In a rather cheery piece in Slate, Anne Applebaum declares, “Of Course We Can Win in Afghanistan — If we’re willing to pay the price of victory.” 

She begins with an anecdote, comparing a peaceful village mentored by a Dutch provincial reconstruction team with a chaotic one next door that has no NATO PRT’s and is therefore a Taliban safe haven.

And this, in a microcosm, is the dilemma we face in Afghanistan, well understood on the ground but occasionally worth restating for outsiders: Where there is a real military presence, it is possible to bring peace and development to Afghanistan. But where there are no foreign troops, there is often anarchy. Though European governments like to draw a line between bringing “security” and engaging in counterterrorism in Afghanistan, on the ground those missions blur. Americans like to talk about “winning” and “losing” the war in Afghanistan, but on the ground it’s clear that those categories aren’t relevant. Though there has been much talk about “winning” and “losing” the war in Afghanistan, those aren’t really relevant categories. Of course we can “win.” The real question is whether we are willing to pay the high cost of victory.

NATO commander General John Craddock, agrees, National Journal‘s James Kitfield reports.

“These marines have taken the best practices of counterinsurgency doctrine and applied them, and they’ve shown once again that if you just provide people with security, they will get on with their lives,” Craddock tells a reporter accompanying him on a recent trip to Afghanistan. A cerebral general with a quiet intensity, Craddock knows better than most, however, that security is just the initial prerequisite in the holistic strategy of development, jobs, and governance that creates the virtuous cycle of any successful counterinsurgency. From the beginning, operations in Afghanistan have lacked the coordination and international commitment to sustain that cycle.

“We can get the security piece perfect,” Craddock concedes. “But if the Afghan government and army aren’t ready to step in and help hold and rebuild, it will all be for naught.”

He notes, for example, that NATO has promised more training teams for the critical task of mentoring Afghan army units, but member nations have stubbornly failed to deliver on their commitments. “Shame on them,” Craddock says. “Corruption is still tearing at the fabric of the Afghan government, and that also has to change. So I fear we are losing momentum in Afghanistan. If we don’t turn things around soon, we’ll start slipping backwards.”

Kitfield finds that this frustration is shared by most American officers in Afghanistan.   Not only have most NATO members failed to live up to their promises to provide additional Operational Mentor Liaison Teams to help train the Afghans, but some have placed such restrictive rules of engagement on their forces as to render them nearly worthless. 

Both stories note that European leaders are finding it difficult to secure public support to spend large sums of money, let alone risk the lives of soldiers, to secure Afghanistan.  Applebaum believes this is simply a function of not framing the mission properly. “None of the governments with troops in Afghanistan,” she writes, “has explained to its voters that their achievements are so fragile and that safety established in one valley does not imply safety in the next and that the task of ‘reconstruction’ is so integrally linked to military work.” 

Retired Marine colonel and small wars guru T.X. Hammes is far less optimistic.  He does not mince words:

[G]iven the fact neither the United States nor NATO has a clearly stated strategy for Afghanistan, the first question the candidates should explore is exactly what that strategy should be. Neither has expressed a clear national strategy for Afghanistan nor how he will convince NATO, the Afghan government and its neighbors to support his strategy and, of particular importance, how his strategy fits into a greater regional strategy. Despite this clear lack of a strategy, both candidates jumped to the assumption that more troops can solve the problems of Afghanistan.

Even worse, to date, the candidates are discussing only Afghanistan without mentioning Pakistan or India. Yet both these Southwest Asian nations are much more critical to the United States future than Afghanistan.

Beyond that, Hammes believes the conventional wisdom that we need more troops in  Afghanistan is mistaken and that we would be far better off directing our efforts to Pakistan.  First, “if Pakistan destabilizes we probably lose in Afghanistan – the converse is not true.”  Second, “One reason often given for our presence in Afghanistan is that we must stabilize it as a nation so that Al Qaeda can never use it as a terrorist base again. Unfortunately, Al Qaeda has moved its forces and its bases into Pakistan.”

Writing in Slate, Christopher Hitchens enthusiastically agrees.  Indeed, he argues that the role of Pakistan is far from a recent development:

[M]ost people seem deliberately to avoid such telling phrases as “Pakistani aggression” or—more accurate still—”Pakistani colonialism.” The truth is that the Taliban, and its al-Qaida guests, were originally imposed on Afghanistan from without as a projection of Pakistani state power. (Along with Pakistan, only Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates ever recognized the Taliban as the legal government in Kabul.) Important circles in Pakistan have never given up the aspiration to run Afghanistan as a client or dependent or proxy state, and this colonial mindset is especially well-entrenched among senior army officers and in the Inter-Services Intelligence agency, or ISI.

Dexter Filkins, in a much-cited piece for NYT Sunday magazine, sees that point and raises, noting that a series of recent incidents begs “one of the more fundamental questions of the long war against Islamic militancy, and one that looms larger as the American position inside Afghanistan deteriorates: Whose side is Pakistan really on?”  He cites Bruce Hoffman’s recent report that “six major terrorist plots against Europe or the United States — including the successful suicide attacks in London that killed 52 people in July 2005 — have been traced back to Pakistan’s tribal areas.”  Moreover, Filkins contends, the Pakistani government has been expertly playing the United States and NATO against India while profiting handsomely.  He’s told by a “retired Pakistani official” that his country’s military leaders believe “The Pakistani economy would collapse without it. This is how the game works.”

There’s a small window of hope that this will change.  Pervez Musharraf is out of power and I’ve heard regional experts say that new president Asif Ali Zardari is as close to being “one of our guys” as we are ever likely to get in Pakistan.  After seven years with Pakistan’s government as an ostensible “ally” in the fight against the Taliban and al Qaeda, though, the burden of proof is on them to demonstrate by action whose side they’re really on.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. 

Related Experts: James Joyner