Lurching Toward Disaster in Afghanistan

We are rapidly lurching toward disaster in Afghanistan. We’re on the brink of losing the country, not to mention the lives of some of our finest young men and women.

Between the spring of 2002 and 2006, I saw nothing but progress. Afghanistan never would be Switzerland, but it was on the road to becoming a normal developing country.

But from last year to this, we have made the wrong choice at a number of junctions.

First, we allowed a fraudulent election to occur. Worse, we allowed Abdullah Abdullah to think we did not back his candidacy, pushing him to withdraw from the runoff he had earned. Under Mr. Abdullah, Afghanistan would have had a chance for a fresh start.

Many said that Mr. Abdullah, as a non-Pashtun, couldn’t rule Afghanistan. Well, they used to say a non-Sunni couldn’t rule Iraq. Non-Pashtuns are 60% of the Afghan people. It’s time one of them had a chance to rule.

In his State of the Union address, President Obama claimed, “We will reward good governance, reduce corruption, and support the rights of all Afghans—men and women alike.” Starting when?

A second mistake was when Mr. Obama decided that sending more troops was the answer but spent little time figuring out what these troops were supposed to do. Are security problems best addressed through military action, or could we accomplish more with tribal leverage and improved governance? This remains unexplored.

A third problem is that the timetable laid out by Mr. Obama and Gen. Stanley McChrystal ignores the clear unreadiness of the Afghan National Army (ANA) to take over security responsibilities. The commanders I’ve talked with in Southern Afghanistan estimate that it will take at least three years for the ANA to fly solo, and longer for the police. So why is Mr. Obama still referring to July 2011 as the date the ANA can take over?

A fourth mistake: Last week, we caved in to the Pakistanis yet again. We pledged to give them aid and even drones, even as they say they’re not mounting any more assaults on the Taliban in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas this year.

Fifth, and worst, Gen. McChrystal seems to be doing his best to hearten the insurgency and dismay Afghan progressives. Our commanding general told the Financial Times last week that the point of the surge was to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, rather than clearing and holding insurgent-ridden areas of Afghanistan.

Gen. McChrystal gets it wrong on other issues. He envisions Pakistan—a country that provides sanctuary to the Taliban—as a facilitator of talks, though most Afghans believe Pakistan is trying to destabilize their country. He imagines the United Arab Emirates or Saudi Arabia—both the source of dubious charities that fund the insurgency—as venues for the talks. And he remarks that insurgent leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar is “most likely to cut a deal,” noting that he is a “former prime minister.”

Hekmatyar is better known as a psychopath who began his political career by throwing acid in the faces of female students when he attended Kabul University in the 1970s. He’s on our list of international terrorists and should be captured or killed—not negotiated with.

Happily, some officials see the situation for what it is, as shown by the recently leaked November cables from U.S. Ambassador (and retired Lt. Gen.) Karl Eikenberry to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In his Nov. 6 and 10 cables, Mr. Eikenberry wrote: “More troops won’t end the insurgency as long as Pakistan sanctuaries remain.” I was told in November by Lt. Col. Dave Oclander, a battalion commander of the 82nd Airborne in Zabul province, that about a third of the insurgents are in Pakistan on R&R at any given time—a luxury our troops and the ANA don’t have.

The ambassador suggested that the administration invest in development (electricity, water and education) and governance, since they are a direct path to stabilizing the country. He deplored “further militarization of our effort, instead of civilianization and Afghanization which are our real aims.”

When the American Embassy requested $2.5 billion for the budget for development and governance last summer, the request was rejected. But the surge will cost perhaps 10 or 20 times that much annually, without building a government Afghans can trust. Why should we send 30,000 more Americans to hand over the country to its worst elements?

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