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CAP Event Proposes a New Strategy for Afghanistan

The Bush administration’s lackluster interest in Afghanistan has led to a steady loss of ground on the primary front in fighting terrorism.

The Center for American Progress held a forum yesterday to discuss “The Forgotten Front,” a new report from CAP Senior Policy Analyst Caroline Wadhams and Senior Vice President Lawrence Korb. They were joined by James Dobbins, President Bush’s representative to the Afghan opposition post-Sept. 11, and J. Alexander Thier, senior advisor in the Rule of Law program at the U.S. Institute for Peace to discuss a new strategic direction for the United States in Afghanistan.

Since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the United States has put its policy toward Afghanistan on autopilot and has not adapted quickly enough to changing dynamics on the ground. The U.S. government has not provided adequate funds and troop levels and has not sufficiently focused on state-building efforts and counterinsurgency strategy.

Now, six years into the Afghan conflict, the United States is paying for its neglect and misguided policies. Afghanistan has become unstable and more violent, with an upswing in suicide bombings. The country now supplies 93 percent of the world’s opium, and many drug traffickers have infiltrated the Karzai government.

The Taliban is rearming and capturing territory as the central government fails to establish itself outside the capital of Kabul. Al Qaeda and the Taliban are gaining strength comparable to pre-Sept. 11 levels, finding refuge in the border areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan. What’s worse, the Afghan people, who have largely supported the international troop presence and President Karzai are becoming disenchanted with the rebuilding process and the Afghan government.

How did the situation end up here? Afghanistan began as a model of international collaboration. The United States, working with a 37-nation coalition, helped to establish a representative, popularly-elected government just a few months after the Taliban’s fall. However, since that initial success, the mission has faltered due to a lack of coordination in the international mission, an inadequate international troop presence, a shortage of funding for long-term institution building, and a critical failure to fully engage and attend to the emerging problems of the country and region.

The United States should work to strengthen the capacity of the Afghan government to provide rule of law and basic services by supporting efforts to curtail corruption and reforming the Ministry of Interior and the Afghan police force; increase security by unifying NATO-ISAF and U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom under one NATO command and bringing in more international troops; work to reduce opium production by focusing on drug traffickers rather than eradicating farmers’ crops; and jumpstart reconstruction by increasing funding (contingent on increased accountability and transparency of U.S. funds), involving the Afghan government, reforming the Provincial Reconstruction Teams, and providing more assistance on the local level.

“There is a window open but it’s not going to remain open forever,” Korb said. “You got to move and move quickly.” He estimates U.S. involvement in the country needs to extend upwards of a decade in order to fully complete its mission.

Yet, from the beginning, the United States has shown little interest in long-term rebuilding. At an international donor meeting shortly after the invasion, the United States offered $290 million toward the $5 billion total pledged to rebuilding Afghanistan. This represented 5 percent of the total, Dobbins said. Iran pledged twice as much, he added.

The amount of U.S. assistance in Bosnia and Kosovo was 10 to 15 times higher during the initial periods. Per capita, the number of international peacekeepers compared with population size was also 50 times greater in Bosnia and Kosovo than Afghanistan. “What you get,” Dobbins said, “is low levels of economic growth and security.”

Current surges in troops and a renewed commitment to Afghanistan cannot easily erase the hold already achieved by insurgent forces and terrorists. There are now five times the number of troops on the ground in Afghanistan as there were in 2002, said Dobbins. Yet the threat of insurgency is now strong. Had those troops been present at those levels before the Taliban had time to rearm, the rural population would have been more likely to remain loyal to their government, cutting off strong support for the terrorist’s growth, he said. A successful diplomatic effort will be more difficult in 2007 or 2008, Dobbins said.

A tendency to reflect on missed opportunities is tempting, but there are reasons for hope in Afghanistan, and a need for renewed support for the mission by the international community.

“There is the beginning of institutional development,” and members of opposition groups that once resorted to violence now seek political office and debate constitutional issues, Thier said. Although the U.S. mission in Afghanistan has become confused in the public perception with the war in Iraq, there is a consensus that true change can come in the country, said Thier, if the proper changes are made. After 30 years of war, Afghans are leery of government, and an effort to rebuild must keep that in mind.

The United States should reengage with the Afghan people, the Karzai government, and countries like Iran and Pakistan that play strategic roles in Afghanistan’s future.

If the strategic drift in Afghanistan is not corrected, the United States will be the second major power to fail in the country, Korb said. “The consequences of not prevailing in Afghanistan are very great.”

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