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'Finish the job' in Afghanistan? Where do we begin?

Obama faces a complex, perilous situation in which it's no longer clear what the 'job' is, or what it will take to 'finish' it.

February 05, 2009|ROSA BROOKS

Is it finally time to "finish the job" in Afghanistan?

In October 2002, Barack Obama -- then a relatively obscure Illinois state senator -- made a speech against the Iraq war. "I don't oppose all wars," he told a Chicago crowd in words that soon became famous. "What I am opposed to is a dumb war. ... You want a fight, President Bush? Let's finish the fight with Bin Laden and Al Qaeda."

As Obama moved to the U.S. Senate in 2005, and then on to the presidential campaign trail, the pledge to "finish the job" in Afghanistan became a central part of his foreign policy platform.

As politics, it was effective. But as policy, it no longer looks like such a no-brainer.

That's not because Obama is wrong when he insists that we ignore Afghanistan at our peril. If Afghanistan implodes and becomes a haven for Al Qaeda again, U.S. and global security will be threatened.

And if the violence in Afghanistan continues to spill over into nuclear-armed Pakistan and triggers the collapse of that country's fragile civilian government, the dangers are even greater.

The problem with "finishing the job" in Afghanistan is that it's no longer entirely clear what the "job" is, or what it would mean to "finish" it.

As the Bush administration rushed to war in Iraq, Afghanistan became America's orphaned war. U.S. troops in Afghanistan struggled to get resources, equipment and the attention of policymakers. Planned reconstruction projects languished, and early military gains began to erode. Afghan civilian support slipped. With too few ground troops, the U.S.-led coalition began to rely more and more on close air support (in 2005, there were 7,421 close air support missions; in 2008, there were 19,603). But the increase in aerial bombing dramatically increased unintended civilian deaths (bombs don't discriminate between terrorists and children). Civilian support eroded further.

As NATO redoubled its efforts to drive the Taliban and Al Qaeda from the Afghan mountains, militants operating in Afghanistan took refuge in neighboring Pakistan's ungoverned border regions. From there, they increasingly staged cross-border raids into Afghanistan, disrupted NATO supply lines between Pakistan and Afghanistan and carried out attacks on targets linked to the unpopular Pakistani government.

As a result, the U.S. war in Afghanistan gradually bled over into Pakistan. The U.S. has responded to militant attacks from within Pakistan with intermittent airstrikes against targets in Pakistani territory, but these have also caused unintended civilian deaths, increasingly radicalizing the Pakistani population and further jeopardizing the future of Pakistan's shaky secular civilian government.

So at this point, how we "finish the job" in Afghanistan isn't clear anymore.

Send more troops to Afghanistan, as President Obama intends to do? With more and more of Afghanistan falling back under the control of the Taliban, additional troops are clearly necessary in the short term just to protect major population centers from Taliban predation. More ground troops will also reduce the need for close air support, which will help minimize civilian casualties.

But without a broader strategy, extra troops alone won't help in the long run. Eradicating the Taliban and Al Qaeda from Afghanistan does the United States little good if Pakistan (with its nuclear prizes) solidifies as the new staging area for regional and global terrorism. But the U.S. can't add a full-scale war in Pakistan to the two wars we've already got.

In the longer run, a better strategy would be to deny the militants the popular support they need to survive, by helping both the Afghans and the Pakistani people get the roads, schools and economic and governance infrastructure they need. But there's a chicken-and-egg problem: A military solution won't work without substantial investment in the civilian sector, but civilian reconstruction projects can't get done in the midst of terrible insecurity.

In 2002, "finishing the job" in Afghanistan would have been a (relatively) feasible plan. Today, just keeping Afghanistan and Pakistan from sliding jointly into chaos will require a comprehensive approach, melding military and development strategies and addressing the broader regional dynamics at play. (Pakistan's long-simmering tensions with India reduce its willingness to put serious resources into counter- terrorism, for instance, while U.S. tensions with Russia and Iran reduce opportunities for regional cooperation.)

But that doesn't mean the administration won't be able to make progress in Afghanistan. Obama is doing what he should in these first weeks, calling for a comprehensive strategy review and listening to experts whose views differ.

Meanwhile, probably the best thing his team can do is finish off the "finish the job" metaphor. We're nowhere close to finishing, and there's no single "job." Restoring stability in Afghanistan and Pakistan will be a long, multifaceted process involving many players in addition to the U.S. -- and that process is just getting started.

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rbrooks@latimescolumnists.com

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