Wrong way on Afghanistan

Column by Eleanor LeCain
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In March 2003, I traveled to Afghanistan to facilitate a leadership training for a group of Afghan women who were hoping to help lead their country away from the abyss that had been Taliban rule.

Afghans I met – men and women – were grateful that the U.S. had knocked the Taliban out of power. They wanted to get an education and a job, but there were few schools and jobs available.

That was the moment when we might have been able to fund education and economic development to win over the hearts and minds of the Afghan people, and help build a central government capable of running the country. The U.S. had clarity of purpose and a sense of national unity for its mission.

After all, Al Qaeda had launched the 9/11 attacks from Afghanistan, complete with terrorist training camps. Nearly the whole world supported our efforts to uproot Al Qaeda and to build a new and representative government in Afghanistan.

But the U.S. did not provide the support needed to help Afghanistan recover and rebuild. Afghans were puzzled why even then the U.S. was supporting cruel regional warlords, undermining the power of the central government we claimed to support.

Just days after I left Afghanistan, the U.S. invasion of Iraq began. President Bush shifted attention, military force, and funds to Iraq. U.S. efforts in Afghanistan languished. President Obama wants to recapture the historic moment that was lost in 2003.

But that moment has passed. An escalation of military force nearly seven years later cannot bring it back. Here’s why an escalation won’t work:

1) The central government is too weak. People refer to President Karzai as the Mayor of Kabul because the only area he really controls is the capital. Afghanistan lacks even the basic elements of a functioning central government: it does not deliver services nationally like health care or education; it does not provide a national bank and finance system; it does not administer justice. Afghanistan is really a collection of regions, some ruled by warlords. So there will be no real central government to take over military operations in 18 months. That approach may work in Iraq, but it will not work in Afghanistan which is completely different. Iraq had a strong central government before the U.S. invaded; Afghanistan did not.

2) The country is too corrupt. Corruption runs rampant from top to bottom. Funds intended to support military and development efforts are siphoned off by swindlers. Stealing isn’t a crime so much as a way of life. The police who should be protecting citizens are part of the problem: many of them shake people down for protection payoffs. In fact, protection payoffs are a large source of revenue for the Taliban.

3) The country has become a big heroin den. Growing and trading opium is the country’s largest income source. Even people who don’t like opium feel it’s their best path to financial survival. So on top of political and religious feuds is a vast network of narcotics dealers.

4) Local support for the U.S. has dramatically diminished. The current war has dragged on for eight years. U.S. and Coalition forces have driven Al Qaeda from Afghanistan and have limited Taliban efforts to return to power. In those eight years, lots of Afghan civilians have been killed and injured. Bombs that have destroyed Taliban fighting units have also inflicted “collateral damage,” killing civilians. The neighbors and relatives of those dead civilians aren’t likely to welcome new troops as their liberators. Many Afghans now see the U.S. as part of the problem, an occupying force.

In addition to the likely ineffectiveness of escalation is the certainty of its expense. At a cost of about $1 million per soldier, 30,000 more troops will cost us about $30 billion a year. This is on top of the $1 trillion we have already spent in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. government is already in debt by over $12 trillion. Every dollar we spend is borrowed money. So we’re going to borrow more money to send more troops, thereby making us even more vulnerable to our creditors. Being heavily indebted to other countries is itself a threat to our national security.

There is another way forward. The U.S. first invaded Afghanistan to dismantle the terrorist training camps and their Taliban supporters. Mission accomplished. We can declare victory and set a new, clearly defined objective: prevent the resurgence of terrorist training camps. This objective can be met by the presence of a much smaller multilateral force. Also, more support for educating girls and women would lift families and communities while helping to reduce terrorism.


Eleanor LeCain is a Washington, D.C.,-based speaker and writer, the president and CEO of NewWayUSA, and a former Massachusetts Assistant Secretary of State.

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