Defining victory in Afghanistan

Sgt. Canaan Radcliffe/U.S. Army

U.S. Army Spc. Josh Brimm with the 307th Psychological Operations Company stands guard along a dirt road near Malajat, in Kandahar province, Afghanistan, on June 3, 2011.

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  • What will it take for Enduring victory in #Afghanistan? @PaulWolfowitz explains

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  • There is an alternative in #Afghanistan : the "Colombia standard" of success

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  • Debate on #Afghanistan framed by two diametrically opposed definitions of success

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The American debate on Afghanistan seems to be framed by two diametrically opposed definitions of success. One says that we have effectively won the war already—that the death of Osama bin Laden and the increase in targeted drone attacks have achieved the goal of preventing transnational terrorists from once again using sanctuaries in Afghanistan to attack the United States. The other view holds that success is impossible—that the goal of a stable Afghan government in control of its own territory is beyond our reach.

Both views lead to the same result: a premature abandonment of Afghanistan that could return it to the control of the Taliban and allow al Qaeda and other extremists to regain sanctuaries. Even targeted drone strikes would be much less effective without the human intelligence needed to support them.

But there is an alternative: the"Colombia standard" of success. It's probably unrealistic to think that the Afghan government can completely control Afghan territory by 2014 or even some later date. But, like the Colombian government, it could achieve success short of complete victory.

After decades of struggle against its armed insurgency, Colombia has substantially reduced the territory held by the Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Fatality rates and kidnappings have been cut roughly in half over roughly a decade, and key FARC leaders have been killed. Assassinations of judges and other government officials were once frequent but now are much less so.

Crucially, nearly all of the fighting has been done by Colombian armed forces, with the U.S. providing advisers, intelligence and military equipment. Even today the homicide rate in Colombia remains high—much higher than violent civilian deaths in Afghanistan. But 10 years after Colombia seemed headed to collapse, it has achieved something that is widely regarded as a victory.

In Colombia's jungles as in Afghanistan's mountains, the guerillas can always find sanctuaries. Both countries' guerillas also enjoy sanctuaries across the border—and Pakistan probably gives more support to the Taliban than Venezuela gives the FARC. Guerilla movements that enjoy sanctuaries can never be completely defeated. But the important thing, from an American point of view, is that in Colombia it is Colombians, not Americans, who are fighting for their own country.

In Afghanistan our goal should be an Afghan government and security forces able to control the country's major cities and most of its territory with only modest outside help. Substantial territory, mostly in the rural South and East, would remain contested or even partly insurgent-controlled. But any large concentrations of extremists would be vulnerable to drone strikes or commando raids by Afghan and American forces. And over time, Afghan government forces could gradually reduce the remaining enemy strength.

A Colombia standard of success cannot be taken as an excuse for hasty withdrawal. For one thing, Afghanistan's security forces are two years away from being fully built. And while enemy-initiated violence is down about 25% from a year ago, and progress has been made in Helmand and Kandahar, additional American and NATO effort in the more densely populated East—as planned for 2012 and 2013—is needed before the Afghan army can take over primary responsibility. This may require keeping 68,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan through the 2013 fighting season, before cutting forces further.

While Colombians deserve most of the credit for success, they depended on a long-term U.S. commitment that was limited in scale but not in time. Afghanistan will need that even more. With a desperately poor economy (one-sixteenth the size of Colombia's), Afghanistan cannot sustain the army it needs without help. The country will need some $3 billion annually in foreign military assistance for an extended period after 2014, as well as a continuing military presence in the range of 10,000 U.S. and other NATO troops in a supporting role.

A U.S.-led commitment to provide that funding in the future would help the current situation. Making clear that we will not abandon the country the way that we did after the defeat of the Soviets in 1989 would reassure our friends, discourage our enemies, and induce the Pakistanis to cooperate.

It would also give the U.S. valuable leverage in the current Afghan debate about post-2014 security arrangements. Instead of appearing as the supplicant—seeking to use Afghan territory for our own purposes—and allowing Afghan President Hamid Karzai to burnish his nationalist credentials by imposing conditions, we should make it clear that the help the Afghans need will be forthcoming, provided our conditions are met. One condition should be a process of consultation that extends beyond Mr. Karzai's hand-picked loya jirga.

We should certainly ask other countries to share the burden in both military and economic assistance, but the annual cost of this commitment would be roughly 10% of what we are currently expending—and Afghanistan's neighborhood remains central to American national security.

Even these costs would be too high if the cause were indeed lost. But success is possible if we think in terms of Colombia. Giving up now—or declaring victory prematurely—would be a grave mistake when, despite the challenges, three-fourths of Afghanistan is now reasonably secure and the Afghan armed forces are well over halfway toward achieving the capabilities they will need.

Our current exit strategy of reducing American troops to 68,000 by the end of next summer and transferring full security responsibility to Afghan forces by 2014 is working. In a war where the U.S. has demonstrated remarkable strategic patience, we need to stay patient and resolute.

Mr. O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, is co-author of its Afghanistan Index and author of "The Wounded Giant: America's Armed Forces in an Age of Austerity" (Penguin, 2011). Mr. Wolfowitz, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is a former U.S. deputy secretary of defense.

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