Frederick Kempe, Slate.com
The most poignant moment during the NATO meetings in November came when Afghanistan's national security adviser spoke of the debt the West owed his country. "You wouldn't be here if it weren't for us," Zalmai Rassoul told a room full of Europeans. They knew what he meant. If Afghan freedom fighters hadn't upended their Red Army occupiers, who withdrew in disgrace in early 1989, the chain of events that led to the Berlin Wall's fall, Baltic liberation and Soviet collapse may not have followed.
His appeal went further. "You abandoned us after we defeated the Soviets," he told me. "We warned you about the dangers of the Taliban, but you ignored us. You paid for that on 9/11. If you abandon Afghanistan again, you will pay again."
His warning is timely. On its current trajectory, NATO, the 37 countries whose troops are under its command, and the Afghan government will lose to extremists over time. And in some respects, that outcome would be more harmful than failure in Iraq. The United States hasn't only spread the responsibility in Afghanistan but also the potential damage.
So, while the world scrutinizes the much-anticipated report of the Iraq Study Group, it should at the same time launch a similar and equally urgent initiative for Afghanistan.
It might already be too late to save Iraq from civil war or worse, but there's still time to save the moderate, pro-Western regime in Afghanistan. If the West doesn't address its failings soon, though, its military victories will be overshadowed by extremist attacks from a resurgent Taliban that is funded by a growing narco-economy and abetted by ostensible allies in Pakistan. The likely outcome would be Western fatigue and ultimate defeat as NATO suffers a death by a thousand improvised explosive devices.
Here is an initial agenda for an Afghan Study Group:
- Transform Afghanistan's drug economy and devote more resources to winning hearts and minds. Perhaps the most important lesson of Iraq is that the military alone can take and hold ground, but it cannot win today's wars, which involve complex stabilization and reconstruction efforts.
Nothing will be more important to success in Afghanistan than reversing the estimated 60% growth in its narcoeconomy last year, which now provides some 90% of the world's opium crop.
The West can't train police, judges and civil servants as quickly as the Taliban and its allies can corrupt them. What's needed is an all-out, co- ordinated international effort that will take a decade at least to help the Afghan government not only eradicate the poppy fields but, more important, provide subsidies and programs for crop substitutions while protecting farmers from the drug lords who buy their harvest.
- Clean up Afghan government corruption and expand central authority. U.S. officials complain that President Hamid Karzai is a good man but a bad manager and leader. He has the power to name provincial governors, but he hasn't shown that he can get them to do what he wants. Afghanistan won't work until he extends his authority, until he begins to prosecute corrupt politicians, and indict, convict or extradite drug kingpins.
- Fix a dysfunctional multilateral system. International operations in Afghanistan operate under a UN mandate relying on troops under NATO command. It sounds like a good model, but many of those involved say it doesn't work.
At the moment, Britain has lead responsibility for drugs, the Italians for judicial reform, the Germans for police training and the United States for military training. That leaves the critical drug war as too low a priority for too many countries. A senior U.S. official complains that the UN operation has been focused more on establishing a bureaucracy that can perpetuate itself than making it produce results.
- Fix how NATO works. The alliance responds less to operational imperatives than to bureaucratic need and national sensitivities -- Turks who aren't ready to shoot members of the Taliban, and Germans who, until the Riga summit, had a "caveat" on their deployment that wouldn't let them leave the relatively safe Afghan north for the more violent south. Italy and Spain have the same restrictions.
NATO has insufficient intelligence capability and struggles to make quick political or acquisition decisions. One commander complained that he has been trying for years to acquire a tracking system that would protect his troops from friendly fire, because the alliance turned his need into "a 26- country industrial competition while people die on the ground."
Countries balk at using their troops in rapid-response situations, because a lack of common funding means the countries that make physical sacrifices also foot the bill.
The fixes here can only be achieved if there is political will to provide troops without restrictions on their use, increase common funding, and, ultimately, move away from consensus decision making to some form of majority voting that would take away veto power on NATO flexibility and effectiveness from the country that uses it most --France.
During the Cold War, NATO triumphed over Soviet Communism because it was ready to fight a war that never came. In the 21st century, NATO will succeed only if it can remake itself to fight a war that's already under way.
- Frederick Kempe is president and CEO of the Atlantic Council.
Par Frederick Kempe