In both Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States has more expansive and ambitious goals than our local allies.

  From the New York Times: Allied Officers Concerned by Lack of Afghan Forces

General Nicholson and others say that the long-term success of the operation hinges on the performance of the Afghan security forces, which will have to take over eventually from the American troops.

General Nicholson said the American force of almost 4,000 had been joined by about 400 effective Afghan soldiers.

“The net increase in Afghan security forces is zero” since the brigade arrived a few months ago, he said. The lack of Afghan forces “is absolutely our Achilles’ heel,” added Capt. Brian Huysman, commander of Company C of the First Battalion, Fifth Marines in Nawa.

Captain Huysman said the Afghan forces were critically important in establishing trust and communication with citizens. “We can’t read these people; we’re different,” he said. “They’re not going to tell us the truth. We’ll never get to build and transition” — the last phase of the operation — “unless we have the Afghans.”

As an operational matter, it seems to me that “hav[ing] the Afghans” ought to have been a prerequisite for the new offensive, rather than a vague aspiration.  Military operations should not be planned on the “Field of Dreams” principle that “if you built it they will come.”  The article does not provide enough details to know precisely where the breakdown occurred, but trying to impose security in Afghanistan with a 10-1 ratio of U.S. to Afghan troops is conceptually problematic.

Regardless of how this came to pass, it highlights a broader issue, which is that in both cases, we seek to establish durable, free polities, essentially democratic and capable of controlling their territory to such an extent that they can prevent threats to the United States from arising from their territory.  In contrast, our local allies want to establish a minimal level of security and maximize their own political position.

It is this gap between the goals of the parties that explains the disparity of effort rather than any fundamental issue of capabilities.  Saddam Hussein controlled Iraq with his poorly trained, ill-equipped forces.  The Taliban controlled 90% of Afghanistan with a poorly trained force of perhaps 30,000.  The fundamental issue is not training or numbers, it is about political goals.  At this point, we want more and better for Afghanistan than the Afghan government wants for itself.  As long as that is the case, the United States will continue to fight what is at best an uphill struggle.

Being in this position also eliminates any leverage that we may have in encouraging greater Afghan efforts.  In addition to more emphasis on providing security, we’d like to see the Afghan government rein in corruption.  But we have nothing to compel greater cooperation.  As long as we define our interests in such a way that we have a greater stake in Afghan stability than the Afghans, all we can do is plead for cooperation. We have no way to increase pressure.

Our situation towards the Afghan government is akin to historian A.J.P. Taylor’s description of the challenges faced by the French as they sought to coerce Germany after World War I: If we threaten to strangle them, they will threaten to die.

Dr. Bernard I. Finel, an Atlantic Council contributing editor, is a senior fellow at the American Security Project.  This article was originally published as “We Can’t Want it More than They Do” at ASP’s Flash Point blog.