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A “Downward Spiral” in Afghanistan

The U.S. intelligence community is currently in the process of producing a National Intelligence Estimate report on Afghanistan warning that the country is in a “downward spiral,” reports today’s New York Times. The NIE also “casts serious doubt on the ability of the Afghan government to stem the rise in the Taliban’s influence there.”

The NIE report is only the latest in a series of pessimistic assessments of the situation in Afghanistan by American military and intelligence professionals and our allies. Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated in September that he is not “convinced we are winning it in Afghanistan.” Today, he told reporters that “the trends across the board are not going in the right direction … and I would anticipate next year would be a tougher year.”

General David Petraeus, the incoming CENTCOM chief, has made similar statements, saying that the U.S. strategy has been headed in the “wrong direction.” An even more dire assessment comes from the British Ambassador to Afghanistan, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, who French diplomatic cables quote as saying that the American mission in Afghanistan is “doomed” to fail, although the British Foreign Ministry disclaimed that report.

All of these bleak reports on current conditions in Afghanistan confirm that the current U.S. strategy in Afghanistan is desperately off-course and suffering from a lack of resources, policymaker attention, and clear, presidential-level direction. The U.S. government appears to be recognizing finally that something needs to change, despite mounting evidence over the last two years that the Taliban is resurgent, violence is growing, the Afghan government is weak and corrupt, and the Afghan people are growing increasingly disillusioned. The NIE report, which will not be completed until after the election, complements several reviews of U.S. strategy currently underway, as the White House, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Gen. Petraeus all attempt to reassess the long-neglected international effort there.

Afghanistan’s insurgency now consists of factions from the original Afghan Taliban, Al Qaeda, the network of Jalaluddin Haqqani, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami, and other militant groups who operate from safe havens in Pakistan. To counter these threats, Gen. David McKiernan, the leader of the NATO International Security Assistance Forces and recently appointed commander of U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, has requested three additional combat brigades. That request would add 15,000 more U.S. troops to the 33,000 currently serving in the country under either direct American or NATO command. In September, President George W. Bush announced the deployment of 4,500 more soldiers and Marines, who will arrive in January. Despite McKiernan’s requests, 14 U.S. brigades are still committed to be in Iraq at the end of January, tying up American military resources and leaving Afghanistan undermanned despite the administration’s new urgency.

A request for increased troop levels is often used as shorthand in the current U.S. political debate for a greater commitment to getting Afghanistan right. Yet it is critical to note, as Gen. McKiernan and others have, that “ultimately the solution in Afghanistan is going to be a political solution, not a military solution.” Decreasing corruption in the Afghan government and working to improve the capacity of Afghan political institutions to exercise control over their territories and provide basic services of government to the Afghan people will be essential to weakening the insurgency.

Some form of negotiations with reconcilable elements of the Taliban will be necessary as well, as recently advocated by the Afghan government, General Petraeus, the UN envoy to Afghanistan, Kai Eide, and other Western diplomats. Recent reports have suggested the Afghan government is pursuing such talks under the auspices of the Saudi Arabian king. But spokesmen for Taliban leader Mullah Omar have denied any participation, and it’s unclear if the Taliban interlocutors who were present in Riyadh have the power to speak for any of the major elements of the insurgency.

The international community needs to improve its coordination and create a unified strategy with clear objectives and timelines. For too long, numerous countries and organizations in Afghanistan have been working at cross-purposes, and no one has been in charge. Training effective local Afghan security forces—most critically, police—curtailing opium production while creating alternative livelihoods, and addressing the safehaven for insurgents in Pakistan will also be essential elements of a successful strategy.

The future of the NATO alliance, the stability of the broader region, and the American counterterrorism effort against Al Qaeda all depend on the effort in Afghanistan (as well as Pakistan). For this reason, the current administration and the next must focus all elements of American power on creating a counterinsurgency strategy to address Afghanistan’s slide into instability.

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