Thursday, January 14, 2010

Recent reports seem to indicate that U.S. officials are optimistic about improvements in Afghanistan since President Obama announced his "surge." Unfortunately, any gains in security are ephemeral. More American troops acting intelligently can provide short-term security, but the long-term prospects are dependent on the powers in Kabul. And they are less promising.

Hamid Karzai is running an illegitimate and corrupt government, and unless major changes are made the U.S. is powerless to prevent the further deterioration of Afghanistan.

The issue is getting some notice, but all too many pundits are perfectly willing to minimize and overlook its importance. While most do acknowledge the Karzai problem, they are quick to emphasize the adaptability, intelligence, and courage of American troops as the decisive factors. They are right to emphasize those traits - the U.S. military is adaptable, intelligent, and courageous, and has achieved far more in Iraq and Afghanistan than anyone could reasonably have expected. But the underlying assumption is that if we just keep working hard and resist the urge to quit we can overcome all obstacles and be successful in Afghanistan. And that assumption simply isn't true. As long as there is no legitimate Afghan government there is nothing we can do. No improved strategy or increase in troop levels can do more than stem the bleeding. It's not a matter of COIN vs. counter-terrorism; that tactical argument misses the point.

An occupying military force is limited in what it can achieve. Defeating the Taliban requires a political, not military, approach; and foreign troops cannot be a sufficient political force. Creating a government in Afghanistan is not a simple task, and it is unreasonable to expect it be competent and capable after only a few short years. It is not unreasonable to expect that a government, even a weak and feeble one, can and should be working to get better. The Karzai government is not. Corruption is rampant and worsening and the Afghan people are showing less and less faith. Instead of using the security that the U.S. has provided in many provinces to speed development and demonstrate the modernity and prosperity that the Taliban are fighting against, Karzai has appointed drug smugglers, war criminals, and inept cronies to positions of power. Unsurprisingly, aid money has been siphoned away and even the areas of Afghanistan where the Taliban are not active show little progress.

We can rearrange deck chairs all we like, but without a legitimate partner in government the U.S. is powerless to change the direction of Afghanistan. If Karzai is unwilling to make changes, and he has given no indication of adapting, President Obama has no choice but to withdraw the troops. Yes, the results will be bad. The Taliban will gain ground, harbor terrorists, impose draconian laws and oppress women. The fallacy is believing we have the power to avert that outcome. It's not Washington that matters - it's Kabul.

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