Afghan Mission Creep: Back to Nation-Building

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Julie Jacobson / AP

Police officers destroy a patch of illegally grown poppies in the Badakhshan province of Afghanistan

President Barack Obama prioritized the conflict in Afghanistan soon after taking office, but he made it clear that the U.S. would scale down its ambitions there. The objective of the mission would be to defeat al-Qaeda and its supporters in the Taliban, rather than trying to turn Afghanistan into a modern, well-governed state. "We are not going to be able to rebuild Afghanistan into a Jeffersonian democracy," the new President said.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates was even more blunt: "If we set ourselves the objective of creating some sort of a Central Asian Valhalla over there, we will lose," Gates told Congress. "Because nobody in the world has that much time, patience or money, to be honest."

But last week, when Obama's Afghanistan point man Richard Holbrooke and his team laid out the Administration's aims for Afghanistan during a briefing at Washington's Center for American Progress, it was clear that the agenda had grown more ambitious. There was talk of creating jobs, growing agribusiness, reforming the justice sector, promoting mobile banking, starting a media commission, fighting corruption. Holbrooke never actually used the phrase, but his program sounded suspiciously like nation-building.

It fell to Holbrooke's host, former Clinton White House chief of staff John Podesta, to point out that the policy "reflects a much larger strategy than the very narrow definition that the President used."

For many Afghanistan experts, that's as it should be. U.S. security goals in the region, they argue, cannot be achieved purely by military means; good governance and modern institutions are essential to prevent the resurgence of extremism and to allow American and NATO troops to someday head home. "Democracy and development have to be part of any exit strategy," says the Rand Corp.'s James Dobbins, who was President Bush's first envoy to Kabul.

But if the Obama Administration has indeed signed up for nation-building in Afghanistan, it hasn't told the American electorate — an omission that could bring political grief at home and strategic costs in Afghanistan. In his comments on Afghanistan to date, Obama has "never owned up to state-building, never said so," says Ashley Tellis, an Afghanistan expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "He's committed to doing something that the country has not been brought along."

Tellis agrees with Holbrooke's broad approach, but worries that the Administration hasn't adequately forewarned the U.S. public about the costs of nation-building. "It's expensive, time-consuming and requires a national commitment," he says. "Reluctance to own up to this in a transparent way could be the undoing [of the Obama strategy]."

Can an Administration already bogged down in a health-care debate and with its hands full of domestic economic problems persuade Americans that nation-building in Afghanistan is the right thing to do? Tellis believes Obama needs to make the case that U.S. security necessitates it. "Ultimately, it's not about Afghanistan for its own sake, but as an instrument to defeat al-Qaeda, and defend the [American] homeland," he says.

And Afghanistan experts suggest that Obama needs to make that argument now, while Congress is still being patient with the Administration's AfPak policy. "We're going to need time in Afghanistan to be successful," says California Representative Buck McKeon, the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee. Just back from a trip to Afghanistan, McKeon says his main worry is that Obama will come under pressure from his own party to speed things up: "I hope he doesn't get so much push back on the left that he waffles on giving the sufficient time to the military and to the State Department and the others to have time to be successful there."

But it's one thing to ask for more time, and quite another to explain how, for instance, creating a mobile-banking network helps the fight against al-Qaeda. The benefits of nation-building programs are often indirect, and hard to measure. (Ultimately, the hope is that access to banking will make farmers less reliant on loans from drug smugglers, and so less likely to grow opium, which helps finance al-Qaeda and the Taliban.)

Then there's the question of priorities. Should energy and money be spent on supporting a media commission to monitor bias, or on recovering territory under Taliban control? Jason Campbell, an Afghanistan expert at the Brookings Institution, lauds the lofty goals of nation-building, but says, "when you drill down, our resources are finite, and we have to start making priorities." Rather than be "overly concerned with quality-of-life issues," the Administration should right now focus on "reducing the violence and helping establish legitimacy of the [Afghan] government."

At last week's panel discussion, Holbrooke conceded that the Administration's goals can't be too far into the future. "We all feel the impatience and pressure of the American public and Congress," he said. "We need to show that all these programs have to produce results."

But when asked how success could be measured, he could only fall back on an old Washington cliché: "We'll know it when we see it."

Not even Barack Obama can sell that to the American people.

— With reporting by Sophia Yan / Washington