After years of neglect, Afghanistan is finally getting the attention it requires. But seven years after President George W. Bush gave a rosy outlook on Afghanistan before abandoning it for Iraq, the cost of both success and failure have risen tremendously as we have solidified a reputation that the Taliban and Al Qaeda propagandists invoke without much effort.
In a few hours, President Obama will announce his strategy for Afghanistan. Undoubtedly, the cacophony of responses will include recycled sound bites from the media, pundits, Congress and others who eager assert their own vision of the past (often selective and revisionist) and the future. But so much of the commentary to date has been shallow and ignorant of the struggle we are engaged in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere that it is not surprising that American public’s support for the mission in Southeast Asia is faltering. This decline is surely to the delight of Al Qaeda and the Taliban who understanding the struggle for minds to affect the will to act: it directs his operations while our failure to “get it” has greatly empowered him.
Debates over the way forward continue to be dominated by either-or propositions: should the US proceed with a counterinsurgency strategy (COIN) or a counterterrorism strategy (CT)? The former has become code for a population-centric approach and the latter for kill-or-capture of terrorist leaders. This binary choice is indicative of the oversimplification of the problem. Both must be pursued as well as more.
Exclusive focus on kill or capture is to practice terrorism mitigation and suppression. It will not eliminate a threat that, according to the CIA, drew $100 million in outside donations this year. It will not eliminate recruitment driven by false propaganda, lack of options, personal grievance, or criminal behavior. It is necessary to raise the costs of participating in terrorism and insurgency but alternatives options must be created, promoted, and supported by the people themselves, who may reside locally or beyond the region.
An enduring solution – and not one that simply allows for a short-sighted exit – requires an integrated approach to bolster morale and hope locally and globally and develop the physical and functional institutions of society, including schools, commerce, and a culture of lawfulness. This is a deeply psychological approach and one that truly counters the enemy. This is a combination of public diplomacy, public affairs, and information operations in Afghanistan, the region and around the world, including the US. But too little attention has been placed on this “dirty” psychological domain as we have failed miserably over the years to build local confidence by our deeds. The Taliban have an expression too often reinforced by us: the Americans have the watches but we have the time. We come and go while the Taliban setup shadow governments and intimidate villages by asking: Who will be here tomorrow? The answer must stop being the Taliban or Al Qaeda.
The enemy campaigns against the opportunities we create through lies, threats, and attacks. They are adept at influence operations. We must become pre-actively engaged against enemy propaganda and undermine the power over the people that is based in both fear of the Taliban and the outsiders. The Taliban are outsiders as well and we have done too little to emphasize that. Like most of the enemies’ propaganda, we accept their premise and counter facts on their terms and their timeline. We know what they will say, where they will say, and how they will say it and yet continue to struggle against our institutional friction – like declassifying video and acknowledge that perceptions often shape the battlefield more than flying metal. We fall prey to their propaganda games of turning fighters to unarmed civilians just as much as we have alienated the population – the latter is fortunately a trend we have begun to reverse. How many Taliban or Al Qaeda supporters, or fence sitters, in Afghanistan and elsewhere know they rape women and men, engage in violent criminal behavior, ignore the religion they profess to protect, kidnap and other illustrious activities they themselves document? We have treated the Afghani people as interferences in our efforts when really they are the fulcrum.
A successful strategy must empower the Afghan people against their oppressors. This means providing assistance directed “against hunger, poverty, desperation, and chaos” in order to “permit the emergence of political and social conditions in which free institutions can exist” without which “there can be no political stability and no assured peace.” Success pivoted on whether the locals felt self-empowered and secure. Its value lay “not so much in its direct economic effects, which are difficult to calculate with any degree of accuracy, as in its psychological political by-products.” These statements, originally from 1947 by George C. Marshall and George Kennan, are timeless and just as applicable today to Afghanistan.
The “psychological political by-products” of direct ownership of the future must be based on shared visions of the future. There are signs such a bottom up approach would succeed in Afghanistan. The National Solidarity Program, for example, is a community driven development effort where locals contribute capital, labor, and materials. The Taliban do not target these projects because of the local ownership knowing that it would cause an unmanageable backlash. Instead of envisioning Afghanistan like post-war Germany, as many have, we should compare it to post-war Europe as Afghanistan is the most decentralized “country” on the planet.
Is 30,000 troops adequate to increase security so the organic (if assisted) development of the culture of lawfulness, commerce, and peace can take hold? I can’t answer that. I am concerned that General Stanley McChrystal’s report put the information war in Appendix D when it should have been on page one. But if we approach the solution as part of a psychological war to create a bulwark against the enemy and empower the Afghan people (and by extension Pakistanis), history shows we can success, but only if we must commit ourselves fully to supporting the people. This includes unselfish (if superficially) acts that follow through on previous promises.
Success requires a commitment of time and resources. It also requires undoing years of minimal effort that has sapped local morale and undermined credibility and trust in our mission. A lot of time has been wasted and after eight years – enough time for TWO Marshall Plans – it is understandable that patience in the US and our allies has worn thin, but that is not the fault of this Administration, senior leadership at the Defense Department, or even many in Congress. To pull back would be a propaganda coup for the enemy and embolden them, increasing the security risk to the region and the West.