President Barack Obama made clear this week that the remaining troops will soon come home from Iraq. Some 10 years after the first troops landed in Afghanistan, we're now nearly back to a one-front war. But where are we, really? It's clear that both citizens and Washington alike are collectively weary of war and frustrated by this particular mission, with its interminable timelines and uncertain partners in Kabul and Islamabad, even if it has only been three to four years since the United States intensified its collective focus and resources on this mission.
In both Iraq and Afghanistan, the temporary surge of U.S. forces was used for two purposes: First, to increase the size and quality of Iraqi and Afghan security forces so that they could take over most or all of the fight -- this might be called "the surge that stays behind" or the "permanent surge"; and second, to create conditions sufficiently stable so that what we hand off to indigenous forces is not a losing hand that is doomed to fail, but one with a reasonable chance of success. The surge in Iraq produced dramatic results in a relatively short period of time; the results in Afghanistan have been more limited. With the president having announced that U.S. forces will withdraw by 2014, the question bears asking: Is victory in Afghanistan now beyond our grasp?
Many analysts have noted that the surge strategy in Afghanistan needs to be fundamentally different from that in Iraq. It is not an accident but rather a product of geography and the demography that Iraq has had strong central governments over the course of thousands of years, whereas Afghanistan has never had one. An Iraqi government can aspire to control all or nearly all of its territory. Indeed, any notion of success in Iraq virtually requires it. An Afghan government, on the other hand, cannot aspire to such an ambitious goal and, critically, success in Afghanistan does not require it.
Strange though it may sound, success in Afghanistan would look a lot more like the success that has been achieved in Colombia over the last 10 years, rather than the success that we are hoping for in Iraq. This is a point that was made two-and-a-half years ago by Scott Wilson, a Washington Post reporter who had spent four years in Colombia as a correspondent and a year in Iraq. Writing in April 2009, Wilson said that Obama "may want to look south rather than east in charting a new course" for Afghanistan. Though they hide in triple-canopy jungles rather than forbidding mountains, the insurgents in Colombia, like those in Afghanistan, will always enjoy the benefit of sanctuaries inside the country. And, until Pakistan withdraws its support for the Taliban, Pakistan will cause the same problems for the Afghan government that Venezuela does for Colombia.
Back then, in 2009, Afghanistan wasn't ready for such a strategy. But the successes of the surge since then -- which have been substantial even though not as dramatic as the ones achieved in just a year in Iraq -- make it possible to do so now. In both Iraq and Afghanistan the surge has involved a temporary increase in U.S. troop levels -- but the increase in numbers only works because it supports a shift in strategy, from one centered on killing or capturing enemy combatants to one focused on providing security for the local population. Along with that shift in strategy, a much greater emphasis has been placed on increasing both the quality and quantity of local security forces, so that they can eventually maintain that local security -- and continue the fight against extremists -- without substantial reliance on U.S. forces.
But even assuming a best-case scenario, it is unlikely that any government would be able to exercise control over the entire country, much less one with Afghanistan's weak institutions, uncertain current leadership, colonial borders, and ancient tribal society. There will always be significant sections of the country, particularly in the more remote mountainous regions, where a guerilla movement like the Taliban can find effective sanctuary. That situation is substantially worsened by the existence of virtually unimpeded sanctuary on the Pakistan side of the border and support for the Taliban from important elements of that country's national security apparatus.
Given the strength and determination of the Taliban, perhaps it was never realistic to establish what the U.N. Conference on Afghanistan in Bonn in 2001 hoped would be "a broad-based, gender sensitive, multi-ethnic and fully representative government" over all of Afghanistan. But if we set our sights realistically, we can still achieve the minimum standards of success needed to protect American security and give the Afghan people hope for a better future, in a way that is also consistent with the pressures of U.S. politics. Rather than aiming to establish government control over the entire country, the U.S. goal should be to contain the insurgency while giving the Afghans the tools to take over the fight from us in coming years.