As the nine year anniversary of the commencement of the war in Afghanistan came and went last week, many were speculating about what the US and our allies have accomplished, and whether we were closer to victory or defeat now than when it all started in 2001.
Is the US and NATO losing the war in Afghanistan? No. We only entertain that possibility if we quit the war. The situation on the ground now, as dire as it is, is nothing like it was before September 11, 2001. Although Al Qaeda, as well as some virulent mutations of the Taliban, have demonstrated the ability to marshal enough resources to conduct operations outside of their immediate surroundings (presumably Pakistan), their reach and lethality has been inarguably reduced.
In saying this, however, I don’t mean that we are to necessarily “stay the course.” What’s evident is that the strategy so far in Afghanistan, to defeat the Taliban militarily and to help build a more modern, stable democracy, has not only been lopsided in favor of a military solution (important though that is), but even that strategy has been, at least until recently, severely under-resourced. Who knows whether the additional forces that President Obama has sent into theater will be enough. What does seem clear is that the non-military side of helping Afghanistan remains even more critically inadequate and anemic.
This is the piece that threatens to rob the US and our allies of a solid victory. I believe that we’re going in the right direction, although we’re not necessarily on the right road. For any victory to take root the Taliban must be marginalized and their vicious former house-guests, Al Qaeda, must be eliminated. But what has been clear for some time is that simply pushing the Taliban out is completely insufficient. If the Western world wants to see an Afghanistan finally emerge that can govern her own affairs and contribute to the elimination of extremism in the region, then vast amounts of resources need to be committed. According to the 2009 Donor’s Financial Review that was released by the Afghan government, since 2001 approximately $62 billion dollars (USD) had been pledged to help the country rebuild, while at the time of the report only $36 billion had actually been spent. To put that in some perspective, Afghanistan has been given, over the course of eight years, the same amount of money that a moderate sized US state spends in a year (compare that to California, which spent approximately $120 billion dollars in 2009-2010).
But in order to actually claim victory, we’re not speaking only of material resources. We’re talking about time. And although I think that the following is something of an “apples to oranges” comparison, there is some merit in reminding ourselves about the cost of victory following World War II and the Korean War. In order to cement victory and ensure stability, we established military bases in Europe and Asia that have endured for decades. The costs of the Cold War were seen as a critical investment in order to ultimately preserve democracy and advance our own national interests.
There are many legitimate, and to varying degrees convincing, objections to a massive nation building endeavor in the “graveyard of empires.” The cost will be exorbitant, the amount of time needed will tax the collective patience of the West, and the prolonged exposure to conflict may well be intolerable to the nations who are providing military support. But complicating this effort the most, perhaps, is the patience of the Afghan people themselves, many of whom have decided that the time for the Western military presence has long come and gone. All of these factors do portend a grueling road with little assurance that, even if overcome, the effort will succeed. So why should we try?
As tired as many have become of it, we have to remember that ignoring the Afghanistans of the world is what enabled the merchants of hate, in this case represented by Al Qaeda, to plan and execute terror attacks that started well before September 11, 2001, and have continued to this day. The fight is greater than Afghanistan, of course. Pakistan, Somalia, Indonesia…the challenges are significant. But a victory in Afghanistan would not only serve the region and the world on the practical level of providing another stable democracy to provide opportunity to the disenfranchised and impoverished people who live there. It would serve the world as a great symbolic victory that even in a place that many would like to write off as hopeless, the rule of law can prevail, and the malignant cancer that the likes of Al Qaeda represent can be defeated. Put simply, it is in the interests of the United States, and the rest of the civilized world.