Sunday, February 8, 2009

Solving Afghanistan

The new Obama team in the White House has refocused on Afghanistan. Largely neglected -- especially in manpower -- for years under the previous administration, Afghanistan has witnessed a resurgence of the Taliban. And their funding derives from the a poppy trade that accounts for a bigger illicit GDP than Afghanistan's official GDP ($3 billion versus $2 billion), which continues to reveal the country's lack of development.

The goal of a more prosperous, peaceful Afghanistan first requires a stable security environment. There are two competing views on how to achieve this. One solution is to significantly increase the number of troops in Afghanistan. Saturate the country with enough boots on the ground to suck the oxygen out of the room for militant flames. If security can be imposed for long enough in this way, then perhaps time can be bought for true and meaningful infrastructure and economic development. The troop numbers, though, cannot be found among US or NATO forces -- the political will or available manpower is hard to come by. So the solution here would be appealing to regional neighbors -- especially India and China -- for assistance. I will write more on this option in the coming week or two.

The alternative view is to give up the idea of a troop build-up and use small, covert operations to strike important strategic blows to militants. George Friedman, the head at an intelligence firm called Stratfor, espouses this view. Basically, Friedman says that -- given the trouble of hindered supply lines and obtaining troops for Afghanistan -- the US should use a combination of intelligence-gathering, special operations, and airstrikes to achieve the most pressing objective: security. Not only is this option politically easier to sell (because it is cheaper and no one has to read about a published list of CIA casualties), but this also allows the US to avoid the difficult task of convincing other countries to commit their people to the struggle.

It is debatable whether or not such a minimalist approach as Friedman's could achieve stability in a country about the size of Texas. Moreover, it seems that the Obama Administration is leaning toward increasing the troop commitment rather than reducing it. Nevertheless, an in-depth policy review is currently being conducted; now is the time to debate the options.

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