March 9, 2009 – During the presidential campaign, Barack Obama and John McCain didn’t agree on much, but they did see eye-to-eye on one thing: the U.S. need for a big troop increase in Afghanistan. Yet, with the President announcing a major troop increase for Afghanistan, a rising chorus of voices is arguing that the United States should end its military involvement there and focus solely on aid and development.
Many of these critics believe that recent setbacks in our stabilization efforts reflect something fundamental about the history of Afghanistan— that the country is the ‘graveyard of empires’ and cannot be tamed by outside forces. They point back to Alexander the Great to argue that no foreign power has ever succeeded in Afghanistan, and argue that the British experience in Afghanistan in the 19th century and the Soviet experience in the 20th show the same. Further, they argue that we should withdraw and commit only humanitarian aid to the country.
From our different perspectives as an Afghanistan veteran and an analyst, we believe the basic premise of these claims is a myth and threatens to cloud the real debate over the future of Afghanistan.
First, the Soviet and British analogies fail, because in both cases the invading superpowers were fighting forces backed by another great power. If you saw Charlie Wilson’s War you know that the Soviets were crushing the Mujahedeen until the US started a massive effort to fund, arm and train the Afghan insurgency.
The second part of the graveyard myth – that Afghans are inherently xenophobic – is equally fictitious. Even with deteriorating security, a recent poll by the BBC showed US popularity (47%) was roughly seven times that of the Taliban (7%).
Critics of the present Afghanistan policy have also argued that instead of sending more troops, we should withdraw militarily and simply provide more aid. For example, former Senator George McGovern has called for a five-year ‘time-out’ to war and that the U.S. instead should provide school lunch to every child in Afghanistan.
But previous U.S. efforts to provide aid in unstable conflict zones have failed dramatically and served only to empower enemies of the United States. For example, in 1991, in response to the humanitarian crisis in Somalia, President H.W. Bush authorized an of airlift food. However, lacking any security on the ground, the aid was largely swept up by roving gangs and warlords, and the population was left to starve. The ultimate result was further US engagement leading to the Black Hawk Down catastrophe in Mogadishu.
We are already seeing similar trends in parts of Afghanistan where the Taliban is in control. Development simply cannot take hold where armed thugs are occupying government buildings, murdering aid workers and spraying acid into the faces of young girls on their way to school, all of which occurred during Captain Bailey’s deployment in 2007.
Tellingly, the primary concern of tribal leaders then was the lack of basic security. Far too often, we had too few forces deployed in local villages to ensure our aid reached the intended beneficiaries. In many instances, this absence allowed the Taliban to tip the balance of power in isolated, yet strategically important, cities and villages.
President Obama clearly understands this. That’s why he’s pursing a dual track strategy in Afghanistan, focused both on security and development by committing more troops and deploying a special envoy, Richard Holbrooke.
Despite the naysayers, President Obama knows that the stakes in Afghanistan are frightfully high – that failure there is not an option. America has suffered the devastating effects of a failed state in Afghanistan once already, and ensuring that an al Qaeda safe haven does not reemerge must remain a top national security priority. Instead of chasing historical myths, this country should follow the fact-based, dual track strategy of security and development.
Scott Payne is a Policy Advisor on National Security at Third Way. Aaron Bailey is a former Army Infantry Captain and served in Afghanistan from May to November 2007. He resides in Ann Arbor, MI and is a member of VoteVets.org.