Center for American Progress

The Forgotten Mission in Afghanistan Can Succeed. Here’s How.

The Forgotten Mission in Afghanistan Can Succeed. Here’s How.

Larry Korb and Caroline Wadhams detail why the United States needs to turn its attention back to the central front in the war against terrorist networks, and how to do so.

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Sunday, October 7, 2007, marks the sixth anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan to oust the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Six years later, the situation looks bleak. Afghanistan faces a growing insurgency that directly threatens its stability and the national security interests of the United States and its allies. The Taliban and Al Qaeda have regrouped in the borderlands of Pakistan and Afghanistan and support the Afghan insurgency while strengthening their own capabilities. While Iraq has been portrayed as the central front of the “Global War on Terror” by the Bush administration, Afghanistan and the borderlands of Pakistan have and will remain the central battlefield.

The United States must achieve two objectives in Afghanistan:

  1. Deny sanctuary to Al Qaeda and its affiliates.
  2. Build a stable secure nation that is not threatened by internal conflict.

This mission can succeed.

Afghanistan is not Iraq. Here’s why:

a) Afghanistan has a legitimate government that is representative of its people. The majority of Afghan citizens are still supportive of Afghan President Karzai’s leadership.

b) The United States is not alone in Afghanistan. The United Nations and NATO-ISAF (made up of 37 countries) contributes to the mission. The International Security Assistance Force provides almost half of the troops to the mission.

c) The Afghan security forces are loyal to the Afghan government and not to a specific sectarian group, and sectarian strife is not dividing the country.

d) Polling of the Afghan people shows support for an international troop presence and little support for the Taliban.

Violence has returned to 2001 levels and opium production is up.

  • The Taliban and Al Qaeda have regrouped in the borderlands of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
  • The U.N. reported a nearly 30 percent increase in violence since last year, averaging 550 violent incidents a month, up from an average of 425 in 2006.
  • Tactics such as suicide bombings and improvised explosive devices, which were never seen before 2001 in Afghanistan, are being used with increasing frequency.
  • More than 750 civilians have been killed in 2007 alone.
  • Opium production has hit all-time highs. Afghanistan is producing 93 percent of the world’s opium. Narcotics account for an estimated $3.1 billion, one-third of Afghanistan’s total GDP. Funding from the opium trade is providing salaries and weapons for insurgents fighting against U.S. and NATO forces.

To achieve our security objectives in Afghanistan and the region, the United States must change its current approach and provide increased funds, attention, and manpower—both civilian and military—to the mission. The following measures should be taken:


Increase international troop levels and equipment.

  • Increase international troop levels by 20,000 and provide additional equipment. The United States should redeploy troops from Iraq to Afghanistan, and NATO member countries should provide additional troops without caveats. These should include Special Forces, as well as translators, trainers, and civilian affairs forces and be backed up with sufficient equipment and airlift.
  • Focus on reducing civilian casualties, and improve the international community’s response when they tragically occur.
  • Provide greater oversight and training for the Afghan National Army, or ANA, and increase ANA’s salaries.
  • Unify NATO’s International Security Assistance Force and the U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom under one NATO command.

Augment reconstruction assistance and support a Special Inspector General.

  • Support the creation of a Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, to provide needed oversight over U.S. funds.
  • Improve reconstruction coordination among the Afghan government and the international community while placing the Afghan government in the lead.
  • Increase assistance for reconstruction and development projects by at least $1 billion, including a focus on projects that create local employment opportunities.
  • Improve Provincial Reconstruction Teams by improving coordination and adding more civilians.

Change U.S. counternarcotics strategy.

  • Better coordinate U.S. counternarcotics strategy with the Afghan government and the international community and embed counternarcotics within the larger plan to bolster governance and combat the insurgency.
  • Take aerial eradication off the table for now. Make clear that traffickers, not farmers, are the problem.
  • Target higher-end actors in the drug trade through prosecuting key drug leaders and increasing interdiction.
  • Increase Alternative Livelihood Programs in all provinces and commit to assisting with these programs for the long-term.

Address the insurgency’s safe haven in Pakistan.

  • Pressure Musharraf to conduct more intelligence collection in the border areas of Pakistan and crack down on Al Qaeda and Taliban’s sanctuaries.
  • Alter U.S. assistance to Pakistan through increasing transparency around its use and steering aid away from conventional military expenditures (such as advanced combat aircraft) toward counterterrorism assistance and economic development. Allocate more funding to education and youth projects, such as exchange programs.
  • Increase support for greater regional diplomacy among the governments of India, Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.

Strengthen rule of law and the capacity of the Afghan government.

  • Support the creation of a judicial sector strategy for addressing the absence of the rule of law in Afghanistan.
  • Address corruption through the development of a national anti-corruption strategy and increased vetting of senior officials.
  • Increase rule of law through the reform of the Ministry of Interior and the Afghan National Police. Afghan National Police salaries should also be raised.
  • Create pockets of competence within the Afghan government through more training of individuals within the government.

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Caroline Wadhams

Senior Fellow

Lawrence J. Korb

Senior Fellow