It is undeniable that U.S. prospects in Afghanistan look bleak. Over 100 NATO soldiers were killed in June—more than during any month of the war to date. No European government and increasingly no American one can sustain such losses for long. At the same time, senior U.S. officials who handle Afghanistan and Pakistan policy have been clashing with one another, both in Washington and Kabul. Nor is there a reliable partner on the ground. President Hamid Karzai has presided over corruption and a striking lack of progress in development. All the while, the Taliban have been spreading throughout the country. No matter what advances NATO forces make during the next six months in Helmand and Kandahar provinces—Taliban strongholds, which are located in the south—it seems fair to wonder whether these achievements will prove remotely sustainable over the long term.
This grim situation suggests that President Obama needs a change in strategy—one that takes into account the fact that NATO troops probably will not be able to stay in Afghanistan much longer. On the diplomatic front, the United States must begin talking to its enemy. Pakistan has said it could mediate negotiations that would bring the Taliban face-to-face with Americans. And, with Karzai determined to talk to the Taliban, it would be to average Afghans’ benefit for the United States not to remain on the sidelines—since, without U.S. participation, Pakistan and Iran could exercise excessive influence over the negotiations or Karzai could give away too much.
But it is not just the diplomatic strategy that must change; it is also the military strategy. And here, there is one deceptively simple idea that could make a substantial difference: Concentrate on comparatively easy objectives. Providing security to large numbers of Afghans, strengthening the Karzai government, and encouraging economic growth are all within the grasp of Western forces—if they are willing to stop battling for control of the pro-Taliban south and redirect their efforts to more modest projects.
The most obvious need is to clear and secure the ring road that links Afghanistan’s major cities and that has been mostly rebuilt, at considerable cost, by the international community. Today, huge swaths of the road are controlled by the Taliban, and ordinary Afghans cannot even drive safely from Kabul to Kandahar, thanks to checkpoints run by corrupt police, criminal gangs, warlords, trucking contractors, and various Taliban groups. The millions of Afghans whom the ring road reaches would certainly benefit from an effort by the United States and NATO to secure the highway; and the country as a whole could see economic benefits in the form of increased trade. Plus, it would give NATO a way to reduce the massive corruption that currently permeates the trucking of supplies to various bases.
Second, NATO should focus on securing the provinces around Kabul, areas where the Taliban are relatively weak—albeit still capable of tormenting the local population—and pro-government sentiment is fairly strong. Routing the Taliban conclusively in these provinces would give the United States an opening to invest heavily in economic development, perhaps turning the area into a model for what could be accomplished elsewhere in the country. Another step would be clearing the eastern and northern provinces, which are, like the area around Kabul, more pro-government than the Taliban-dominated south. As for the south: U.S. forces should settle for less ambitious aims, such as preventing Taliban expansion and seeking to turn local residents against the militia. But there would be a tacit acceptance that the south would be the Taliban’s main bargaining chip in any negotiations.
Emphasizing political dialogue while taking on easier goals seems likely to be a more popular strategy with Afghans than waging a possibly futile battle for Helmand and Kandahar. It should also prove more popular in the West and could decrease the pressure on NATO governments to withdraw their troops. The strategy might not lead to ideal outcomes; but it may, at this point, be the West’s most realistic option for helping Afghanistan.
Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist, is the author of, most recently, Descent Into Chaos: The U.S. and the Disaster in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia. His best-selling book Taliban has just been updated and reissued on the tenth anniversary of its publication.