Op-Ed: Lessons From Afghanistan

Op-Ed

By:  Paul Ryan
Date: March 1, 2010
Location: Unknown

As readers of this posting know, I spend the bulk of my time working on and discussing domestic issues like health care, jobs, and our budget crisis. Washington's decisions on these issues affect Americans across the country in very intimate and personal ways. The same principle also applies to our nation's foreign policy, and I take very seriously my responsibility to represent Wisconsin's First Congressional District in those decisions.

With this responsibility in mind, I participated in Congressional Delegation trips to Afghanistan, as well as some countries in the Persian Gulf region (specifically Saudi Arabia, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates). The purpose of these trips was to meet with the troops, commanders, and civilian officials charged with executing U.S. foreign policy in the region. This week, I thought I would share with you some of the lessons I learned during my trip to Afghanistan.

I remain in awe of the sacrifice, dedication, and capability of our troops in Afghanistan. I have no doubts about their ability to successfully execute their mission. As Ranking Member of the House Budget Committee, I used this trip as an opportunity to focus on the President's new counterinsurgency strategy and its funding. I explored a number of questions. For example, after eight years of war, how is victory defined in Afghanistan? Are we any closer to victory? And finally, is this new strategy the correct approach? I think the best answer came from one of the commanders I spoke to, who said, "We just finished fighting eight one-year wars. Now we are finally fighting this thing the right way." That was extremely frustrating to hear.

It is, however, encouraging that our commanders have a better sense of our strategic goals and how to achieve them. Our mission faces three major challenges. First, while our troops excel at clearing Taliban forces from population centers, our old strategy did not call for them to hold these positions. Once our troops moved on to the next objective, Taliban forces would simply trickle back in. Another problem facing the mission is Afghanistan's poppy crop: in addition to providing Taliban insurgents and al-Qaeda terrorists with financial resources from trafficking illegal drugs, poppy farming gives the Taliban a way to force Afghan citizens into cooperation. And finally, perhaps most disturbing, the notoriously corrupt Karzai Government has so far been unable to convince many Afghans that it is the legitimate governing entity of Afghanistan. In a war whose center-of-gravity is the Afghan people, the importance of these objectives cannot be understated.

The President's new counterinsurgency strategy, drawn heavily from General Stanley McChrystal's recommendations, addresses all three of these core challenges. Learning lessons from Iraq, our commanders are implementing a more population-centric approach to fighting the enemy. While this strategy assumes great security risks up front, it is designed in the long-run to convince the Afghan population to join coalition forces as partners against Taliban oppressors and foreign terrorists, finally bringing a lasting peace to the region.

As the Administration deploys this strategy, it is important to highlight divisions within the enemy. As I understand it, 80% of the Taliban and its supporters are "fence-sitters" -- survivalists who simply want to choose the winning side. If presented with an alternative, these "reconcilables" can be convinced to abandon the Taliban. The other 20% of the enemy are true believers -- the ideological leaders and supporters of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, who truly believe that killing Americans is a religious duty. These "irreconciliables" cannot be persuaded to rejoin society, and we must continue taking the fight to them.

I met with a former anti-Soviet mujahideen fighter turned local leader in the Arghandab Valley in Kandahar Province. He underscored the importance local Afghans can and do play in identifying the enemy. He also expressed his commitment to helping coalition forces win this fight, so Afghans can retake control of their country. Examples like this are encouraging, and they suggest this new strategy can win over the Afghan population.

That brings us to the poppy crop. Over 80% of the world's heroin supply comes from poppies grown in Southern Afghanistan. Until recently, British, Canadian, and Dutch troops controlled security there. During that time, Taliban insurgents and al-Qaeda terrorists took advantage of relaxed security enforcement to coerce the local population into expanding poppy cultivation. Rising heroin production provides our enemies with the financial resources they need to continue fighting, as well as a support network among local Afghans who cooperate with the Taliban in order to survive. The narcotics trade must be eliminated as an effective resource for our enemies.

Under the new strategy, US forces have taken command of Southern Afghanistan. They are working with local Afghans to permanently remove Taliban operatives. They are also helping farmers cultivate food crops to sustain their families and provide steady income. I believe these two objectives, exploiting divisions within the Taliban, and preventing insurgents and terrorists from profiting from the narcotics trade, can and will be achieved.

However, I have concerns with the last major objective: the Karzai Government. To say the Karzai Government is corrupt is a vast understatement. Furthermore, the notion of integrating a strong central democracy into a destabilized, centuries-old tribal culture is akin to pounding a square peg into a round hole.

I will share one example to illustrate my point. In Kabul, I visited with a detachment of FBI agents responsible for training Afghans in anti-corruption initiatives and the establishment of a sound legal system. The Karzai Government sends their finest prosecutors and judges to participate in this program. In order to qualify for the training, applicants must first pass a polygraph examination which asks, among other things, whether the applicant has ever taken a bribe or provided material support to the Taliban or al-Qaeda. So far, over half of the judges and two-thirds of the prosecutors have failed their polygraph exams. This is the state of play in Afghanistan.

It will take an incredible effort for autonomous local tribal leaders to accept the authority of a central government in Kabul, especially one currently perceived as corrupt and illegitimate. To this end, the President's counterinsurgency strategy also includes a "civilian surge" of State Department officers to help develop the central government, and enhance its ability to exercise authority and administer services beyond Kabul. It is important that rural Afghans accept their government as legitimate, because if it fails, the Taliban and their al-Qaeda allies will almost certainly fill the ensuing power vacuum.

There are many, many more challenges confronting our mission in Afghanistan, but these are the large ones. Compounding these issues is the fact that much of the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is largely ungoverned. As a result, Taliban insurgents and al-Qaeda terrorists engage coalition forces in Afghanistan, then quickly retreat across the border to safe haven in Pakistan. Until this area is permanently cleared of insurgents on both sides of the border, coalition forces on the Afghan side of the border will face tremendous pressure.

The anticipated Taliban spring and summer offensives will test the viability of the Administration's new strategy. If our troop and civilian surges prove sufficient to withstand these offensives, it seems the worst will have passed. We can then build on those successes to achieve the desired end state: an independent Afghanistan whose government is capable of providing its own security and denying safe haven to terrorists.

I hope this article provides you with a real sense of the problems we face in Afghanistan. The brave Americans serving there, including the Wisconsinites I had the pleasure of visiting with, have made tremendous personal sacrifices in order to make the world a safer place. I am grateful to our troops for their service, and will continue working to ensure they have the strategy and the tools they need to achieve their missions safely and effectively and return to their families as soon as possible.