At least 21,000 additional troops are headed to Afghanistan, seven years into the U.S. occupation, as part of President Obama's recently announced new strategy. The Taliban are resurgent, violence is up dramatically, and the country has been the subject of recent U.N. and NATO meetings. What does the future hold for the troubled nation? Paul Diehl is the Henning Larsen Professor of political science, the author of the recent book "Peace Operations," and the director of the Correlates of War Project, the world's largest data collection effort on international conflict. Diehl was interviewed by News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.
How different is the new strategy from what the U.S. was doing under President George W. Bush? What will change?
In many ways, there are more similarities than differences, most notably in the continuation of aerial attacks inside neighboring Pakistan. Some differences are more in degree than kind. The Obama administration will deploy more personnel and seek additional troops from allies. These will largely be dedicated, however, to carrying out existing missions of ensuring local security and defeating the Taliban, much as has been the case in recent years. There are two notable shifts in strategy. One is a greater emphasis on training local Afghan soldiers and police to assume greater responsibility for security, a prerequisite for any future drawdown of U.S. and NATO forces. Second is the strategy of promoting economic development, including agricultural alternatives to drug production, as a way to advance Afghan society and build support for its central government.
What are the essential factors keeping Afghanistan from peace and stability, especially since the Taliban seem to have little genuine support?
Afghanistan has a host of attributes and problems that make it a poor candidate for stability, much less democracy. It is a huge country of 250,000 square miles, almost the size of Texas. And the ability of any central government to exercise control and provide services is complicated by the rugged terrain and absence of transportation and communication infrastructure. Any government would have difficulty under these circumstances, but Afghanistan is also one of the poorest countries in the world. It is also characterized by numerous tribal factions, whose warlords command large militias with little loyalty to the national state. Throw in a history with limited and transitory democratic experiences and you have an almost perfect recipe for weak central government, instability and civil war. Multiple foreign interventions over many centuries have not changed the reality of a fragmented and backward country.
Why has Obama had such little success persuading NATO countries to send more troops?
Although NATO countries are much more enthusiastic about President Obama than President Bush, most of the factors that inhibit greater NATO contributions to the mission in Afghanistan have not changed. Rising casualties, donor fatigue, and limited political support for the current number of troops, much less an expansion, have made the Obama strategy a hard sell in member countries. The global financial crisis and the squeeze on government budgets further make it difficult to convince states to devote resources to a distant conflict with uncertain payoffs.
How can we recognize progress toward peace and stability, especially since increased fighting and greater losses seem likely in the short-term?
The first signs of progress would come from improvements in local security, including reductions in Taliban attacks, roadside bombings, civilian casualties, and the like. A troop surge might be able to achieve this in the short run, much as it happened in Iraq, and indeed this is part of the motivation for the Obama policy. More significant in the long run will be signs that the Afghan government and society have the capability to rule themselves. These would include not only an increase in Afghan military and police forces, but the establishment of structures that promote the rule of law, lessen corruption, and deliver services to local populations. The establishment of order and of a functioning government won't endure, however, until there are signs that Afghan society is climbing out of dire poverty, such as higher growth rates and a shift away for extensive black market activities.
What do you think has to happen for the U.S. to completely withdraw from the region?
There are probably two scenarios for withdrawal. Both are likely to be driven by diminishing popular support, as well as ongoing high resource and human costs. The difference lies in how much progress has been made on the ground. An optimistic scenario would find troop withdrawal following significant progress in fighting the Taliban along the Pakistani border and establishment of a viable government from Afghan elections later this year. The withdrawal would be modeled after a similar transition in Iraq, with troops pulled out over a period of months or years, but likely with some U.S. personnel for training and security remaining for an indefinite period. A more pessimistic scenario involves a significant deterioration of the situation in Afghanistan, characterized by rising casualties and no progress on the important indicators. Following a series of withdrawals by NATO allies, the U.S. might decide to pull out its troops, although various forms of aid would likely continue. Neither scenario is likely in the short-run, or perhaps even during the first term of the Obama presidency.