The next president of Afghanistan faces the twin perils of a galvanized Taliban and an international community fast losing patience. But if the Afghan state is to succeed, patience will be a key factor. Unlike Iraq, where the civilizational foundation for a stable republic existed before the first U.S. boot touched ground, Afghanistan is nation building in its purest form. Security is but one part of a campaign that touches on agriculture, economic affairs, political corruption, civil infrastructure, and social policy. Most daunting, the answer to the question of which issue must first be tackled is: all of them.
And the pressure has never been greater. In the most recent Washington Post-ABC News poll, a majority of Americans have given up on our efforts in Afghanistan. Fifty-one percent of respondents are opposed to the war, with a striking forty-one percent strongly opposed. Support for the Afghanistan surge is an anemic twenty-four percent. Similar polls conducted in Britain, Germany, and Canada are even less encouraging.
Part of it is simply mission fatigue. Eight years on, the operation often appears moribund with little in the way of progress. Afghanistan has a forty percent unemployment rate and no economy to speak of. In opium poppy, many farmers have found salvation--a high-yield, high-profit crop. The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime peg Afghanistan's share of the global opium market at a staggering ninety percent, making opium to Afghanistan what oil is to Saudi Arabia. Such an agricultural success story is unlikely to bolster public opinion.
The policy of both ISAF and the Afghan government is the eradication of poppy fields (which would in turn eradicate one-third of the country's GDP). The United States, meanwhile, now bribes farmers to plant other crops. Short term thinking in a long-term commitment, it has the effect of wasting financial resources better used elsewhere, and ensnaring Afghans in a permanent farming-subsidy scheme. It takes little imagination to suppose what will happen the first time the U.S. misses a payment.
A far more sensible alternative exists. The International Council on Security and Development has proposed a Poppy for Medicine project, similar to a plan successfully implemented in Turkey in the 1960's. The goal would be to create local medicine factories to manufacture morphine from locally grown poppy, which would in turn be purchased by the central Afghan government and sold on the international market.
A success would fill the state's coffers, and go far in alleviating political corruption. It would also eliminate a lucrative profit center for the Taliban. But whatever course the next president of Afghanistan chooses, it is imperative that his nation is removed from the global illicit drug trade.
The issue of security is dispiriting when compared with the tremendous strides made by 2004. In an effort to regain lost ground, President Obama recently committed 17,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, with more to be deployed as our campaign in Iraq draws to a close. This "doubling down" is vital, but will only succeed with a renewed international commitment, and a serious conversation with the American public on what's at stake, and what victory will entail.
To be sure, bullets alone will not win the conflict. If that were the case, Afghanistan would already be the Switzerland of the East. The resurgence of the Taliban is in large measure a result of unfulfilled infrastructure commitments by the United States and ISAF. The failure to complete such projects as the Ring Road, village water wells, and schools was interpreted as a half-hearted loyalty. The certainty of a patient Taliban waiting in the wings versus the perceived fickle American presence weighs heavily on Afghan villagers.
It's also clear that the U.S. erred in turning over combat operations to NATO, which had reverted to a defensive footing and hesitated to eradicate Taliban enclaves. This gave the insurgency time to regroup and rebuild, and mount sophisticated attacks with aid from Pakistani and Iranian extremists.
While there is some debate as to the merits of a surge strategy in Afghanistan, more soldiers are certainly needed to provide security for the civil affairs mission. A young, educated, healthy populace will invariably result in a stronger economy, which will, in turn, facilitate modernization efforts several centuries overdue.
Progress in Afghanistan is measured in inches, though there are miles yet to travel. Some of the country's greatest successes are small in scale, but improve the quality of life for Afghan villagers. They also elevate the social standing of women, who only a decade ago were considered chattel and barred from schools and the public square on penalty of death.
One such undertaking is the Women's Poultry Project, a social and agricultural program designed to teach Afghan women to raise and care for chickens. In addition to providing food for their families, the chickens are also a source of profit on the open market. Twelve hundred families have benefitted from the program, with similar programs now in place for sheep and other livestock.
Such modest projects make a real impact on the Afghan people, but few tremors in the outside world. While they rarely rate the five o'clock news, they are critical in building a sustainable society. Indeed, Afghanistan seldom lends itself to easy coverage or major news events. Militarily, it is a war fought largely by special operations forces, whose missions are by default classified. (It is not uncommon for such soldiers there to begin conversations with the words, "I am not here.") In 2001, then-President Bush noted that the public should expect "dramatic strikes visible on TV and covert operations secret even in success." Eight years into the occupation, the war now leans decisively toward the latter, even more so under the command of General Stanley McChrystal, a Special Forces officer of thirty years. An inevitable consequence of this is a steady, up-ticking counter of U.S. and ISAF fatalities with little context for the flag-draped coffins.
I recall a conversation I once had with a senior noncommissioned officer only weeks into the invasion of Iraq. He said that there would never be another Normandy or Ia Drang or Iwo Jima, but rather soldiers killed in ones and twos, day after day. The United States military would never suffer a landed blow, he said, but a steady, patient squeeze. Until the successful surge of 2007, that's exactly what happened in Iraq, and public opinion never recovered. Instead of operations secret in success, it now seems that in Iraq we are witnessing an entire war secret in success.
Americans will accept casualties so long as they are meaningful. The next president of Afghanistan will need to demonstrate meaningful political successes to an already skeptical world. An Afghanistan that can stand on its own is years away. President Obama needs to know that it is a nation worth building. The next president of Afghanistan needs to show that it can be built.
D.B. Grady is a freelance writer and novelist. He served as a paratrooper with the Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force in Afghanistan from 2006 to 2007. He can be found at http://www.dbgrady.com.