Afghanistan Needs an International Solution
The last time I walked by the presidential palace in Kabul and headed back to my NATO base, in 2011, I wondered whether I had made any difference during my year as a NATO advisor to the Afghanistan Ministry of Defense. I was one of about 20 Canadian and American senior military advisors working in partnership with Afghan generals and their staff. We advised the Ministries of Defense and Interior on the manning, training, and equipping of the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police. Amongst ourselves, we advisers wondered what was in fact the right path to bring security to Afghanistan.
I was in Afghanistan during a time when the United States had 100,000 military personnel deployed in the country. These troops led much of the fighting, but they worked side-by-side with the National Army and Police while these grew in capacity and capability. Today, the United States has less than 15,000 personnel deployed in Afghanistan.
While I am neither a diplomat nor an economist, I am a retired military officer who cares deeply about our men and women in uniform. I also care deeply about peace and stability in Central Asia, because the region is critical to America’s broader strategic interests.
We cannot fight our way to peace and stability in Afghanistan. If we have learned anything after 40 years of continuous war there, it is that a myopic focus on military solutions will not lead to peace. The path to stability does not depend on the number of U.S. troops in the field or the number of Taliban leaders killed.
Sustainable peace in Afghanistan requires an economy that can satisfy the needs of its people. While Afghanistan is rich in natural resources, it cannot harvest them to the fullest without the stability and good governance required for business to grow and thrive.
U.S. strategy for Afghanistan must look beyond near-term military concerns, and it can’t revolve around negotiations with the Taliban that do not include Afghan government representation. We must take the long view, and if we want to end a seemingly endless war, we must use all elements of U.S. national power. We must better harness our diplomatic relationships in the region while also tying strict and achievable benchmarks to our economic assistance.
We need to start thinking about how the United States can use the full extent of its national power to bring others to the table that have the interest and ability to help Afghans develop their economy. Afghanistan’s long-term security is not an American problem meant to be solved by Americans alone, but one shared by countries as diverse as Germany, Russia, and Pakistan.
Not only does China need to be included, but Beijing should be encouraged to take on a far more proactive role in Afghanistan’s national development. As a nearby state and an emerging superpower eager to expand its access to natural resources, China has both an economic and security interest in becoming a major player in the country. The United States, Afghanistan, and their partners should press Beijing to contribute to the difficult developmental work that is still needed.
Others need to be at that table as well, particularly those like the European Union, Russia, and Pakistan who possess the financial largesse or political relationships to create the kind of stability Afghanistan needs for a better economy.
By taking a longer strategic view and pulling in other partners to work with Afghanistan and the United States, I believe progress is achievable over the long-term -- although it will still be a difficult road.
When I advised the Afghanistan Ministry of Defense, several of the generals I worked with most closely helped me appreciate what life was like in Afghanistan before the Taliban, then during the Taliban occupation, and the gradual but important progress that occurred since 2001. I learned many lessons from them, and my faith in Afghanistan’s ability to survive and grow is placed in the younger generations of Afghans. They have already done so much, starting with the hundreds of thousands of Afghan soldiers who have fought and sacrificed on behalf of their country.
I feel an urgency to end this military conflict that has already surpassed in length any war the United States has fought in its history. The U.S. must engage a long-term strategy endorsed with international endorsement and support -- a plan that helps Afghanistan prosper as a strong, sovereign, independent country. We have developed these kinds of strategies before. Let us do it again.
U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Lower Half (Retired) Sandy Adams is a fellow of the American College of National Security Leaders. The views expressed are the author's own.