It has been seven years since Afghan forces supported by the United States toppled the Taliban and denied al-Qaeda the terrorist haven, training ground and launch pad that Afghanistan had become. Since then, there has been clear, substantial progress, including democratic elections, the liberation of growing numbers of Afghan women to take their place in public life, and clear improvements in health care and education.
But an honest assessment of Afghanistan must conclude that we are not where we might have hoped to be by now. While the country’s north and west are largely at peace and improving, the south and east are riven by insurgency, drugs and ineffective government. Afghans are increasingly frustrated by the lack of progress in building up their country. And the populations in countries that have contributed troops to the NATO-led mission are wondering how long this operation must last — and how many young men and women we will lose carrying it out.
In April, to mark the 60th anniversary of NATO’s founding, the member nations’ heads of state and government will meet in Strasbourg, France, and Kehl, Germany. This meeting is to be part of BarackObama’s first visit to Europe as president, and it will present an opportunity for alliance leaders to discuss the way forward. Five key lessons from recent years should help shape the path of this mission:
Afghan leadership is not some distant aspiration — it’s something that we need as soon as possible and on which we must insist. The basic problem in Afghanistan is not too much Taliban; it’s too little good governance. Afghans need a government that deserves their loyalty and trust; when they have it, the oxygen will be sucked away from the insurgency. The international community must step up its support of the elected government, and, through it, the Afghan people. But we have paid enough, in blood and treasure, to demand that the Afghan government take more concrete and vigorous action to root out corruption and increase efficiency, even where that means difficult political choices.
· NATO, too, needs a more cohesive approach. Our operations are still too much of a patchwork, with individual countries assigned to specific geographic areas. The advantage of this approach is that specific countries get experience with the terrain and the locals and are able to link development and military operations. The drawback: Multiple approaches to military operations and development assistance within one mission reduce effectiveness and can strain solidarity. We should have more common approaches to our efforts, including fewer geographic restrictions on where forces can go in support of each other.
· Afghanistan’s problems cannot be dealt with exclusively within its borders. The challenges faced by Pakistan are organically linked to those of Afghanistan; so, politically, are Pakistan’s relations with India. Indeed, all neighboring countries have a stake, and an interest, in what happens in Afghanistan. The international community must have a regional approach. All of the relevant neighbors need to be engaged in addressing Afghanistan’s challenges. While NATO should not necessarily be in the lead, the alliance has a clear interest in playing its part.
· We cannot just pay lip service to the comprehensive approach. We have repeatedly said that force alone cannot solve Afghanistan’s problems. But we are obliged to keep ramping up the military operation partly because of insufficient resources and coordination on the civilian side. There must be a stronger effort to support the police; coordinate development assistance; and beef up the U.N. mission in Afghanistan. Crucially, Afghan officials must make the difficult choices necessary to create an efficient and corruption-free government in which its people can believe. The longer progress takes in these areas, the longer the military operation will be required, at real cost in lives.
· Communications are a strategic battleground. This is no secondary task for spokesmen. There is a general perception in the West that Afghans do not want foreign soldiers on their territory. In fact, polls find that more than 70 percent support the NATO mission. Great attention is rightly paid to occurrences of civilian casualties accidentally caused by our forces; much less attention is paid to the deliberate killings of civilians by the Taliban, which happens five times more often. The international community must prioritize strategic communications. We must do better in showing that there is tangible, steady progress in reaching our goal — and in reminding the world that the Taliban remain the ruthless killers and abusers of human rights they have always been.
Addressing these challenges will require fresh approaches, political courage and new resources. But the cost of failure — instability in a highly unstable region; a haven for international terrorism; and massive suffering for the Afghan people — is much higher. The world simply cannot afford to fail in Afghanistan. Within the NATO alliance and the international community more broadly, we must absorb the lessons from the past as we chart the way forward.
The writer is secretary general of NATO.