Unsurprisingly, the security situation Afghanistan hasn't changed much since my previous post on the situation there. Last fall, after a long period of (what appeared to be) serious consideration, Obama chose to escalate the conflict. The decision did not translate into immediate troop movements, however. American forces have ramped up slowly, with the goal being to have all the troops in place for a summer offensive in Kandahar. That action is taking place now. But it has been re-branded as a ... well, I don't know what to call it now. I think the Obama administration just doesn't want the word "offensive" floating about any more. Nameless or not, it is taking place, and more people are dying.
Recovering economist Atrios likes to ask the question, "What are they doing there again?" I have no idea what the DoD or White House thinks, but it seems pretty clear to me that the ultimate goal should be to keep al-Qaeda or any other international terrorist group from operating out of Afghanistan. The strategy - which I believe wasn't articulated until some time after the invasion in late 2001 - has been to create a friendly, pro-Western democratic state. A lot of the time, however, it seemed like creating a democracy was the goal. Either way, I think it is fair to say that the strategy-cum-objective has failed. After 104 months, the central government exercises full control over less than half of the country, and only does so with the backing of the U.S. military. Afghans have gone to the polls several times, but latest presidential election was marred by accusations of fraud, and in all likelihood, fraud. The Kabul-based government, in addition to being unpopular, is also deeply corrupt. That is a huge problem, because there are few things that hinder both democracy and economic development more than corruption.
So what now? I think the goal should remain the same, but the strategy radically changed. Instead of trying to defeat groups like the Taliban on the ground with US military forces, the US needs to reach an understanding with them. The deal should include two conditions. One should be that if a group allows al-Qaeda or something like it to operate in its territory, the US will come after the leaders of the group. The other condition should be that a group will receive aid as long as it doesn't attempt to destabilize or conquer any other group. In return, the US will GTFO.
To back up both the threat and the promise, the US will need to maintain at least one base in Afghanistan, probably in the north near Mazar-e-Sharif. That base would support drones, training, and aid distribution. The aid should be in the forms of both cash and stuff. Stuff would be things like construction equipment, steel beams and rebar, transportation equipment, telecommunications equipment, water and sewage equipment, medical supplies, and so on. Cash, naturally, will flow where it is least useful in the deeply corrupt country. But it greases palms, so distributing some will have to be done. Stuff is less mobile, and perhaps the Afghans will put it to good use. Training would be limited to the national defense and police forces because ultimately, the US would still benefit from an a strong central government in Afghanistan. But it should be up to the Afghans to go about creating it.