With the prospect of war in Iraq on the horizon, speculation is buzzing over post-Saddam scenarios. If our most recent experience in Afghanistan is any indication, however, there is much cause for concern.
A year after the fall of the Taliban, the locus of power in Afghanistan rests squarely with the regional warlords. Travel beyond urban centers risks banditry. Radical Islamists threaten the fledgling Afghan government. Economic activity is hamstrung outside of Kabul, where the 4,800-strong United Nations International Security Assistance Force provides protection. Poppy production has reached record levels, revitalizing narco-trafficking networks throughout Central Asia. Adding to these woes is the real possibility of famine again this winter.
This state of affairs is the upshot of a lackluster U.S. commitment to a stable post-Taliban Afghanistan. While we employed a creative and skillful military strategy to topple the Taliban with few American casualties, the U.S. opted for a minimalist approach to reconstruction.
Rather than using U.S. dominance in the months after our military success to build a foundation for recovery, the power vacuum created by the collapse of the Taliban was filled by the warlords. In fact, our strategy has been to work through the warlords. This "Alpha-Wolf" approach -- the premise that Afghan fighters will fall in line behind the dominant male (i.e. warlord), akin to the social dynamics of a wolf pack -- has been our version of a political solution in Afghanistan. In the process we have actually strengthened those most likely to plunge the country back into anarchy.
Under such circumstances, Hamid Karzai, the U.S.-installed transitional president, has performed admirably. He has called for tolerance and reconciliation among Afghanistan's ethnically diverse population. Recognizing the risk of renewed conflict created by the warlords and having no army of his own, he has repeatedly appealed for an expansion of ISAF to other regional centers in Afghanistan. However, these requests have been rebuffed by the Pentagon. (The U.S. is helping to train an Afghan nation alarmy, though this has been beset by problems and is expected to take years).
Given the lack of U.S. support for expansion, none of the other 21 countries that comprise ISAF is willing to take the lead. Having foregone the option of stability through ISAF, U.S. Special Operations personnel have been compelled to serve as Karzai's bodyguards since July.
Without basic security, humanitarian assistance efforts by private aid agencies and the United Nations have been largely stymied. Because of theft and the requisite bribes to bandits patrolling the roadways, investment for jump-starting the economy has been lacking. Meanwhile, less than two-thirds of the $1.8 billion pledged for reconstruction efforts this yearby international donors has been delivered.
By failing to invest in political and economic institutions that would strengthen Karzai's government, there is little to give it structure or continuity. If something should happen to Karzai, (an assassination attempt was thwarted in September), the already fragile national government will likely collapse, precipitating a return to mayhem. In short, with dim prospects for progress on the military, political, or economic fronts, our exit strategy is not at all clear.
The lack of U.S. commitment to stabilizing a post-Taliban Afghanistan is puzzling. After all, this is the center of the war on terrorism. Even CIA Director George Tenet has expressed concern that Afghanistan could slip back into chaos, providing a renewed haven for al Qaeda -- and a direct threat to U. S. national security.
The Bush administration came into office derisively comparing nation-building to social work and school guard crossers. To their credit, several senior administration officials have recently acknowledged the need to make a more broad-based effort to rehabilitate Afghanistan. Whether this rhetoric translates into reality remains to be seen. Even President Bush in his April address at VMI called for a Marshall Plan for Afghanistan. But this Marshall Plan did not come with any additional resources. Concern over the administration's Afghanistan policy led Congress last week to approve a 2003 budget substantially larger than what the White House requested.
The incoherent U.S. policy toward Afghanistan reflects a fundamental divergence of views over what we are trying to accomplish in conflicts involving collapsed or rogue states. Some believe that we should maintain a narrow military object -- get rid of the rogue regime -- and then get out before we get bogged down. Others feel the goal should be stability. Their view is that if we leave before basic security, political and economic structures are in place, the situation will simply disintegrate again as soon as we depart.
These are the very questions being debated with regards to Iraq should military action be deemed necessary. Assassination or a military coup has been talked up by some as a simple and cost-free solution. However, these would not resolve the threat of an Iraqi weapons program, and they underestimate the depth of Saddam's corruption of the entire Iraqi hierarchy.
Installing an interim government after a military intervention would face all of the problems of illegitimacy and institutional weakness faced by Karzai in Afghanistan. Committing to a long-term rehabilitation program -- the only option that offers prospects for stability and a non-threatening Iraq -- runs contrary to the administration's aversion to nation-building.
The stakes for making the right choice in Iraq are high. There are the obvious threats posed by Iraq's weapons of mass destruction program and the crippling of the world's second largest oil reserves. Prolonged instability in Iraq could undermine its neighbors -- namely Saudi Arabia and Jordan. Moreover, extended strife in this region would further agitate the already rabid anti-Americanism in the Arab world -- with its consequences for al Qaeda recruitment.
Also at stake is the perceived U.S. role in the world. Will the U.S. be known only as the military power that can take regimes down at will? Or will it also be seen as the global leader that reluctantly enters into war, attempts to leave a country in better shape than it was, and in the process helps create a world system that is safer, less tyrannical, and more broadly prosperous? Do we want only to be feared for our power (and secretly undermined by friend and foe) or do we also want to be admired for the values we proudly espouse?
Answers to these questions will not only shape how we will be perceived but also largely define who we are as a nation.
Whether we like it or not, the U.S. is intertwined with the Arab world for at least the next 20 years. Israel, our dependence on oil, and the threat of terrorism assure that. The question then is how we choose to engage. We can pursue a course of action that emphasizes the rehabilitation of dysfunctional institutions leading to a more stable region. Or we can race from crisis to crisis putting out fires without bothering to remove the kindling along the way.
This may very well lead to a future that is more polarized than the one we face today. Recall that both Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were past recipients of U.S. efforts to deal with crises by "hard power" alone.
Preventing transnational terrorists from linking up with nuclear-inclined rogue states is the security challenge of our era. This will not be accomplished entirely through military means. We need to employ other tools in our fight -- diplomatic, political, economic -- that fully use our strength as a superpower and in the process put structures in place that will make the world more stable, accountable and peaceful.
Joseph Siegle is the Douglas Dillon Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.