Brett H. McGurk

A surge to sovereignty in Afghanistan

By Brett H. McGurk
November 8, 2009

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THE AIM in any successful counterinsurgency is to support and strengthen a sovereign and friendly government. The inherent paradox is that use of US military power, or even US diplomatic leverage, to achieve that aim undercuts the perceived legitimacy and sovereignty of the government it seeks to support. Enemies exploit this paradox to their benefit, labeling US troops as occupiers and governments allied with us as puppets, undeserving of support from their own people.

From Vietnam to Pakistan to Iraq and now Afghanistan, this is a lesson the United States continues to get wrong - making short-term decisions with unintended long-term consequences.

In 1963, the United States supported a coup against the corrupt but allied president of South Vietnam, without asking what might come next.

For 30 years the United States has whipsawed Pakistan from close ally to sanctioned adversary and now, to something in between: a partner, but under unilaterally imposed conditions that may sound nice in Washington, but weaken the very government we seek to help.

In Iraq, from 2004-2008, the government failed to take root with the Iraqi people, despite electoral legitimacy or broad-based coalitions. The US military, under a broad mandate from the United Nations, was authorized to take any action it deemed necessary to contribute to the stability of Iraq, often against the wishes of Iraq’s elected leadership. The result was constant tension with the government we sought to support, and a continued nationalist-based justification by extremist groups to fight US and Iraqi forces.

Two events finally changed this dynamic: the surge of US forces in 2007 and the negotiation of a security agreement, approved by the Iraqi Parliament, to govern the forces’ longer-term presence and ultimate withdrawal. These events were part of the same strategy, focused on the ultimate aim of supporting a stable government in Baghdad. The surge was necessary to boost the capability and capacity of Iraqi forces, so they could hold the line as our forces began to withdraw. The security agreement was necessary to firmly anchor our presence in Iraq on the basis of Iraqi consent - a legitimization that had been lacking since 2003.

The agreement fell short of what the United States sought to achieve in some areas, including combat authorities. But it met the strategic aim, by enhancing Iraqi sovereignty, setting clear conditions for our presence, and allowing our forces to draw down with honor. Together with a companion strategic framework agreement, also approved by the Iraqi Parliament, the United States set a cornerstone for a long-term relationship with a truly sovereign state.

Today’s debate about Afghanistan - to surge or not to surge - risks repeating our worst mistakes from the early days of Iraq. The Afghan government is weak, so we publicly berate its president and weaken it further. The Afghan forces lack capacity to battle the Taliban on their own, so we question their ability to ever hold the line as we draw down our forces. A surge is discredited as putting good money after bad, with no exit strategy and tens of thousands of US troops contributing to a status quo.

But the lesson of Iraq is that a short-term investment focused on regaining momentum can strengthen our allies and set the conditions for our ultimate withdrawal. As in Iraq, a surge is probably necessary to reset the trajectory of the war. But the surge needs a bookend: an agreement approved by the Afghan Parliament (probably by the end of 2011) that sets the terms and conditions for any longer-term US military presence.

This formula - a surge to a negotiated agreement - can serve over the next two years to strengthen both the capacity and the legitimacy of the Afghan government and its security forces. It is a coherent multiyear policy, with an exit strategy, leaving behind a stable and truly sovereign government, partnered with the United States under a negotiated road map. And it allows, through structured high-level talks, and behind closed doors, to have frank discussions with Afghan leaders about what they need to do in exchange for a longer-term US commitment.

There are no shortcuts to solidifying sovereign governance in Kabul or Baghdad. But by boosting resources in the short term, and negotiating the basis of our presence over the longer-term, we can best defeat our enemies by strengthening our friends.

Brett H. McGurk, who served on the National Security Council staffs of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, is a fellow at Harvard’s Institute of Politics.

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