Asia Program

More Troops Alone Won't Help Afghanistan

Riaz M. Khan is Pakistan Scholar at the Wilson Center and former foreign secretary of Pakistan

Feb 12, 2009

On his second day in office, President Barack Obama appointed Ambassador Holbrooke as his special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, and a decision to send about thirty thousand more troops to Afghanistan appears imminent. The question arises whether this increase would help stabilize Afghanistan, and if not, what else is required?

Sending thirty thousand fresh US troops to Afghanistan, supplemented by any additional numbers from the EU, would largely symbolize an enhanced commitment, but would be grossly insufficient if the aim is to shift strategy to brace for a large scale military engagement. Such a shift in strategy is inadvisable as it can easily turn disastrous. The value of the US troops lies in their presence to help stabilization and for limited operations against carefully selected targets. Foreign troops cannot be a substitute for raising local security forces especially from the troubled Pushtun dominated areas of Afghanistan. This will help the necessary ethnic balance in the Afghan national army, provide employment to youth in the area and wean them away from joining the wrong side.

Beyond military deployment, according to General David Petraeus, head of the US Central Command, Afghanistan requires a diplomatic and economic commitment as well. The complex problems of conflict, terrorism, political fragmentation, drug production, corruption and weak government in Afghanistan call for a holistic approach. The goal of a stable Afghanistan depends on national reconciliation and economic reconstruction.

Politically, a mistake was made early on when the Taliban were designated as terrorists along with Al Qaeda. The Taliban had not planned international terrorism; their concerns were limited to Afghanistan. Their six year rule, however odious, carried a certain grass roots legitimacy. By declaring them terrorists, the coalition denied itself the possibility of reaching out to a significant element of Afghan society.

The problem has since aggravated as the Taliban have tried to give a Pushtun nationalist twist to the conflict which also resonates across the border among Pushtuns in Pakistan. The recent willingness of Kabul to talk to the Taliban needs to be encouraged. Local efforts such as agreed in the follow up to the 2007 grand Jirga need to be pursued with renewed vigor. Rebuilding a national compact, such as had once existed under the monarchy, softening tribal and ethnic rivalries and reversing the fragmentation of Afghanistan, present a hard but unavoidable challenge.

Economic development holds the key to winning hearts and minds. Despite rhetoric about a mini Marshall-like plan for Afghanistan; on the ground there is little to show, due allegedly to insecurity and, of late, corruption. Since 9/11, well over 110 billion dollars have been spent in Afghanistan on the military effort. In comparison, funding for economic reconstruction has been marginal and far short of the requirement. Its disbursement lacked direction in identifying projects and priorities linked to ground realities especially to generate employment and rehabilitate infrastructure and agriculture.

Another long favored idea to encourage crop substitution to eliminate drug production remains in limbo. Perhaps another option could be to designate Afghanistan as the sole or one of the legal exporters of opium under a well defined regime.

Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Area, FATA, where the conflict is symbiotically linked to that in Afghanistan, also requires more than military action to counter militancy and Talibanization. Besides improved military and intelligence coordination between the coalition and Pakistani forces that respects mutual sensitivities, FATA needs socio-economic progress. US economic support can make a difference.

For example, the 2005 initiative for reconstruction opportunity zones (ROZs) has yet to take off and review procedures have already drained much of its potential. There is resistance to the inclusion of textile products from frontier areas of Pakistan for tariff free import into the United States. Textiles offer the best possibility to speedily generate economic activity and a few hundred million dollars in exports, bringing healthy change to the area and helping the war on terror.

Similarly, in 2005, Pakistan requested 300 million dollars to supplement efforts to expand the traditional Frontier Corp (FC) through local recruitment and 150 million dollars annually to augment Pakistani funding for development in FATA. A positive US response that is yet to materialize is critical to success.

Finally, US diplomacy has a role to stave off regional rivalry played out in war torn Afghanistan, especially between Pakistan and India. Stabilization of Afghanistan is in every country's interest and essential for linking South Asia and Central Asia in promising economic arrangements with energy, trade and communication corridors.

Return to normalcy in the region will be a protracted process that can be helped by many useful proposals and ideas awaiting decision and implementation. Continued procrastination will be costly.



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