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Time For A New Focus On Afghanistan

More must be done to win back public support in Afghanistan.
More must be done to win back public support in Afghanistan.

Following the historic election of Barack Obama as U.S. president on November 4, we asked some of our broadcasters and other contributors to offer the next president their advice on how to proceed in some of the key regions of the world for U.S. policy.

Back in the 1930s, U.S. politicians and pundits coined the term "Afghanistanism" to denote issues that could safely be overlooked or placed on the back burner. But the new U.S. president must not relegate Afghanistan to the realm of Afghanistanism -- or that term must be redefined to designate a top-priority foreign-policy issue.

The tragic terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, were followed by a half-hearted and flawed U.S.-led international effort in Afghanistan. The ultimate result of this was a resurgence of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, creating a colossal problem that the United States can no longer ignore. The question facing the new president is therefore how to change U.S. policy to turn Afghanistan into a success.

In the last weeks of the U.S. election campaign, both John McCain and Barack Obama repeatedly stated that Afghanistan would be a foreign-policy priority for them. They both incorporated the right components into their proposed new strategy to win the war: increasing the number of troops, reforming the military command, and adopting a regional strategy and a "comprehensive approach" to the war.

Success, however, will depend on how the next U.S. president will develop and combine the various components of that overall strategy. Most Afghans, from the man in the street to political leaders, would offer the following advice to the future occupant of the Oval Office:

A military surge might be necessary, but simply adding more boots on the ground is not the whole answer. An effective counterinsurgency campaign requires deploying special forces. It also requires intimate knowledge not just of the terrain, but also of the psychology and sociology of the enemy and his potential collaborators.

Therefore, more intensive training for the Afghan National Security Forces must be part of any increase in military commitment. Unifying command structure within the various branches of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan is a must, as well as incorporating NATO operations under that unified command. Without it, any increase in the number of foreign troops would be pointless.

The decision to extend the war into Pakistani territory and to pressure Islamabad to crack down on the insurgents was undoubtedly wise, if belated. However, it must be implemented with extreme caution. While the new U.S. president must no longer allow Pakistani leaders to mislead him, he should strike a delicate balance in order to avoid plunging that fragile nuclear-armed state into total chaos. Moreover, a regional approach must extend not just to Pakistan, but also to Iran, as a stakeholder that stands to benefit from peace and stability in Afghanistan.

It is the "comprehensive approach" that is the most ambiguous component of the campaign rhetoric, and which needs serious consideration, deliberation, and commitment.

A comprehensive approach to Afghanistan must encompass a significant commitment not only to security, but also to state-building and economic development. Also crucial is a vigorous public-relations campaign, as a vital crosscutting element.

Losing Hearts And Minds

Ultimately, victory over the insurgency is contingent on winning the hearts and minds of the local population. Since October 2001, the U.S.-led intervention in Afghanistan has managed to do exactly the opposite. Seven years of raising expectations and failing to deliver has left the Afghans feeling bitter toward Afghan President Hamid Karzai's government, and by extension, the U.S.-led international involvement in their country.

Reliance on inaccurate and unverified intelligence reports has resulted in an increase in civilian casualties that are invariably dismissed as "collateral damage." Those ongoing casualties have done more to alienate the civilian population than the Taliban ever could. Military tactics need to be rethought in such a way as to minimize civilian casualties. In the event of further deaths, U.S. statements should be remorseful and conciliatory, rather than simply reiterate that "collateral damage" is inevitable.

Painfully slow reforms, flawed capacity-development efforts, and widespread corruption -- especially within the judiciary -- have also contributed to the disenchantment. The new U.S. president may consider these purely internal matters, but given the importance of securing popular support for the counterinsurgency campaign, reducing corruption and reforming dysfunctional state structures and procedures are significant components of the overall effort.

Thus far, Karzai has proved either unable or unwilling to take drastic measures to combat corruption in its many forms. It is time for the United States and its allies to place well-defined criteria and benchmarks before the Afghan government as a condition for continued support.

Afghanistan ranks second-to-last, if not last, on most human-development indices. Though there have been some improvements in the areas of education and health care, the number of Afghans living below the poverty line has increased over the past two years. Allocating additional resources for Afghanistan's economic development is imperative to deter the population from turning to the insurgents or various forms of crime.

Although the amount per capita of U.S. and international aid for Afghanistan has been less than what has been given to other postconflict countries, judicious, logical, and transparent distribution could have considerably increased its effectiveness, and, by extension, its impact on the population. The new chief executive in the White House must consider not only stepping up development aid, but equally importantly, taking additional steps to ensure it is used effectively.

This may sound like a tall order, but the man in the White House should know that chaos in Afghanistan can adversely affect the lives of millions of his constituents. Furthermore, failure in Afghanistan will seriously damage his global stance as the leader of the free and democratic world.

Helena Malikyar is a broadcaster with RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan. The views expressed in this commentary are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL