Even if the United States and its allies wanted to devote major resources to stabilizing the situation, it would be hard to do so now, after years of chronic neglect. Somalia lacks security forces that could secure neighborhoods and prevent them from becoming havens for terrorists or pirates. More fatally, Somalis have lost whatever faith they might once have had not only in the United States but also in international organizations such as the United Nations, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the African Union. Years of empty promises and failed programs have sullied the reputations of aid workers and peacekeepers, limiting the prospects for any future engagement.
If the United States were to start drawing down forces in Afghanistan -- a move that would undoubtedly spark withdrawals by many NATO allies -- it is not hard to imagine Afghanistan spiraling downward to become a "Somalia on steroids." In the 1990s, both were gripped by internecine fighting among brutal warlords. In Afghanistan, the chaos allowed for the emergence of the Taliban, an Islamist group similar to Somalia's al-Shabab. And as recent civilian casualties have made painfully clear, U.S. counterterrorism strikes there have been no more effective than in Somalia. Drone strikes should certainly play a role in hunting high-value targets, but they are effective only when backed by actionable local intelligence gathered from secure Afghans. Relying solely on air power will only serve to alienate the populace in the long run.
Although the time to win the hearts and minds of the Somalis may have come and gone, it's still not too late for the Afghan people. One of the bright spots in the war is the Taliban's abysmal approval rating. An ABC-BBC poll released in February revealed that only 4 percent of Afghans would prefer rule by the Taliban. And though the corruption surrounding the recent presidential election has undermined Hamid Karzai's government, the damage can still be undone, particularly if the Afghan government works in conjunction with coalition forces to improve the delivery of basic services and security. Such a commitment will require considerably more troops than are currently on the ground. This is the strategy envisioned by the U.S. commanding officer in Kabul, Gen. Stanley McChrystal.
Obama is right to pause and consider all the ramifications of sending more Americans into harm's way. But if the administration's ongoing strategy review is honest and rigorous, it should conclude that there is really no alternative -- that reverting to a counterterrorism model risks turning Afghanistan into another Somalia. Absent a significant foreign troop presence and an accompanying counterinsurgency approach, the Afghan government would likely fall to warlordism or to the Taliban. The United States and its allies would then have no choice but to intervene selectively. And as in Somalia, a light footprint that targets terrorists without protecting the people would only serve to discredit the international community in the eyes of the Afghans.
Some might be prepared to live with that eventuality, as we currently live with the chaos in Somalia. But though the violence from Somalia certainly has spilled across borders in the form of terrorism and piracy, the danger emanating from a failed Afghanistan would be far greater. The terrorist groups that are based in South Asia -- notably al Qaeda -- have a more international focus and greater operational capacity than does al-Shabab. And, of course, Afghanistan is located next to another unstable state that has nuclear weapons. Should Pakistan, too, become another Somalia, the world would have a true nightmare scenario on its hands. A drawdown by the West in Afghanistan would only make that bad dream more likely.