The debate over whether to send more troops to Afghanistan has never been about the importance of the mission. It's been about whether sending more troops will make much difference.
This distinction came up this morning, just briefly, at hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee. The agenda was to confirm the witness, Adm. Michael Mullen, for a second term as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (a motion that will almost certainly be approved unanimously). But the main topic of discussion was Afghanistan.
The committee chairman, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., has proposed speeding up the training of the Afghan National Army before deploying any more of our own men and women in uniform. Adm. Mullen and many of Levin's colleagues, Republicans and Democrats, countered that mere training wasn't enough to reverse the Taliban's momentum on the battlefield.
However, the unlikely figure of Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., raised the key issue of the day. He began his questioning of Adm. Mullen by asking whether the Taliban had any tanks. No, Mullen replied. Graham then asked how many airplanes they have. None, the admiral answered, perhaps wondering where this line of inquiry was going.
Then Graham zeroed in. If that's the case, he asked, how is it that the Taliban are gaining ground? The problem isn't the Taliban, it's the Afghan government, isn't that right?
Mullen agreed. The problem, he said, "is clearly the lack of legitimacy of the government."
Graham pushed the matter. "We could send a million troops, and that wouldn't restore legitimacy in the government?" he asked.
Mullen replied, "That is correct."
A few minutes later, under questioning from Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, Mullen elaborated: "The Afghan government needs to have some legitimacy in the eyes of the people. The core issue is the corruption. … It's been a way of life for some time, and it's just got to change. That threat is every bit as significant as the Taliban."
This is not a peripheral matter. It's central to the conflict and to the U.S. military mission. President Barack Obama and his battlefield commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, have laid out a new strategy for Afghanistan, based on the classic principles of counterinsurgency (COIN). The strategic objective is to keep Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terrorists who might endanger the United States and its allies. However, under COIN doctrine, the best way to achieve this objective is not to chase the Taliban and other insurgents around the countryside and the mountain paths but, rather, to protect the Afghan population.
Adm. Mullen put it this way in his opening statement this morning:
The enemy in Afghanistan is not the insurgents. The enemy is fear. If you can remove the fear under which so many Afghans live, if you can supplant it with security and good governance, then you can offer them an alternative to Taliban rule, and if they have an alternative to Taliban rule, they will choose it.
However, here's the problem: If the Afghan regime is corrupt, and if the Afghan people regard it as illegitimate, then it can't provide "good governance," and it won't be embraced as "an alternative to Taliban rule." And if U.S. and NATO troops are fighting on behalf of this illegitimate regime, then they, too, will be viewed as illegitimate.
Sen. Graham seemed not to grasp the full implications of his questions. When his time was up, he thanked Adm. Mullen for his service and proclaimed, "I believe we can win, and we must"—without explaining, or asking, just what "win" means (Obama and McChrystal must still supply a definition, whatever else they do) and how, under the circumstances, to get there from here.
This quandary is only intensified by Afghanistan's recent presidential election, with its widespread instances of intimidation, ballot-box stuffing, and other acts of malfeasance and falsification, most of them committed by agents of the incumbent, President Hamid Karzai. If Karzai is declared the winner, as now seems likely, his government—the government on whose behalf we're investing blood and treasure—will be seen as even less legitimate than before.
So what is to be done? Throwing up our hands and getting out is a tempting proposition. But, as Ahmed Rashid notes in the current New York Review of Books, "that would almost certainly result in the Taliban walking into Kabul," from which they could have a base "to 'liberate' large portions of Pakistan," and it would put al-Qaida in "a stronger position to launch global terrorist attacks." (Gen. McChrystal recently acknowledged that al-Qaida currently has little if any presence in Afghanistan, its fighters having moved across the border into more strategically valuable Pakistan. However, if U.S. and NATO forces simply vanished, al-Qaida could move back and forth across the border with impunity.)
Yet nobody with any power or influence in the Obama administration or in Congress is arguing for a total pullout. The question on the table is whether to send in still more troops beyond the 21,000 extra that Obama ordered in the spring. (McChrystal reportedly wants another 40,000.) Proponents of a further buildup charge that skeptics are kidding themselves, that a "middle course" in war is a recipe for defeat and is likely to get still more Americans killed in the process. (It may result in more Afghan casualties, too, since a shortage of ground troops may compel U.S. commanders to launch more airstrikes, some of which will unavoidably kill innocent civilians.)
But, as the exchange between Adm. Mullen and Sen. Graham suggests, this is a second-order question. An additional 40,000 or even 1 million troops would matter little if the Afghan people regard the government as illegitimate. Sen. Levin's proposal—to send no more troops until after we've trained a lot more Afghan soldiers—begs the question as well, since few Afghans will fight hard for a government they don't believe in.
Whatever President Obama decides on troop levels, the real task at hand is to create legitimacy and build popular support for the Afghan government.
The first step is the most crucial: If Karzai is declared the winner, then the United States needs to take extraordinary measures to push him into forming some sort of unified government with the runner-up, Abdullah Abdullah. And extraordinary measures also need to be taken to get Abdullah to go along. (This may be especially difficult, as he has already denounced Karzai's electoral fraud as treasonous.)
By "extraordinary measures" I mean heavy bribery. It does tend to work, at least in the short run. In the spring and summer of 2003, during the early days of the Iraq occupation, this was how Gen. David Petraeus, then commander of the Army's 101st Airborne Division, pacified much of northern Iraq, including Mosul—by passing around lots of cash taken from Saddam Hussein's bountiful stash. (When the money ran out, Congress failed to appropriate more, at least not as an uncontrollable commanders' discretionary fund. Whether by coincidence or not, Mosul fell apart soon after.) Similarly, during the surge and the Sunni Awakening in Anbar province, many former insurgents joined the "Sons of Iraq," and thus the coalition cause, thanks in part to the inducement of a regular paycheck.
As Mullen testified yesterday, and as many observers have pointed out, the corruption in Afghanistan extends way beyond the central government in Kabul, into many of the provinces. Serious thought should be given to bribing several governors and other key figures as well.
A government is seen as legitimate when it fills its constituents' needs or desires. For certain constituents, such as officials and tribal chiefs, a barrelful of money fits the bill—and could ease the path for letting us, or the central government, pursue more broadly appealing programs, such as building roads, providing jobs, and sowing crops other than poppies.
The idea may seem outrageous, until one considers that we're currently spending about $4 billion a month on this war. A discreet and well-planned bribery program would cost pennies on the dollar—a mere rounding error in a calculation of the budget.
Without legitimacy, without the bare-bones foundation of popular support, more troops will have little ultimate effect. If someone has better ideas for promoting legitimacy, let's hear them.