Challenges ahead in Afghanistan

By Lee Hamilton
Jan 1 2008

 In Afghanistan, 2007 draws to a close on the heels of two military victories. Afghan forces — with U.S. support — expelled the Taliban from three districts near the Pakistan border in November. On Dec. 10, British and American troops regained control of a Taliban–held town in the opium–laden Helmand province.


These victories are not, however, causes for celebration.

Clearing villages in Afghanistan, as in Iraq, is something our military has never failed to do. The challenge is holding and building; winning popular support and depriving the Taliban of fertile ground upon which it can exercise its rapacious rule.

The present situation in Afghanistan is, to put it mildly, grim. The prospect of failure is rising, and policymakers consequently are engaged in top–to–bottom reviews of the mission.

Between November 2006 and May 2007 support for Taliban rule among Afghans doubled from 8 to 16 percent. Opium production has reached unprecedented levels. Violence is at a six–year high, rising 400 percent since 2002. American and NATO country casualties have risen.

Not only is violence on the rise, but the Taliban's tactics are changing in increasingly lethal ways. The number of suicide bombings in 2007 — more than 140 — has surpassed the total of the past five years combined, each one undercutting public confidence in a seemingly helpless government. And there is no shortage of volunteers for suicide missions, with a steady pool of candidates coming from across the Pakistani border.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, despite declaring a state of emergency on Nov. 3 with the stated goal of combating Islamist terrorism, has taken no serious action to eliminate al-Qaida and the Taliban's sanctuary in the border regions, an admittedly difficult task.

The tragic assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto last week could destabilize Pakistan itself, further undermining Musharraf's leadership and the state's ability to confront terrorism. It could also negatively affect the already tense and complex Afghan–Pakistani relationship.

As long as the border region remains a safe haven for terrorists, American and other NATO soldiers, as well as innocent Afghans, will remain vulnerable. This sanctuary's continued preservation could ultimately destabilize Afghanistan.

But Pakistan is not our only ally causing headaches. Some NATO partners operate in Afghanistan with “national caveats,” severely restricting their combat roles, undermining NATO's unity and efficacy. Equally disconcerting, our allies' resolve is wavering.

NATO must respond to the upsurge in violence. More troops and funding are needed. Too much has already been invested in Afghanistan, the stakes are too high, and there is still a chance for success.

NATO's internecine fractures are symptomatic of a lack of coordination at the highest levels. NATO allies differ over eradicating Afghanistan's constantly expanding poppy fields. Britain gives its aid to the Afghan government, but the U.S. prefers to entrust its aid to American private contractors.

The appointment of a “super envoy” to oversee civil–military cooperation, rather than competing EU, NATO, and U.N. officials, and streamline relief efforts is long overdue. The super envoy could also bolster President Hamid Karzai's government, which is rife with corruption that saps the people's faith in their elected leaders. Economic development, social services and transparency at the local and federal levels are the keys to crippling the Taliban's support–base. We should prepare for a long–term commitment.

On the positive side, Afghanistan's domestic conditions are conducive to intensified operations. Seventy–one percent of Afghans want U.S. forces to stay, and 63 percent view Karzai favorably. As British and American troop levels in Iraq decrease and redeployment becomes a realistic option, there is an opportunity to rededicate ourselves to the task of bringing peace and stability to Afghanistan.

The American commander of the International Security Assistance Force in Kabul has said that NATO's fate is tied to Afghanistan's. He is right. If NATO cannot summon the will to eradicate the Taliban and give Afghans an opportunity to achieve peace and stability, the alliance's value to the United States, Canada and Europe — not to mention the rest of the world — will be in doubt, and it will prove once again the old adage that Afghanistan is easy to invade, but difficult to pacify.


(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University and Director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)