The war in Afghanistan is not going well; almost all trends are
moving in the wrong direction. But we still have time to focus, improve our
strategy, calibrate our means. It will help immeasurably if we keep in mind
the basic objective of U.S. policy: "Our primary goal is to prevent
Afghanistan from being used as a base for terrorists and extremists to
attack the United States and its allies," Defense Secretary Robert Gates
said last week. That is an admirably clear statement.
It is not that we don't have other goals -- education, female literacy,
centralized control of government services, drug eradication, liberal
democracy. But Afghanistan is one of the world's poorest and most war-torn
countries. At best, many of these objectives will be realized partially,
over very long periods, and they should not be measured as part of military
campaigns or political cycles. They are also goals not best achieved by
military force. The U.S. Army is being asked to do enough in Afghanistan.
Helping it to stay focused on a core mission is neither cramped nor
defeatist but realistic. Such a plan for success would have four steps,
each more complicated than the last.
Do counterinsurgency right. Despite David Petraeus's demonstrable
success in Iraq, U.S. forces in Afghanistan have, to this point, largely
relied on more old-fashioned tactics -- raids, search-and-destroy missions,
air attacks. The needed number of additional U.S. troops is not large.
Afghanistan is predominantly rural, with a limited number of large
population centers and roads requiring protection. And Gen. David
McKiernan, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has already begun to focus on
this approach. Between the addition of two to four U.S. brigades and a
ramp-up of the Afghan army, there should be enough troops to execute a
modified version of the new counterinsurgency strategy.
Make the Afghan government credible. The central government is widely
seen as weak, dysfunctional and utterly corrupt. Unfortunately, many of its
most corrupt elements are allies of the West and have thus gained a kind of
The most immediate way to enhance the legitimacy of the Afghan
government would be to ensure that presidential and local elections take
place this year without disruption and that viable alternative candidates
are free to campaign. But elections are only one form of political
legitimacy. There should be a much broader effort to reach out to tribal
leaders, hold local councils and build a more diverse base of support. The
goal should not be a strong central government -- Afghanistan is by nature
decentralized -- but a legitimate government with credibility and allies
throughout the country.
Talk to the Taliban. The United States is properly and unalterably
opposed to al-Qaeda. We have significant differences with the Taliban on
many issues -- democracy and the treatment of women being the most serious.
But we do not wage war on other Islamist groups with which we similarly
disagree (the Saudi monarchy, for example). Were elements of the Taliban to
abandon al-Qaeda, we would not have a pressing national security interest
in waging war against them.
In fact, there is a powerful military advantage to moving in this
direction. Al-Qaeda is a stateless organization that controls no territory
of its own; it can survive and thrive only with a host community. Our
objective should be to cut off al-Qaeda from its allies in Afghanistan and
Pakistan. Deprived of local support, al-Qaeda would be a much diminished
threat. It is true, of course, that some elements of the Taliban might be
closely wedded to al-Qaeda. But others are not.
Although the United States is in its seventh year of war in
Afghanistan, not one Afghan was involved at any significant level in the
Sept.11 attacks. All the plots that have been traced back to the region
lead not to Afghanistan but Pakistan.
Solve Pakistan. When the United States invaded Afghanistan, it did not
defeat al-Qaeda and its supporters among the Taliban. They simply fled to
Pakistan, their original home. Pakistan has long viewed the various Islamic
militias it created and helped fund -- including the Taliban -- as useful
weapons in its arsenal, low-cost ways to keep its historic foes, India and
Afghanistan, off balance. For Islamabad to genuinely renounce these groups
would require a fundamental strategic rethinking within the Pakistani
The civilian government in Pakistan, although weak and ineffective, is
allied with the international community on these issues. It, too, wants a
Pakistani military that knows its boundaries, does not run militant groups
and conceives of the country's national interests in less-confrontational
terms. I don't want to make this sound easy. It won't be. Of all the tasks
facing Petraeus, as head of U.S. Central Command, and newly appointed U.S.
special envoy Richard Holbrooke, this is the hardest. Yet if the problem
with Pakistan cannot be solved, the war in Afghanistan cannot be won.
The writer is editor of Newsweek International and co-host of PostGlobal,
an online discussion of international issues. His e-mail address is