Monday, September 14, 2009

waging peace in afghanistan.

an op-ed i wrote on afghanistan...

Waging Peace in Afghanistan

When it comes to winning the peace, the U.S. doesn’t have the best record, and when it comes to learning foreign policy lessons, the U.S. seems to have a steep learning curve. When major combat operations are over, the conflict is in many ways just beginning. The U.S. may not have learned the hard way, but America certainly found out the hard way after the 1980’s effort to supply the mujahideen in Afghanistan. Despite the frustration of many involved, the U.S. turned its back on the reconstruction after it drove the Soviets from Afghanistan, and left a vacuum that was occupied by the most brutal of the rebels, the Taliban.

After the blowback from a forgotten Afghanistan hit the U.S. on September 11th, 2001, one might think military planners would realize that military victory is only a means to an ultimately political end. It is in the U.S.’s interests to see a secure, democratic, and prosperous Afghanistan. However when the U.S. first invaded Afghanistan a month after September 11th, it had a troop commitment of only 1,300. When the Taliban fell, there were only 2,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Though Afghanistan is a very different story than Iraq, the biggest mistake was similar.

The U.S.’s erroneous beliefs concerning the Iraq War’s immediate aftermath established a poor start for its most ambitious nation-building endeavor since World War II. Blind faith in the now defunct opinions of Iraqi exiles, who assured US officials that they would be “greeted as liberators,” caused them to neglect the need for a post war plan to maintain order following the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime. In what has been called a “catastrophic victory,” the U.S. was so focused on and so good at winning the war that it had forgotten about and wasn’t ready for winning the peace.

In the absence of a plan to win the peace, Iraq was a power vacuum. Scenes of chaos and looting filled the airwaves. The basic functions of the now absent state, such as protection of property, were opportunistically undertaken by Iraqi opposition groups, greatly consolidating their power. Unconcerned with and often openly hostile to U.S. interests, these groups found themselves in firm command and control of enclaves within Iraq to an extent rivaling the control of the U.S., CPA, and eventually the new Iraqi government.

Luckily the tide turned when General Petraeus took over. General Petraeus understands that victory in Iraq is not only a military challenge, and he inspired his soldiers by asking “What have you done for the people of Iraq today?” It is a good sign for Afghanistan that the similarly perceptive General Stanley McChrystal has assumed command there. He works closely with Karl Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, and is concerned with the well-being of the Afghan people. And it doesn’t hurt that he is an expert in counter-insurgency and special operations.

Today there are about 63,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, more than double the previous year’s amount as part of President Obama’s escalation strategy, but more may be needed. If one follows the polls, it seems war weariness is on the rise just as a torrent of other issues is overshadowing Afghanistan, but now is a critical time for Afghanistan and it is important America doesn’t repeat the mistakes of the past and let Afghanistan go adrift. As the memory of another September 11th anniversary fades, don’t forget the importance of Afghanistan, historically and presently. As I once argued for the President and Congress to give Petraeus all the resources he needed in Iraq, it is now time to give McChrystal all the resources he needs in Afghanistan.