For the past two months, President Barack Obama has been weighing Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s request to send an additional 40,000 troops to Afghanistan to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat” al-Qaeda. That same effort, according to Obama, entails ensuring that the Taliban can’t regain control of the country. But a military strategy alone won’t beat al-Qaeda or the Taliban. Achieving lasting stability in Afghanistan will require national political reconciliation, the establishment of a functioning, accountable political system, and a credible government. In this respect, the outcome of Afghanistan’s presidential election, marred by cheating, was a step in the wrong direction.
Afghanistan’s election concluded with the not-so-independent Independent Election Commission announcing a victory for the incumbent, Hamid Karzai, while the main opposition candidate, Abdullah Abdullah, complained of widespread fraud. Even the international community was implicated, having reportedly withheld data. Abdullah withdrew his candidacy from the subsequent runoff election after Karzai refused to reconfigure the electoral commission, whose members are all appointed directly by him. When the electoral commission responded by declaring Karzai the victor, a move Abdullah denounced as unconstitutional, Obama called Karzai to congratulate him, ironically urging him to redouble efforts to combat corruption. The electoral fraud not only calls into question the legitimacy of Karzai’s presidency, but also the willingness of the international community to act as an honest mediator.
U.S. government and military officials consistently emphasize the importance of a legitimate Afghan government to winning the war. Yet America consistently fails in its policies to promote the rule of law in Afghanistan. A legitimate government must be based on political compromise involving all major political players, but from the start of the U.S. invasion in 2001, when the Taliban was excluded from the Bonn Conference that formed an interim government, to the present-day endorsement of a fraudulent election, such cooperation hasn’t been forthcoming. There will never be a credible government if it isn’t built on a sincere process of national reconciliation.
Particularly in the absence of any history or strategy of promoting democratic or inclusive governance, there’s little indication that more American troops will advance the legitimacy or accountability of the Afghan government. Continued troop presence, especially to back an unpopular regime, will increase support for an indigenous opposition opposed to foreign occupation. As for the goal of defeating al-Qaeda, among its proclaimed motivations is the American military presence in the Persian Gulf. Building another U.S. outpost in the Muslim world will hardly discourage it.
Those who support increasing troop levels in Afghanistan, including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, often tout the troop surge in Iraq as a model strategy. But surge advocates forget that Iraq isn’t a success story yet. October’s deadly attacks on government offices in Baghdad were a reminder of the precariousness of whatever gains have been made in Iraq. The attacks were a challenge to the legitimacy of the government as it seeks to pass an electoral law for the upcoming elections, and they remind us that without political reconciliation, military gains are meaningless.
Afghanistan isn’t Iraq—in many ways, it presents a greater challenge. But like Iraq, it’s currently in the midst of civil conflict. Any strategy for Afghanistan will have to address the roots of the problem by working toward building a legitimate and effective political system. A troop surge can’t do this.