General Wesley Clark: War in Afghanistan isn't about "military; it's political and economic"

September 29th, 2006

What We Must Do Now

Success is possible. But make no mistake. We are not winning.

By Wesley K. Clark
Newsweek International

Oct. 2, 2006 issue – In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, U.S. forces achieved a rapid, high-tech victory over Afghanistan's terrorist-supporting Taliban government. Five years later, the Taliban is back. But this is a different fight. Not only Afghanistan but NATO itself is at risk.

Fingers are pointing. Washington didn't commit enough forces.

The Europeans are too timid. The central government is weak. All that might be true. But the real problem grows out of how the United States defined its mission to begin with. That was to strike the Taliban but not get stuck in Afghanistan. We don't do “nation-building,” American leaders declared, as if that were something to be proud of. Besides, the troops would soon be needed in Iraq.

The fact is that Afghanistan was a tribal country savaged by 20 years of war and further brutalized by the fundamentalist Taliban. Its infrastructure, educational system, agriculture–all was gone. With the Taliban in retreat, traditional warlords reestablished themselves. Vital political and economic assistance never arrived. Neither did a sufficiently strong international security force. Instead, a few thousand U.S. troops were inserted to pursue the remnants of the Taliban and Al Qaeda. The government of Hamid Karzai, pieced together, was never able to extend its reach much outside Kabul. The results today are a mockery of early optimism. Despite the presence of almost 40,000 NATO troops, security has worsened. Opium has again become a major business, infrastructure redevelopment lags, schools remain closed–and across great swathes of the country the Taliban is resurgent.

It's not as though NATO forces are incapable of fighting the insurgents. By body-count and loss ratios they're doing well, using heavy firepower to clobber the Taliban wherever fighters mass in conventional battle. But the real war isn't military; it's political and economic. Destroying a few Taliban units here and there certainly retards their goal of regaining full control of the country. But it doesn't provide what's essential: continuous security and the chance for political and economic redevelopment to take hold. Ultimately, that's the only thing that can defeat the Taliban. Meanwhile, NATO's own credibility is on the line–yet it hasn't deployed the political, economic and military resources to win.

The Taliban know this. Until fairly recently, they stayed largely underground. Now that they have begun to surface, Afghanistan's security has worsened. Having squandered initial opportunities, the Karzai government and its international backers now face a long-term struggle against an indigenous guerrilla force with substantial financial resources from opium production at home and “charity” from abroad-not to mention a reasonably secure cross-border sanctuary in Pakistan. With a resurgent Taliban, all political and economic development is more difficult today than it would have been right after they were originally dispersed, and military requirements are more demanding. NATO has supplemented U.S. forces, but without demanding from the United States a winning political and military strategy.

All of this is a far cry from the lessons NATO and the United States gleaned from their successful peacekeeping operations in the Balkans. There we learned that we needed strong legal authorities, overwhelming military power, a comprehensive political and economic plan and close coordination with a high representative or special representative for the U.N. secretary-general to link nation-building activities on the ground with our military security operations. We put more than 40,000 troops into tiny Kosovo in 1999, with one tenth the population and one sixtieth the area of Afghanistan. In Bosnia, we had an international donors organization that measured progress and held contributing nations accountable. We knew that if the political-economic mission failed, NATO would fail. And we were determined not to fail.

The mission in Afghanistan is far larger, more distant and more difficult. And make no mistake: we are not winning. Instead, we are at a crossroads. If we persist in failing to face up to the profound economic and political requirements, if we neglect the need for strong coordination, if we think the mission is only about counterterrorism or counterdrug operations, then we will lose. In order to succeed we must adopt some of the lessons and practices we put in place so painfully in the Balkans. We must acknowledge the magnitude of the task and pull in the full authority of the international community. NATO can do much more than just supply troops. We need to acknowledge that, yes, we do nation-building.

Success is still possible. But if we don't take the right measures now, the Karzai government may well collapse and NATO will be severely damaged. This would have long-lasting and worldwide repercussions.

General Clark, former Supreme Commander of NATO and a 2004 U.S. presidential candidate, teaches at the Burkle Center for International Relations at UCLA.

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