Three very different and dramatic images frame the story of Afghanistan today.
First, consider the image of American troops posted in remote and often barren outposts in the mountains and valleys of Afghanistan, working under fiercely difficult conditions to protect villagers and fight the Taliban. In the aftermath of Osama bin Laden's death a former paratrooper with the U.S. Army Special Operations Command wrote of his deployment: "Our job was to build a sustainable nation in a Mad Max wasteland, and we did our duty." The crazy lawlessness of Mad Max similarly permeates the Oscar-nominated documentary Restrepo, as well as the descriptions of other outposts in the Korengal Valley in Bing West's 2011 book The Wrong War.
The second image is of the extraordinary operation carried out by the highly skilled and trained team of Navy SEALs against Osama bin Laden's compound. Amid the deep satisfaction of having finally caught the man who symbolized Al Qaeda and the attacks on September 11, 2001 more than any other has been a deep pride in the capabilities, organization, and preparation of these young men and the intelligence, analysis, and institutions behind their operation. They succeeded in accomplishing a key piece of the mission U.S. troops are in Afghanistan to do: degrade and destroy al Qaeda. But this success did not follow from state-building operations on the ground in Afghanistan itself. Indeed, the operation did not even take place in Afghanistan, but in Pakistan.
The third image is of young Arabs from Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, and now Syria mustering the courage to face bullets, beatings, and brutality to claim their basic rights as human beings: to speak and assemble freely, to participate in deciding how they will be governed, and to hold their governments accountable for the provision of basic services and the possibility of a better life. The determination of these protesters, in the millions, to demand far more of their rulers -- even in desperately poor and conflict ridden countries -- is exactly the attitude of responsibility and self-reliance that we hope to see among the people of Afghanistan, but often do not. Instead, many reports from the field describe a culture of dependence, corruption, and inflated expectations that the United States and its allies have helped to create.
As the United States re-examines its goals in Afghanistan and begins the next phase of how to secure those goals, it is worth bearing these three images in mind and reflecting on both the connections and the disjunctions between them.
So, what is the overarching goal in Afghanistan?
The United States seeks a secure, stable, and self-reliant Afghanistan that does not provide sanctuary for al-Qaeda and that is a cross-roads for an increasingly prosperous and secure region.
Security has to be the top priority. A secure Afghanistan would be a country with low levels of violence that is defended and policed by its own local, regional, and national forces. Security means not only an end to open conflict between the government and insurgents and/or warlords, but also the kind of everyday safety that allows citizens to go to work and to send their children to school. It means a country free from the continual fear of violence or death, whether targeted or random.
Establishing that kind of security across Afghanistan requires not only building up Afghan police and military forces but also creating the incentives for them to risk their lives for the sake of protecting their people. It also means removing U.S. troops as focal points and targets for Taliban attacks, attacks that end up alienating the very villagers that our soldiers seek to protect and win over. Counterinsurgency doctrine assumes that if American troops protect and serve the population of a village, they will have incentives to give up the information those troops need to protect themselves and drive out the enemy. In some cases, for some periods of time, that has proved true. But it is a strategy that assumes the troops providing protection are there to stay for as long as it takes to erase the possibility of retaliation by the enemy that was informed upon. As long as villagers know that American troops are going to leave some day, as they will, and as long as they lack faith in their own government to protect them, their instincts for self-preservation will tell them to keep quiet. Their incentives are to go with the winner, not to help the United States and its allies win.
The only real long-term security flows from competent and honest government, whether in a village in Afghanistan or city neighborhoods in the United States. Real security in Afghanistan can come only if the central government either has the incentives to choose and keep capable and honest local and regional officials or a new constitution allows for more decentralized election of such officials and mechanisms for citizens to hold them directly accountable. Honest and capable Afghan officials exist. The most frustrating and often heart-wrenching stories over the past decade are those of mayors or police chiefs or governors who temporarily succeeded in serving their people, only to be murdered without retribution or deliberately fired by the central government and replaced with cronies.
The key question going forward is how to align the Afghan government's incentives with serving the interests of its people at every level. Many different strategies have been tried, but if the United States and its allies are in fact embarking on a public transition, it should make clear that from now on it will be investing in winners. Development dollars, civilian assistance, and military advice and support will flow to those villages, towns, cities, and provinces that demonstrate the ability to help themselves. When a competent official is replaced with an incompetent one, resources will be shifted elsewhere.