Finishing the Job in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON – Derailing counterinsurgents in Pakistan and combating the state’s narcotics enterprises remain two of the largest obstacles to peace and stability in Afghanistan, and the solutions to these problems might not arrive for years to come, Jeremy Shapiro, director of Research at the Brookings Center on the United States and Europe, said at a May 21 briefing here sponsored by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

“The first goal from the U.S. and European perspective is to ensure Afghanistan isn’t a source of instability for the world,” Shapiro said. “The military on the ground sees it this way, and they see it [happening] in decades. This is up to a 10-year project, but probably longer.”

Simulcast in Prague, the forum “Saving Afghanistan: Is it Too Late?” also featured Jim Townsend, vice president and director of the International Security Program at the Atlantic Council of the United States, and Akbar Ayazi, broadcast director at Radio Free Afghanistan, in a discussion of the embattled state’s future.

According to Shapiro, Taliban insurgents hiding in Pakistan present the most immediate security threat to Afghanistan’s reconstruction. President Pervez Musharraf’s attempted peace negotiations with extremists residing in his country’s northwest tribal areas include no protections for Afghanistan, rendering it increasingly difficult for the United States to address the Taliban’s Pakistani presence, he said.

Furthermore, NATO’s mandate ends at Afghanistan’s border, Shapiro noted. It is impossible to prevent future cross-border insurrections without a political solution, which NATO is also unequipped to handle, he added.

Afghanistan’s current tumult also exacerbates the failure of state economic institutions, Ayazi said from Prague via satellite. Narcotic enterprises comprise approximately 40 percent of Afghanistan’s total economic output, and warlords and strongmen still constantly battle for control of the state’s poppy seed plantations, he said.

According to Shapiro, aerial eradication of poppy crops has received much support in Washington, but simple improvements to the country’s infrastructure might more effectively address the narcotics problem.

As he explained, financing foodstuff plantations is impossible in a state with no credit, and transporting those goods to market would be equally daunting without adequate infrastructure. As such, if the United States helped Afghanistan fashion a crop subsidy system and build more roads, wholesale narcotics enterprises would seem much less appealing, Shapiro said.

However, Townsend said that Afghanistan’s narcotics trade will flourish until regional powers believe it poses them enough threat to merit action.

Still, the most difficult aspect of the United States’ mission in Afghanistan may be defining success.

According to Shapiro, competing notions of success severely complicate the U.S. mission. Whereas politicians and voters evaluate the military’s effectiveness through violence statistics, which have increased in recent months, American forces on the ground measure their progress “qualitatively,” focusing instead on the fledgling state’s slow but steady transition to democracy, he said.

The result of these conflicting measurements, according to Townsend, is a great deal of complexity and uncertainty. With no template from which to draw comprehensive solutions, coalition states and nongovernmental organizations each maintain their own, broadly defined goals for Afghanistan. And as it becomes more evident that reconstruction may take decades, Western governments are losing patience and withdrawing support at the behest of their constituencies, he said.

But, Ayazi added, the fallout from large-scale troop or aid reductions would undoubtedly cripple Afghanistan, which remains far from self-sufficient.

“In the absence of NATO, we would return to the bloodshed of the 1990s,” Ayazi said. “The government would collapse immediately.”