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For too long, U.S. and NATO efforts in Afghanistan have been under-resourced and poorly coordinated. As a result, the United States’ early gains in the country have been reversed, and the Taliban and al-Qaeda have grown stronger and more lethal. Violence in the country has reached levels not seen since the initial invasion in 2001. In 2003, U.S. troops experienced fewer than 50 casualties; last year, that number had risen to 150. Attacks on U.S. and coalition forces have also grown more sophisticated, even in areas of the country where the Taliban is not thought to be strong. And while the military has had some success in eliminating high-level members of the insurgency, al-Qaeda continues to operate in Afghanistan and Pakistan, posing a serious threat to U.S. national security.
President Obama’s decision to send 17,000 additional combat troops and 4,000 additional trainers for the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police, is a necessary first step to reversing the deteriorating security situation in the country. But while necessary, the troop increase proposed by President Obama is not sufficient to achieve sustainable security in Afghanistan.
The administration’s decision to increase the amount of civilian experts and diplomatic resources, and the adoption of a regional approach is also necessary to correct American policy in Afghanistan. In addition to increasing security in Afghanistan, new troop deployments will enable these other elements of US national power to be put to more effective use.
Despite a decline in support in recent years, the United States and NATO still remain popular among a broad segment of the Afghan population, and additional forces will ensure that we can provide the aid and security needed to build our relationship with them. Stuart Bowen, the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, recognized this relationship between security and growth, when he wrote that, “reconstruction cannot proceed on a large scale without the requisite security to protect those carrying out the projects and those overseeing them.”
As the U.S. and its NATO allies increase their military and civilian presence in Afghanistan, they must also maintain their strong commitment to stabilizing the region, particularly Pakistan. The fates of Afghanistan and Pakistan are tightly intertwined, due to the porous and often lawless border region between them. Like Afghanistan, Pakistan’s problems cannot be solved by military means alone. Stability will only be achieved as the result of a coordinated effort to create security, economic growth, and an open democratic system. This effort, as well as U.S. work in Afghanistan, must include regional actors such as China, India, Russia, and Iran.
Despite the neglect of Afghanistan on the part of the Bush administration, we must remember that it is the central front in the War on Terror. Therefore, we cannot ignore the threat Afghanistan poses to our vital national security interest, and we must combat it with all of the resources at our disposal—development aid, diplomacy, and military force.
(For more debates between Katrina vanden Heuvel and Lawrence Korb, visit Rethink Afghanistan.)