By Gary Anderson
Best Defense chief buzkashi
we have an argument over who lost Afghanistan, we should make sure it is really
lost. I'm sitting in Afghanistan as I write, and I can say that it hasn't gone
anywhere. A score of pundits, many of whom have never been here, have written
the place off.
point, we need to ask ourselves what we really expected from Afghanistan. As I
remember it, we went in to rid the country of al Qaeda and associated foreign
fighters. In 2001, the country was ruled by the Taliban, and they were giving
sanctuary to Bin Laden and his minions; so we toppled their government, and put
one in that would not tolerate al Qaeda. In the
process, we decimated the terrorists' haven there. That is pretty much where we
are today. So what is lost?
along the line, we got into mission creep. Instead of being satisfied with a
relatively stable but likely decentralized state, we encouraged our local
allies to build a strong, centralized democracy on European lines in a country
that lacks the infrastructure and traditions to have anything of the sort. That
vision may simply have been a bridge too far. In its most peaceful periods, the
entity that we call Afghanistan was more a region of communities that a nation-state. Those rare periods when it came under strong central rule were often the
result of an exceptionally energetic and militarily capable leader, and central
governance rarely survived that individual's passing. Afghanistan differs from
Iraq in that respect. With its relatively flat terrain and fairly
sophisticated road system, Iraq has always had a strong tradition of
because Afghanistan is not becoming France or Germany overnight, we should not infer
that it is incapable of keeping foreign fighters out of the areas that its
security forces control. Many provinces and districts are remarkably well ruled
at the local level, even when the government in Kabul fails to give them the
type of support that they desire or believe they deserve. Most of these places
fall within the security bubble provided by the Afghan National Army (ANA).
Although imperfect and immature, the ANA has become the most respected Afghan
governmental institution, and many of its commanders show an ability to work
with local governments and non-governmental organizations that exceeds the
standards of Central Asia and the Middle East. That may be as good as it gets
in the near term.
the places that the Afghan surge never reached, we may need to rely on other
means than conventional governance to keep al Qaeda and its surrogates out.
That may come in the form of an agreement with the Taliban in areas that they
still control to exclude al Qaeda and other foreign jihadists. We might also
employ some combination of paying local militias to hunt the foreigners down
and counter-terror operations by special operations forces.
less than optimum, Afghanistan today presents much less of a haven for
international terrorism than its neighbor Pakistan. Contrast Afghanistan with
Somalia, a country we decided to abandon to its own fate in 1993 when we
decided that it was not a threat to United States national security. Today, we
see an active network of al Qaeda affiliates operating openly. Lacking even the
semblance of a national government to work with or bases with which to launch
counter-terror strikes, we are forced to tinker at the margins of a growing
base for international terrorism. There are countries on the verge of becoming
like Somalia, but that are not as bad off as Somalia is, or Afghanistan was,
when we first arrived.
real benefit of the lessons we have learned in Afghanistan through the
expenditure of much blood and treasure may be in keeping places from Yemen and Mali
from getting to the point where Afghanistan was in 2001. If, by using a
relatively small cadre of Special Forces trainers and civilian advisors, we can
stabilize troubled states before they fail or fall to radical Muslim
insurgents, we should do so. In that regard, our experience in El Salvador in
the eighties and early nineties of the last century may be more instructive
than Iraq in the counter-terror operations of the future. However, we have
learned much from both Iraq and Afghanistan. We largely know what works and
what doesn't. The only tragedy of Afghanistan would be to forget what we have
learned as we seemed to after Vietnam.
haven't lost Afghanistan, it was never ours to lose, but we have given them a
chance to decide what they are going to be. That's likely to be as good as it
Anderson, a retired Marine Corps Colonel, is an adjunct professor at the George
Washington University's Elliott School. He has served in both Iraq and
Afghanistan as a counterinsurgency and governance advisor for the Department of
Defense and the Department of State.