Armchair foreign policy planners and military strategists can cook up any number of changes of course for the U.S. in its quest to neuter al-Qaida in Afghanistan or prop up a government that can do the same. But the underlying assumption in most of these scenarios is that the United States is the key player in determining Afghanistan’s future. The choice that lies ahead of U.S. policymakers seems to be between a withdrawal of combat troops beginning next summer, or a longer engagement with better odds of success, which some estimates put at five years.
There is a third way. U.S. forces could apply the “surge” strategy for the next year, then withdraw. But during the coming 12 months, the U.S. could make the case to other nations that they have a critical stake in a stable Afghanistan and Pakistan.
That point was made by someone who is not an armchair observer. Sebastian Junger, speaking recently at the Commonwealth Club of California, said the U.S. has two options: leaving or doing the job of remaking Afghanistan with the resources needed to succeed. But that success must be followed with an international effort to sustain it. Mr. Junger spent time in Afghanistan in the 1990s, and has recently published the book “War” and helped film the documentary “Restrepo” about the 14 months he spent with U.S. troops in Afghanistan between May 2007 and July 2008.
At the Commonwealth Club, he was asked what his advice would be for President Barack Obama. “The Allies managed to push the German army out of Western Europe and defeat them in their homeland.” In Afghanistan, he said, there are 10,000 to 20,000 Afghan fighters “lightly armed, half of them barefoot, in the mountains … It’s not a military problem.”
But solving the larger problem means a commitment from other nations, he said.
“The chaos in Afghanistan has reached out and touched every country in Europe, either through a refugee population, through drugs … or through terrorist attacks. All of those countries have a vested interest in Afghanistan not lapsing back into a rogue state… where criminals can hide out beyond the reach of international law.
“If I were President Obama, I would say, ‘We’ve been doing this for 10 years, we’re going to do it until next summer, and if we don’t see a real effort by the rest of the world, including Muslim countries … we’re out of here, and we’ll all take our chances.’”
A concerted diplomatic effort aimed at persuading those countries of their need to contribute, if not take their turn at the helm of the rebuilding effort, must be the focus through this last year of U.S. occupation.