From the beginning eight years ago, the United States has failed to commit the resources and attention needed in Afghanistan. Barack Obama campaigned on correcting that problem and moved last spring to do so as president. Now he is once again being asked by military commanders to boost the number of U.S. troops committed to the effort.
As someone who has long argued for a more concerted effort in Afghanistan, I have to confess to serious new doubts driven largely by the outcome of the recent Afghan elections. Those results revealed an Afghan people increasingly alienated from the government of Hamid Karzai, and a thoroughly corrupt Karzai government shamelessly willing to stuff thousands of ballot boxes in a transparent effort to keep itself in power.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of that problem. In a conventional war in which victory can be won through brute military power, a lack of host-government legitimacy would not necessarily be critical. But the strategy of U.S. commanders in Afghanistan, led by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, acknowledges that this is not a conventional war and that military power cannot win it. It is a political war in which the support and loyalty of the Afghan people will be the deciding factor.
And as McChrystal himself acknowledges in an assessment of the situation, “The weakness of state institutions, malign actions of power-brokers, widespread corruption and abuse of power by various officials, and ISAF’s own errors, have given Afghans little reason to support their government.”
So, in assessing the request for more troops, the most important question President Obama must ask of his commanders and advisers is this: How can the United States and its international allies succeed without a credible, legitimate Afghan government as a partner? How can we rally Afghan support for a government that does not deserve and doesn’t really even try to earn that support?
The counter-insurgency approach drafted by Gen. David Petraeus and now being implemented in Afghanistan suggests that without a host government with some degree of credibility and legitimacy, such a war cannot be won. In the unclassified version of his assessment, McChrystal acknowledges that the Afghan war is a war of ideas and perception, and “The key to changing perceptions lies in changing underlying truths.”
So how do we change the underlying truth that we are asking the Afghan people to support a government that they know and we know is not worthy of that support? How can a counterinsurgency strategy overcome that fundamental problem?
And if it can’t, what can still more U.S. troops really accomplish?