Can Money Save Afghanistan?

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Massoud Hossaini / AFP / Getty

A U.S. Marine walks through a poppy field on patrol in Garmser, Helmand province, Afghanistan

Even as NATO leaders struggle to find a response to Russia's military campaign in Georgia, the going remains tough for the alliance in its primary long-distance deployment: Afghanistan. A motorcycle bomb attack Monday on a NATO convoy in the usually quiet north of the country and an ambush Wednesday on vehicles carrying aid workers with the International Rescue Committee that killed three women — a British-Canadian, a Canadian and a Trinidadian-American — and their driver as they drove through Logar province are but the latest incidents in a steady stream of bad news that rarely makes the headlines. And when bombings are no longer really news but simply the fabric of daily life here, it's a sure sign that things are getting worse. There was tacit admission of that last week from Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, when he announced that he would endorse a $20 billion increase in funding for Afghanistan's security forces. But despite the impressive scale of his proposed investment in Afghanistan's fledgling national army and faltering police force, a closer examination of Gates' plan only increases the anxiety over Afghanistan's prospects. The fear of many observers in Afghanistan is that this will be the final roll of the dice by Washington.

Gates proposes doubling the ranks of the Afghan army, to 120,000, and improving the performance of the police. The funds he's proposing would pay for five years' worth of salaries, equipment, uniforms, barracks and trainers. It would also build an air force and medical teams to treat and evacuate the wounded.

Having spent time with Afghan police and army units at training facilities across the country, I can attest to the wonders that can be worked by a mere 8 to 14 weeks of instruction at the hands of American and other NATO-affiliated trainers. Men who began those training periods unable to lace their new boots quickly evolved into units that were able to stage a complex ambush. Police officers have been taught to aim their weapons, rather than "pray and spray," as one American trainer phrased it, and have come to understand why helping civilians, rather than preying on them, has important security rewards.

But it has become equally obvious how quickly that training dissipates if the newly graduated security forces are unleashed without competent mentors who can transfer classroom learning to the real world. The police training is mostly conducted by civilian contractors, who are forbidden from going into the field with their trainees. For that, you need soldiers, and right now, there aren't enough available.

Major General Robert Cone, the U.S. commander in charge of building the Afghan security forces, has asked for 2,300 additional troops to mentor newly trained police units. These troops accompany police units out on patrol to watch and analyze, and offer suggestions on how operations could be improved. Their presence keeps corruption in check. And when things get out of hand, they can call in air support. Often, mentoring teams are the only thing standing between the police being effective and becoming cannon fodder. Last year, the Afghan national police lost four times as many men as did the Afghan national army. One of the reasons is that only a handful of police teams had mentors.

Although NATO forces have struck many blows against the Taliban insurgency over the past year, Afghan officials and aid workers say U.S. and allied air strikes have also killed scores of civilians in recent months, including 47 people — mostly women and children — on their way to a wedding party in the eastern province of Nangarhar on July 6. On Sunday eight more people died in air strikes directed against militants in the south. Civilian casualties are inevitable when insurgents establish their bases among the civilian population, and the Taliban have used Afghans as a potent propaganda tool to turn local sentiment against the foreign forces and the faltering government they are here to support.

One way to minimize civilian casualties is to rely more on boots on the ground, both Afghan and NATO, and less on air power and surveillance drones. President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly pleaded with the coalition to avoid air strikes that risk civilian casualties. On Sunday he went a step further, telling the U.S. and its allies to direct their air power at militant sanctuaries across the border in Pakistan. "The struggle against terrorism is not in the villages of Afghanistan," he said at a press conference. "The only result of the use of air strikes is the killing of civilians. This is not the way to wage the fight against terrorism. ... If the international community focuses on the terrorists' bases, hideouts and places where they are being trained and financed, the problem is going to solved."

That may be wishful thinking. Even without sanctuary across the border, Afghanistan's insurgency will remain a thorny problem. But Karzai's statements reflect the view of top NATO commanders in Afghanistan who believe the Taliban cannot be defeated as long as it is able to regroup, rearm and train on the other side of the border. "I cannot foresee a winning outcome in Afghanistan without resolving the sanctuaries in the tribal areas of Pakistan," General David D. McKiernan, the U.S. commander in charge of NATO forces in Afghanistan, told TIME. "I can't see a viable level of Afghan government authority developing here while there are still all these militant sanctuaries across the border."

Closing the sanctuaries in Pakistan, however, may prove even more difficult than fighting the insurgency in Afghanistan. The Pakistani military has repeatedly shown itself to be either unwilling or unable (or both) to prevent insurgents from crossing into Afghanistan. And now that President Pervez Musharraf faces impeachment by his legislature, the Pakistani government is likely to be consumed by the resulting infighting. Insurgents in Pakistan's Bajaur Agency successfully repelled an army incursion last week; if squabbles over power in the capital continue, they may see an opportunity to advance even further.

So, while Gates' plan is certainly a much-needed start, Afghanistan needs a lot more if it is to avoid deteriorating, once again, into a failed state safe for foreign terrorists. It needs troops; it needs investment; it needs a better counterinsurgency strategy that combines human intelligence with anthropological analysis. And it needs a justice system to go with its new police force. But most of all, it needs a focused regional approach that combines diplomacy with development on both sides of the border. Without the rest of that package, Gates' $20 billion will be good money thrown after bad. — With reporting by Ali Safi