1990s. It succeeded in Afghanistan because of strong international engagement and support at every stage of the process.
Afghans continue to face challenges in their effort to institutionalize a process of peaceful political competition. The 2009 and 2010 elections were notoriously marred by fraud and low turnout. But it is important to note that power brokers, accustomed to enforcing their writ undemocratically, decided to manipulate the electoral system to serve their own interests rather than ignore it altogether, because they recognized that Afghans now embrace the new democratic constitution as the basis for their state's legitimacy. The international community must pressure the Afghan government to crack down on corruption and develop robust political parties. But to declare total failure is to ignore Afghanistan's political transformation.
In response to the economic and humanitarian emergency in Afghanistan in 2001, the international community undertook one of the largest and most ambitious relief, reconstruction, and development efforts in the world -- eventually committing a total of $18.4 billion in aid to economic reconstruction, economic development, and humanitarian relief between 2001 and 2009. The donors invested heavily in rebuilding the Ministry of Finance, the Central Bank, the Treasury, and the Customs Department and helped phase out the old Afghan currency and launch a new one.
The result was an unheralded and dramatic success. Partly because of U.S. and international aid, Afghanistan experienced a post-Taliban economic boom. Real GDP grew by nearly 29 percent in 2002 alone -- faster than West Germany in 1946 -- and averaged 15 percent annual licit growth from 2001 to 2006, making Afghanistan one of the fastest-growing economies in the world (it was still averaging 13.5 percent through 2009, after a drought in 2008). The pace of its growth was due in part to the low base from which it had started, but the rapid pace itself was an important achievement. Afghanistan had not grown significantly in more than two decades; the economic boom signaled a new era in Afghan life.
Between 2001 and 2009, almost every indicator of human development showed measurable improvement. By late 2008, 80 percent of the population had access to basic health services, up from eight percent in 2001. Also by 2008, Afghan children were being immunized against diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus (DPT) at the same rate as children in the rest of the world and at a higher rate than in the rest of South Asia. The infant mortality rate fell by a third, and life expectancy inched upward. After the fall of the Taliban, school enrollment skyrocketed from 1.1 million students in 2001 to 5.7 million students in 2008 -- a third of whom were girls -- promising to double or triple Afghanistan's literacy rate in a decade.
Meanwhile, infrastructure greatly improved with international help. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) built 1,600 miles of roads, and the international community rebuilt three-quarters of the main highway from Herat to Kabul. In total, almost 33 percent of all roads in the country were paved by 2008, up from 13.3 percent in 2001. By 2008, Afghanistan had caught up to its regional and income cohorts in access to telecommunications -- an astonishing feat. The cell-phone industry, nonexistent before 2001, had nearly eight million subscribers by the end of 2008. At the same time, the construction sector tripled in size, donors spent $312 million on water projects, and the number of Afghans with access to water more than doubled, from 13 percent to 27 percent. And access to sanitation rose from 12 percent to perhaps 45 percent.
The impressive growth and improvement since 2001 -- stronger than in any postconflict state in which the UN has deployed a peace-building mission since the end of the Cold War -- demonstrate that progress is achievable with robust resources and international attention. Aid dependency and a poorly diversified economy threaten Afghanistan's long-term economic stability, but the greater risk is that the country's recent progress will unravel unless security is greatly improved.
THE UN'S BLIND SPOT
After 2001, the international community's priority was to prevent the reemergence of the 1992-96 civil war between rival warlords in control of ethnic militias. UN disarmament programs, coupled with the international community's forceful diplomacy, successfully contained fighting among the warlords and prevented the country from relapsing into civil war -- an underrated achievement, especially considering the eruptions of violence during and after other international peace-building missions, such as in Angola in 1992 and 1998, Liberia throughout the 1990s, Cambodia in 1997, and Iraq in 2006-7. The UN secretary-general reported in August 2005 that "factional clashes -- a prominent feature of insecurity three years ago -- have become a localized issue and are no longer a threat to national security."
The international community's strategy in regard to the warlords had a flip side, however. Because the United States and the UN could not confront the warlords directly without risking violence, they had to coax them into giving up their weapons by promising them a place in the new Afghan political order. The warlords thus made a successful entry into Afghan politics as governors, legislators, and cabinet ministers without ever facing prosecution or even a truth commission for alleged war crimes. In hindsight, nearly all scholars and commentators condemn the international community for allowing the warlords to retain power. Yet these same critics often deride the reverse strategy of building up a central government at the expense of local power brokers. After the fall of the Taliban, the international community attempted to navigate between these competing imperatives -- disarming the warlords without unleashing a backlash and building a central government while respecting local authority. The result has been imperfect but better than permitting the warlords to retain their conventional military power, on the one hand, or risking violence by attempting to put them on trial, on the other.
Despite its success against the warlords, the international community failed to train enough new Afghan security forces or successfully contain the residual Taliban threat between 2001 and 2006. Early efforts to train Afghan police and reform the security sector had not achieved notable results by 2006. Washington had spent $4.4 billion on security assistance and had trained 36,000 soldiers and a comparable number of police officers in the first five years -- too few to provide effective security. The police, moreover, were widely reported to be corrupt and incompetent. At the same time, ISAF did not hold large swaths of territory or provide security to the vast majority of Afghans. Indeed, it did not have the mandate or the authorization to do so.
ISAF was relatively small in size, it was initially confined to Kabul, and it was hampered by restrictive rules of engagement and national caveats limiting where the soldiers were permitted to deploy or what kinds of operations they were allowed to engage in. (In 2003, the peacekeeping force had only 5,500 troops assigned to it.) Then, in 2005, ISAF was authorized to operate in the country's northern and western provinces, but it still numbered fewer than 10,000 troops, or four soldiers for every 10,000 Afghans (compared to approximately 42 soldiers per 10,000 civilians in the relatively successful UN-British operation in Sierra Leone in 2002).
The net effect of the international community's light involvement in the security sector, combined with the lack of progress on governance, became evident with the rise of the Taliban insurgency, beginning in 2005. The Taliban and other insurgents had initiated sporadic, uncoordinated attacks against international military forces and the Afghan government in the years following the Taliban's fall from power. Yet they averaged only about four attacks per day nationwide in 2003 and five per day in 2004. In July 2005, Taliban militants assassinated the pro-Western head of the Kandahar Ulema Shura -- a council of religious scholars -- and then suicide-bombed his funeral, the boldest terrorist attack in the country since 2001. The funeral attack dramatized the Taliban's lethal reach and resilience, the Afghan government's weakness and inability to respond, and ISAF's absence. Following the sudden revelation of the militants' unexpected strength, violence grew markedly worse in the latter half of 2005, increasing to over eight attacks per day and killing 1,268 people. The militants began to make persistent and notable strides in the scope, scale, and sophistication of their attacks. The violence began to escalate dramatically each year thereafter, killing 3,154 people in 2006 and 5,818 in 2007. By late 2005, what had begun as an incoherent and decentralized campaign of violence had gelled into a cohesive insurgency dedicated to eroding Western political will and overthrowing the Afghan government.
The Taliban were able to regroup and launch an insurgency because, effectively, nothing stood in their way. The Afghan government was still unable to offer services or resolve disputes, and there were too few international soldiers to secure the whole country. The state's institutional capacity remained weak, the rule of law was nonexistent, and the security services were still embryonic. "Weak governance is a common precondition of insurgencies," writes Jones, the Afghanistan expert; "Afghan insurgent groups took advantage of this anarchic situation."
Critics are right to argue that the rise of the insurgency is proof that the international state-building campaign had, as of 2006, failed to build a functioning Afghan state. But the intervention did not end in 2006. A U.S. National Security Council review of Afghan policy in late 2006 recognized the emerging challenges and called for substantially more security and development assistance. Following the review, U.S. funding for the Afghan security forces nearly quadrupled, from $1.9 billion in 2006 to $7.4 billion in 2007, and aggregate U.S. spending on security assistance increased fivefold. Starting in late 2007, entire district police units were sent to a training academy, and U.S. trainers were assigned to embed with each unit on graduation. In addition, the international community began experimenting with programs to enlist the aid of local, indigenous, and tribal security forces.
To staff the expanded training programs and provide security while the Afghan forces were coming up to speed, the United States more than quadrupled its military presence in Afghanistan between 2006 and 2010, from 22,100 troops to over 100,000 -- Washington's third-largest military deployment since Vietnam. Partner nations increased their troop deployments as well, from roughly 21,500 in early 2007 to 35,800 by the end of 2009. ISAF deployed nationwide in 2006, assuming responsibility for security assistance in the country's east and south for the first time. General Stanley McChrystal, who was then the commander of ISAF, also began in 2009 to change how U.S. and NATO troops were used. He sought to make the entirety of ISAF a part of the training and mentoring of the Afghan army and police and to focus on protecting the Afghan population. The moves collectively represented a huge shift in emphasis from a "light footprint" counterterrorism mission to a more robust, if still partial, counterinsurgency campaign. As a result, the United States nearly tripled the size of the Afghan army in three years, increasing it from 36,000 soldiers in 2006 to almost 100,000 by the end of 2009. It brought the Afghan police force up to its authorized strength of 82,000 and made incremental progress toward improving its capabilities.
Rising violence and the persistence of a Taliban safe haven in Pakistan have bred pessimism about the war and created a mystique about the resilience of the insurgency. Violence has indeed continued to escalate -- insurgents initiated an average of 19 attacks per day in 2007, almost 30 per day in 2008, and 52 per day from January to August of 2009 -- but the spike in violence is a predictable effect of sending more troops into battle; there are more targets for the insurgents to attack. What matters is not the scale of the violence but the outcome of the battle. While ISAF has made impressive strides in its practice of unconventional warfare, the Taliban have not. The Taliban are not invincible superwarriors hardened by millennia of fighting and xenophobia; indeed, they are hardly even very competent insurgents compared to Nepal's Maoists, Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers, or Colombia's FARC. They continue to espouse an unpopular extremist ideology and murder large numbers of fellow Pashtun Muslims. Meanwhile, Washington's rumored recent expansion of its drone strikes will erode their safe haven in Pakistan. The single greatest resource the United States now needs is not more troops but more time.
THE GOVERNANCE VACUUM
In one respect, the effort in Afghanistan has seriously faltered. The international community has largely stuck with a failing light-footprint approach toward Afghan governance and capacity development. Partly in reaction to the recent UN missions in Kosovo and East Timor, which were criticized for relying too heavily on experts from abroad, the UN secretary-general publicly and openly instructed UNAMA to "rely on as limited an international presence and on as many Afghan staff as possible." UN officials never considered whether the Afghans, whose human capital had been destroyed by war and depleted by emigration, were able to do the job.
Donors similarly neglected governance programs. They pledged a total of $1.2 billion for Afghan governance and rule-of-law programs between 2001 and 2006, or about $200 million per year, and only disbursed about half that amount. A substantial amount of this was dedicated to the 2004 and 2005 elections, leaving just a few hundred million dollars to train civil servants, judges, prosecutors, and lawyers; rebuild government offices and courthouses; and pay the international advisers and consultants to ministers and other government officials. Considering that Afghanistan was the weakest state in the world in 2001, these funds did not come close to meeting its needs. The international community was effectively asking Afghans with no shoes to lift themselves up by their bootstraps.
For example, a proposed Independent Administrative Reform and Civil Service Commission was supposed to lead efforts to streamline the bureaucracy, introduce a new pay and grade system, develop merit-based hiring and promotion criteria, and establish a civil service training institute. For this ambitious agenda, the Asian Development Bank gave $2.2 million starting in 2003, and the UN Development Program gave $500,000. A 2007 USAID review of capacity-development efforts in Afghanistan concluded that "capacity building has not been a primary objective of USAID projects" and that "what has occurred has been more ad hoc and 'spotty' rather than systematic and strategic." The review could identify only four ministries out of 25 that were "considered reasonably competent to carry out their primary responsibilities." The Afghan Research and Evaluation Unit, a nongovernmental organization, judged in late 2006 that public-administration reform had been "'cosmetic,' with superficial restructuring of ministries and an emphasis on higher pay rather than fundamental change." The Civil Service Commission did not open until January 2007, and after five years in power, the government could boast of only 7,500 civil servants hired under the new merit-based criteria in a government of 240,000 employees.
Similarly, the international community did not prioritize rebuilding the justice system or improving the rule of law. The U.S. Department of State's Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs and USAID did initiate a host of programs, but in practice they were too small to make a measurable difference in the worst justice system in the world. The Afghan government estimated that it would cost $600 million to implement its National Justice Sector Strategy, but donors had disbursed just $38 million in aid to the justice sector by the end of 2006. The UN secretary-general wrote that same year that "with approximately 1,500 judges and 2,000 prosecutors in the judicial system, demand for training far outstrips supply."
As a result of these shortcomings, Afghanistan ranked second worst in the world for the rule of law in 2006, after Somalia, according to the World Bank's governance indicators. Without the rule of law, corruption predictably exploded as the economy grew. As the political scientist Samuel Huntington noted long ago, modernization without strong institutions almost always yields corruption, and Afghanistan was no exception.
Corruption was increasingly fueled by the drug trade. The poppy crop had soared to 408,000 acres in 2006 and 477,000 in 2007, and Afghanistan was producing 82 percent of the world's poppy and 93 percent of the world's heroin by 2007, making the drug trade worth $4 billion -- equivalent to half of Afghanistan's licit GDP. Because the Afghan government lacked strong institutions and the ability to enforce the rule of law, Afghanistan was becoming a lawless and corrupt narcostate.
When the crisis in governance became apparent with the rise of the Taliban insurgency in 2005 and 2006, the international community moved to bolster its governance programs. In dollar terms, the international community roughly doubled its training efforts in the Afghan civil administration and justice sectors, to $688 million, over the next three years, still a paltry figure relative to Afghanistan's needs. In 2007, USAID started the Capacity Development Program, a $219 million, five-year project to strengthen Afghan institutions such as the Ministries of Finance and Education and the Civil Service Commission. The program was a big improvement but still small in absolute terms. U.S. spending on rule-of-law programs doubled from 2006 to 2007 and nearly doubled again in 2008. The United States also doubled its much more substantial investment in counternarcotics programs -- to $3.3 billion. The increased focus on governance and the rule of law spurred some institutional innovations in the Afghan government, but they have, to date, failed to markedly improve the quality of governance. Afghan President Hamid Karzai named an entirely new slate of justices to the Supreme Court in late 2006. The new court established a Regulation of Judicial Conduct, and the new justices began inspection tours of provincial courts to ensure their compliance with judicial standards. The Afghan government formed an anticorruption unit in the attorney general's office in 2009 to investigate and prosecute cases of high-level corruption, but Afghanistan fell further on Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index, to 179th -- second from the bottom -- in 2009. According to a survey conducted by ABC News, the BBC, and the German television station ARD, the number of Afghans who believed the government was doing an excellent or good job fell from 80 percent in 2005 to 49 percent in 2008 -- most likely because their great expectations of 2001 remained unfulfilled.
The international community paid an enormous opportunity cost by failing to play a greater role and provide sufficient resources from the start. Most observers of Afghan governance focus on Karzai's policies, behavior, and fitness for office. But any other Afghan president would face a nearly insurmountable challenge trying to enact policy through an institutional apparatus that, for all intents and purposes, does not function. Others have focused on how centralized or decentralized, institutionalized or tribalized, the Afghan government should be. But that argument is moot. The international community's interest is in making governance effective, whatever it looks like, and that is what the international community failed to invest in building after 2001.
THE ROAD TO VICTORY
The United States is not yet winning the war in Afghanistan, but it is not losing as swiftly or as thoroughly as the current crisis of confidence would suggest. Although Afghanistan remains poor, violent, and poorly governed, it is richer, freer, and safer than it has been in a generation. The security situation is a major challenge, but the United States and its allies have moved since 2006 to adopt a much more aggressive military posture in response -- and with the funding to match it.
The application of increased military resources and a coherent strategy almost certainly will have an effect on the Afghan battlefield if given enough time to succeed and backed by a complimentary civilian strategy. In particular, U.S. President Barack Obama should show the same flexibility toward his announced July 2011 withdrawal date that he showed toward his initial timeline for withdrawal from Iraq. He wisely announced that the withdrawal will only "begin" in July 2011, leaving open the door for a gradual and phased withdrawal. He should seize on that to give ISAF the time it needs, now that it finally, for the first time in nine years, has adequate resources.
The single greatest strategic threat is the weakness of the Afghan government. Efforts in recent years to increase the size and scope of governance-assistance efforts are a welcome gesture, but they are not enough. The Obama administration should push for a dramatically more ambitious capacity-development program, starting with a much larger civilian presence in the Afghan bureaucracy and court system. Washington should also recognize that it can choose to withdraw from Afghanistan quickly at high risk or slowly at low risk. The programs, budgets, and strategies that are now finally in place have only been operating for a few years; it is unlikely that there will be dramatic progress by July 2011. The Obama administration has calculated that some degree of withdrawal is necessary to pressure the Afghan government, but it should be wary lest a precipitous withdrawal lead to panic in Afghanistan, undoing a decade of careful gains.
If the international community had withdrawn from Afghanistan shortly after the initial round of elections in 2004-5, as it did in Cambodia, Haiti, and Liberia in the 1990s, the intervention would have failed. Governance had not improved, and most important, war had resumed. Remarkably, the international community did not seize on the completion of the Bonn process as a chance to declare victory and withdraw. Reflecting a realism and resilience evident in other recent operations -- such as in Sierra Leone in 2002 and Iraq in 2007 -- international actors recognized the emerging problems and attempted a midcourse correction. They did so in part because prior experiences in Afghanistan had demonstrated that success was possible. The same knowledge should help the United States and its partners overcome the current crisis of confidence.
The Afghan mission is still plagued with difficulties, in particular endemically weak institutions and a poor governance-assistance effort. But recent history has shown that, contrary to popular belief, outsiders can make a positive difference in Afghanistan if given the right time, resources, and leadership.