As the troubling implications of the botched Afghan elections become more clear, Obama administration officials have begun to cite with increasing frequency the lack of a credible indigenous “partner” government in Afghanistan as the primary challenge in determining a new strategy for the country. The implication is that without a legitimate regime to support, a comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign would be an exercise in futility. Sen. John Kerry took this argument one step further, suggesting that “even the further fulfillment of our mission that’s here [in Afghanistan] today” has been jeopardized by the marred elections.
Last week John Nagl and Richard Fontaine of the Center for a New American Security provided an excellent rebuttal to such arguments, pointing to the chaotic domestic political environment in Iraq prior to the adoption of the successful U.S. troop surge and COIN campaign in 2007. In the case of Afghanistan, they draw an important distinction between perceptions of illegitimacy on the national level, and broader dissatisfaction among the Afghan population with local injustices, rightly concluding that “our main goal should be helping the Afghan government work at the local level — providing the marginal but tangible improvements in security, governance and prosperity that ordinary Afghans say they want, and stopping the corruption and abuses they personally contend with and resent.”
Developing and sustaining credibility among the Afghan population was one of the key themes of Gen Stanley McChrystal’s strategic assessment, and he acknowledges that unless the United States takes steps to address the rampant local-level corruption throughout the country, the U.S./ISAF forces risk appearing complicit-and thus losing the population’s trust, the primary objective of the campaign.
Security, however, remains the primary concern of the population. In his recent profile of Gen. McChrystal, Dexter Filkins describes Aghans saying exactly this: “We need security. Security first, then the other things will be possible.” Thus is seems clear that that we stand a greater chance of losing credibility among the Afghan people not by appearing to support an illegitimate national government, but by failing to make good on our local security commitments. As Admiral Mike Mullen noted in his recent remarks here at AEI, the most common question he receives from Afghans is “Are you staying this time, or are you leaving?” Our commanders on the ground consistently report similar experiences. Although President Obama has ruled out the possibility of a withdrawal from Afghanistan, questions remain as to whether he will sufficiently resource a population-centric security strategy. And the apparent importance being placed by the administration on ensuring the legitimacy of the Afghan national government before setting a new U.S. strategy for the country suggests that the president is looking through the wrong end of the telescope.
In an article this weekend, House Armed Services Committee chairman Ike Skelton and Senate Homeland Security Committee chairman Joseph Lieberman outlined the logic that should drive our strategy in the country:
“If we can roll back the Taliban and establish basic security in key population centers, as a properly resourced counterinsurgency will allow us to do, it will put us in a position of far greater strength and credibility from which to convince Afghans and others throughout the region that it is in their interest and worth the risk to work with us.”
In short, “security first, then other things will be possible”–locally, nationally, and regionally. The Afghan government’s current weakness may limit its near-term effectiveness as a partner in our effort to defeat the Taliban and al Qaeda, but that should neither cast doubt on the importance of continuing the mission, nor call into question the necessary means of carrying it out.
Tim Sullivan is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.