The high cost of winning in Afghanistan.

The high cost of winning in Afghanistan.

The high cost of winning in Afghanistan.

Events beyond our borders.
Sept. 15 2008 7:50 PM

Of Course We Can Win in Afghanistan

If we're willing to pay the price of victory.

Soldiers of the German Bundeswehr Army. Click image to expand.
NATO soldiers in Afghanistan

URUZGAN PROVINCE, Afghanistan—From the top of Cemetery Hill, just outside town, the village of Chura looks like a thin, green ribbon, winding along the bottom of a narrow valley. To the east, west, and north are dry, uninhabitable mountains. To the south, through a gap in the mountains, it is just possible to see the next narrow valley.

For the Dutch captain whose soldiers graciously invited me along on their patrol up that hill, this geography means a great deal. The green valley of Chura, he explains, is "secure." That means that when his Charlie Tiger Company patrols the one-street bazaar, nobody shoots at them. It also means that the Dutch "provincial reconstruction team"—NATO's name for military troops who deliver aid, and the central focus of the Dutch mission here—can keep up its work on Chura's small health clinic, bring better seeds to Chura's farmers, and build Chura's schools. During the patrol, villagers come out to shake hands with the reconstruction-team leader who is walking with us and to ask the medic for advice. Children put their thumbs up and shout, "Alles gut," their version of the Dutch equivalent of "OK."

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It is a positive, happy story: not just a success for the Dutch but for NATO, which also works with French, Australian, American, and Afghan troops in Uruzgan and which sponsored my trip here. It is an important story, too: Uruzgan, in the Pashto-speaking south of Afghanistan, is the birthplace of Mullah Omar, the Taliban's founder.

Unfortunately, the story is not complete without explaining that the next valley, the one clearly visible through the gap in the mountains, is "insecure." There is no Dutch base there, and when Charlie Tiger Company goes on patrol in that direction, they don't bring journalists. "Insecure" means that there are snipers and roadside bombs, like the one that recently blew up a Dutch vehicle; it means the tribal leaders there are rivals of the tribal leaders here; it also means that a German aid group has indefinitely postponed plans to build a road to Chura and that Chura's doctor doesn't feel safe far from his clinic. Not all Taliban, he explains in a low voice, approve of medicine.

And this, in a microcosm, is the dilemma we face in Afghanistan, well understood on the ground but occasionally worth restating for outsiders: Where there is a real military presence, it is possible to bring peace and development to Afghanistan. But where there are no foreign troops, there is often anarchy. Though European governments like to draw a line between bringing "security" and engaging in counterterrorism in Afghanistan, on the ground those missions blur. Americans like to talk about "winning" and "losing" the war in Afghanistan, but on the ground it's clear that those categories aren't relevant. Though there has been much talk about "winning" and "losing" the war in Afghanistan, those aren't really relevant categories. Of course we can "win." The real question is whether we are willing to pay the high cost of victory.

The problem is complicated by the nature of the enemy in Afghanistan, best described by the International Security Assistance Force's commander, Gen. David McKiernan, as an "insurgent nexus" that includes not only remnants of the original Taliban but also new "Taliban" who work for the money they receive from across the Pakistani border, tribal leaders with their own agendas, criminal syndicates, and opium dealers. These groups cannot dislodge a Dutch or American base, they cannot rule the country,and they cannot win mass popular support. But with a handful of weapons and some homemade bombs, they can make the coalition forces in Afghanistan pay a high price for their good intentions—and erode support for the Afghan mission in foreign capitals.

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And this they will succeed in doing unless the extraordinary ambition of this enterprise, impossible to appreciate from outside, is better understood. None of the governments with troops in Afghanistan has explained to its voters that their achievements are so fragile and that safety established in one valley does not imply safety in the next and that the task of "reconstruction" is so integrally linked to military work. The 4,500 or so new troops promised by President George W. Bush last week represent the beginning of a recognition of the scale of the challenge, but only that.

Other resources are needed, too, as widespread use of the newly fashionable word surge well indicates. A NATO official in Kabul spoke of the need for a "civilian surge," meaning an increase in the already high levels of aid; a U.N. official wants a "political surge," meaning greater attention to the negotiations that will ultimately bring insurgents in from the cold. They are right, but so is the U.S. military, which has quietly invested billions in training the Afghan army—joint missions are now the norm. On a gleaming new air base outside Kabul, I watched an American colonel, a survivor of the Sept. 11 attack on the Pentagon, proudly show off the embryonic Afghan air force, created with American mentors, refurbished Soviet helicopters, and older Afghan pilots with Russian training. "I am out fighting Taliban, even in my dreams," one of them told me.

And someday he may be able to do that, even without our help. But in the meantime, that extraordinary, multimillion-dollar air base, just like the blond Dutchmen patrolling Mullah Omar's province, serves as a reminder that we haven't exactly "neglected" Afghanistan, as Sen. Barack Obama and others often say. It's just that we haven't yet faced up to what we have undertaken to do here. Afghanistan is bigger than Iraq, more rugged, more impoverished, and vastly more complicated, with more languages, more ethnic groups, more tribes, and more lethal neighbors. It has only begun to test our stamina.