A Flawed Strategy for Afghanistan

President Obama's recent decision to increase the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan is a welcome sign that he intends to make Afghanistan a top foreign policy priority, as he promised during the campaign.  The question now is whether Obama will be able to craft a comprehensive strategy for that country that will enable the troop surge to be effective.  Unfortunately, early indications suggest he and his advisors are settling on an approach that is likely to result in failure.   

In interviews and speeches, several high-ranking administration officials have signaled that the United States will begin to focus its efforts in Afghanistan more narrowly on eliminating threats to U.S. national security, not on establishing a functioning democracy -- as if the two are not inextricably linked.  First it was Secretary Gates, who declared that nobody in the world has the time, patience and money to set up a "central Asian Valhalla over there."  Then Obama himself stated that the goal in Afghanistan has to be to prevent the country from becoming a safe haven for al Qaeda, not to "rebuild Afghanistan into a Jeffersonian democracy."

Obama had, of course, already put us on notice that he was heading in this direction.  Following his inauguration, Obama promised that he would restore the relationship that existed between the Islamic world and the United States "20 or 30 years ago."  During those years, the United States took no interest in promoting democracy or human rights in the Islamic world, choosing instead to cooperate with any regime or group that was willing to pledge its support to the United States in the struggle against the Soviet Union.  It was in this spirit that the United States provided funding and arms to the Afghan Mujahedin, and then did nothing to create a viable and representative government in Afghanistan after the Soviet threat had been eliminated. 

The result had dire consequences for Afghanistan -- and for the United States.  On 9/11, the United States learned that the very existence of tyranny in the Islamic world -- and the corresponding absence of freedom and democratic governance -- poses a threat to U.S. national security.  Tyrannical and extremist regimes turn their countries into breeding grounds for terrorists by quashing political dissent, refusing to teach tolerance of other religions, and failing to create economic opportunities for their people.  The United States exacerbates this tendency when it does not stand firmly on the side of freedom and democracy, thereby exposing itself to charges of hypocrisy and cynicism.  The United States, therefore, has no choice but to take an interest in how regimes in that region govern their people, and to support the "Jeffersonians" among them.

It is not as though the United States is in the position of having to force democracy upon an unwilling Afghan populace.  After years of civil war and the Taliban, Afghans are yearning for an opportunity to build a country based on rule of law and representative governance.  Indeed, a recent poll found that 78 percent of Afghans agree with the statement that democracy is the best form of government.  For context, that puts Afghanistan right on par with other democracies in the region, including India and Turkey.  If the Obama administrations abandons the goal of a democratic Afghanistan, then, it will not only make a grave mistake from the point of view of U.S. national security; it will also run afoul of what Afghans themselves want for their country -- and what the international community has promised them.

On top of all this, the Obama administration is committing the diplomatic error of openly criticizing Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's democratically elected president.  Obama has called Karzai "very detached" and senior administration officials have leaked to the press that Karzai has become an impediment to American goals.  To be sure, Karzai's efficacy is an open question.  What is not an open question, however, is the prudence of making such declarations publicly.  For one thing, these statements give Karzai every incentive to explore alliances with Iran and Russia in the remaining months of his current term.  For another, Karzai may yet win the upcoming Afghan election, in which case Obama's administration will be left having to tackle the major challenges in that country with a hostile and vengeful counterpart. 

And in a final coup de grace, some administration officials have let slip that they may bypass the central government altogether and deal directly with the local governments.  For Afghans, that is code for a return to warlordism, a dark phase in that country's history.  Let us hope that the Obama administration is merely experiencing growth pains.  Otherwise, any gains resulting from the troop surge will be short-lived.  The consequences of these strategic miscalculations, however, will haunt us for decades.

Alexander Benard, a New York attorney, has worked at the Department of Defense and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.