OpinionMeister

Monday, March 14, 2005

Slow Steady Progress if Afghanistan

The Wall Street Journal reports that the take-it-slow approach we have been following in Afghanistan is paying off big time. Link. (subscription required)
Rather than trying to force radical change overnight, the U.S. has been patient. It has avoided confrontations with tribal elders and warlords -- letting them until recently keep their private militias and weapons and even paying the salaries of their fighters -- while building a credible central government in Kabul. (...)

When the Americans arrived 3½ years ago, Afghanistan was a shattered country. Twenty years of conflict had left almost no infrastructure intact and its territory was carved up by powerful warlords, hostile to outsiders. Experts warned that the U.S., which has 18,000 troops in the country, would be lucky to do as well as the Soviets, who invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and retreated a decade later in defeat.

Instead, the U.S. has fared much better, especially in the past six months. Afghans' deep fatigue with war has helped but so has the slow U.S. approach. Warlords around the country are now peacefully ceding power to President Hamid Karzai's government, which won national elections last October. The U.S. has trained a multiethnic military that is taking over security around the country. (...)

Late last year, counternarcotics officials in Washington proposed using the U.S. military to conduct an aerial spraying program against Afghanistan's poppy crop. But Mr. Karzai opposed the move, and he was backed by U.S. officials in Kabul.

They argued that it risked alienating thousands of Afghans whose incomes are tied to the pervasive drug trade. And they worried it could drive them into a stronger alliance with Taliban insurgents. U.S. military officials were especially worried that U.S. forces would be blamed for health problems in villages that were sprayed and that such tactics threatened to make the U.S. resemble heavy-handed occupiers, as the Soviets were viewed in the 1980s. (...)

Instead, U.S. officials here talk about getting a grip on the heroin trade over the next three years, beginning with ground eradication, education programs, alternative crops and stepped-up training of police.

The U.S. has also taken a deliberate course in handing over responsibility for overseeing big chunks of the country to the Afghan National Army, the country's first force in which Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras and Afghanistan's other ethnic minorities are combined into single units.

It was farsighted for the administration to recognize the vast differences between Afghanistan and Iraq, and to come up with such vastly different plans that fit so well for the two. The Afghan warlords were a totally different animal than the Baathists. They could be kept in place while the government gelled. To keep the Baathists and Sadam's army in place in Iraq, as many critics claim should have been done, would have killed any chance of forming a democratic government there. We would have had to settle for the "realist's" approach of replacing one brutal dictator with another one, slightly more friendly to us. In Iraq, we had to move very quickly, even though the costs have been far higher than in Afghanistan. In Afghanistan, we had the luxury of moving at a gradual pace that allowed us to maintain 18,000 troops there, rather than 138,000.

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