February 29, 2012
Violent Afghan protests over the burning of Qurans have strengthened the hand of those in Washington who argue for a faster reduction of U.S. troops. Especially galling was an incident of violence within Afghanistan's Interior Ministry, in which a disaffected driver shot and killed two American advisers.
Many Americans seem to be saying that if the Afghan people don't want us there, why should we stay? That's dubious logic because we are not in Afghanistan as a favor to the Afghan people. We are there to protect our own self-interest in not having their territory once again become a haven for al Qaeda.
It's also a fallacy to assume that most Afghans are anti-American. The protests, which tapered off Tuesday, have involved a few thousand people out of a population of 30 million. The attacks on Americans have been carried out by a handful of assailants. President Hamid Karzai has accepted President Obama's apology over the Quran-burning incident, condemned the violence and called for restraint. His security forces have policed the protests and suffered heavier casualties than our own.
While no doubt most people in Afghanistan are outraged over the desecration of their holy book, they are not anti-American. The most recent survey of Afghan views, conducted by ABC/BBC/ARD in November 2010, found that 62% of Afghans support the U.S. military presence while only 11% support the Taliban. That's considerably higher than the share of Americans who back the mission—35%. Another poll, conducted by the Asia Foundation last year, found that only 21% of Afghans blame foreign troops for the war waged by the Taliban and other insurgents. Most Afghans think the Taliban are fighting to gain power, make money, or for other selfish motives.
One can always question opinion polls in a country where illiteracy and insecurity are rampant. But Afghans also demonstrate with their actions where their sympathies lie. More than 350,000 Afghan men have joined the security forces and more would sign up if there were money to pay them. Estimates of the insurgency's strength are generally under 30,000 men. That's far below the number of mujahedeen—an estimated 100,000 out of a smaller population—who took up arms against the Soviet Union in the 1980s.
There is considerable resentment of the United States in Afghanistan, as you would expect from any proud people who are compelled to deal with a foreign military presence. But the biggest reason Afghans are wary is because the NATO mission has not delivered what they most want—freedom from fear. In the Asia Foundation poll, 46% said the country was moving in the right direction but pervasive insecurity was their greatest concern.
The U.S. and its allies have been taking important steps to address insecurity, especially in Kandahar and Helmand provinces where most surge troops have gone. Commanders had hoped to pivot the focus of operations this year to eastern Afghanistan, where insecurity continues to lap at the outskirts of Kabul. But that plan has been put in serious jeopardy by President Obama's decision to bring home 32,000 troops by September.
Further troops cuts are rumored for announcement in May—as are cuts in the Afghan Security Forces. The U.S. is pushing to reduce the size of the Afghan army and police to just 230,000 by 2014 from 352,000 today to save a few billion dollars out of a federal budget of nearly $4 trillion.
Contrary to popular impression, the Afghan Security Forces are not a hotbed of anti-Americanism. Major Fernando Lujan, a Dari-speaking Special Forces officer, spent 14 months in Afghanistan, mostly embedded as the lone American in Afghan units, and came away impressed by their fighting spirit.
What the Afghan forces lack is logistics, equipment and intelligence. Most have to drive over IED-strewn roads in unarmored pickup trucks. The support they need to fight effectively is provided by NATO units, but Afghan fighting quality will suffer if we start withdrawing. So will their morale, because they'll feel abandoned to face an insurgency that retains Pakistan support.
The woes of the Afghan forces will surely multiply if, as currently envisioned, 120,000 troops and cops are demobilized with little prospect of a civilian job. Many could join the insurgency or the drug traffickers simply to make a living. This could be the reverse of the surge in Iraq, when 100,000 formerly hostile Sunnis joined with coalition forces to fight insurgents.
All of the problems today in the Afghan Security Forces—including Taliban infiltrators—will be aggravated by a rapid American drawdown. That will make it impossible to secure even our most basic interests and will likely consign Afghanistan to another civil war. We saw how the last such conflict played out in the 1990s with the rise of the Taliban and al Qaeda. Why risk a repeat?