The Common Good
March 2009

'Winning' in Afghanistan

by David Cortright | March 2009

How to splinter the Taliban and support Afghans.

Few things are certain about the complex insurgencies raging in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but one thing seems clear: A military surge and escalation of the war will make matters worse, not better. The presence of large-scale foreign forces in Afghanistan is the problem, not the solution. Local opposition to U.S.-led military operations is growing, and adding more troops will likely fuel further resistance and increase support for al Qaeda-inspired extremism.

U.S. military attacks in the region validate Osama bin Laden’s warped portrayal of America waging war on Islam. More than 80 percent of the population in Pakistan believes that American policy is directed against Islam, according to recent polls. Equal percentages consider the United States more of a threat than al Qaeda or the Taliban. As long as these attitudes prevail, there will be no end of would-be recruits willing to blow themselves up to kill Americans and their allies.

Over the decades, Washington has pumped tens of billions of dollars into the region in an elusive search for military solutions. The Pakistani military and intelligence forces we fund have actively supported the Taliban. Some of the Afghan warlords we armed in the 1980s are now leaders of the insurgency fighting U.S. and NATO forces. Jalaluddin Haqqani, whom former member of Congress Charlie Wilson described as “goodness personified,” currently commands one of the most ruthless Taliban factions.

It’s important to understand that the Taliban is not a unified organization, but a diverse movement encompassing more than a dozen separate insurgent organizations in Afghanistan and dozens of Islamist groups in Pakistan. Some Taliban elements are sympathetic to bin Laden’s global agenda, but most are motivated by local concerns. The various Taliban elements are divided by ideology and purpose, but they are united now by one overriding objective: to rid their country of foreign forces. The introduction of additional foreign troops deepens this common objective.

The original reason for the U.S. intervention was to deny the use of Afghan territory for global terrorist strikes. That narrow purpose (a form of self-defense in response to the 9/11 attacks) later morphed into a large-scale war of counterinsurgency and an attempt to build centralized state institutions in a region where they have never existed.

THAT LARGER MISSION does not meet traditional Christian just war criteria. It has little probability of success (as past Soviet and British failures in Afghanistan attest), causes disproportionate harm to civilians, and does not meet accepted standards for “just cause” (which include the prevention of mass killing, but not nation-building).

Preventing terrorist attacks is a legitimate purpose, but war is the wrong means. A recent RAND Corporation study confirms that terrorist groups usually end through political bargaining and effective law enforcement, not the use of military force.

Returning to the original mission in Afghanistan would mean negotiating power-sharing arrangements with elements of the Taliban, in return for their cooperation in isolating al Qaeda and preventing global terrorist strikes. The Af­ghan government has encouraged such negotiations, but insurgent leaders have rejected talks that do not include a timetable for the removal of U.S. and NATO forces. A recent article in Foreign Affairs suggested a grand bargain that would link a reduction of foreign military operations to guarantees against the use of Afghan territory for terror attacks. Negotiating on this basis would make it easier to splinter the Taliban movement and separate it from al Qaeda.

The United States can exert enormous leverage, not by escalating the war but by offering to reduce our military presence and increasing our support for economic development. Our goals should include not only preventing future attacks, but supporting the tens of millions of Pakistanis and Afghanis, especially women, who reject the intolerance of the Taliban and aspire to a life of greater freedom and opportunity.

As we disengage militarily we should provide a surge of support for human rights and democracy. By assisting local communities to create quality public schools, effective health care systems, and reliable social welfare programs, we can help local governments win hearts and minds and reduce support for terrorism and extremism.

—David Cortright

David Cortright, a Sojourners contributing writer, is president of the Fourth Freedom Forum.

Sojourners relies on the support of readers like you to sustain our message and ministry.

Related Stories

Like what you're reading? Get Sojourners E-Mail updates!

Sojourners Comment Community Covenant

I will express myself with civility, courtesy, and respect for every member of the Sojourners online community, especially toward those with whom I disagree, even if I feel disrespected by them. (Romans 12:17-21)

I will express my disagreements with other community members' ideas without insulting, mocking, or slandering them personally. (Matthew 5:22)

I will not exaggerate others' beliefs nor make unfounded prejudicial assumptions based on labels, categories, or stereotypes. I will always extend the benefit of the doubt. (Ephesians 4:29)

I will hold others accountable by clicking "report" on comments that violate these principles, based not on what ideas are expressed but on how they're expressed. (2 Thessalonians 3:13-15)

I understand that comments reported as abusive are reviewed by Sojourners staff and are subject to removal. Repeat offenders will be blocked from making further comments. (Proverbs 18:7)