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Commentary: Letter to Obama -- How to rescue war in Afghanistan

  • Story Highlights
  • Peter Bergen: Turning around the war effort in Afghanistan is a major challenge
  • Bergen: Afghan army and police must be increased in size to fight insurgency
  • He says the U.S. should move ahead on key reconstruction projects
  • Bergen: U.S. must halt airstrikes with a high risk of causing civilian deaths
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By Peter Bergen
CNN National Security Analyst
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Editor's note: Peter Bergen is CNN's national security analyst. His most recent book is "The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of al Qaeda's Leader." This is one in a series of "letters to the new president" that will appear as commentaries on CNN.com in coming weeks. This commentary is based, in part, on an paper Bergen wrote for the New America Foundation, where he is a senior fellow, and an article he wrote for The New Republic in September, "A Man, A Plan, Afghanistan."

Peter Bergen says success in Afghanistan requires a series of key policy changes.

Peter Bergen says success in Afghanistan requires a series of key policy changes.

(CNN) -- Sir, during the election campaign, you often said that getting Afghanistan and Pakistan right and ending the threat from al Qaeda were vital for American national interests.

In an effort to have an effective policy to do that, it is important to define the greatest challenges facing the United States in Afghanistan and Pakistan, in order of importance. They are:

• Eliminating the safe haven al Qaeda enjoys on the Afghan-Pakistan border.

• Providing security to the Afghan population.

• Eliminating the growing tactical threat posed by the Taliban on both sides of the border.

• Providing tangible reconstruction and development efforts in Afghanistan and in the tribal border regions of Pakistan.

• Ending, or at least curtailing, the opium/heroin trade in Afghanistan.

• Expanding the legitimate, largely agricultural economy in Afghanistan.

• Holding fair and secure presidential elections in 2009 in Afghanistan.

To achieve these goals, the following eight steps must be taken within Afghanistan:

1. Build the size of the Afghan army and police.

Classic counterinsurgency doctrine suggests that Afghanistan needs something like half a million additional soldiers and police officers to secure its population. There are only 70,000 police officers (and an equal number in the military) in the entire country, which is wracked by a violent insurgency in its eastern and southern provinces and increasingly in its central provinces. It is also the center of the world's heroin trade. Compare this to New York City, which alone has about 36,000 police officers.

And Afghanistan, with its high mountain ranges and a land mass a third larger than Iraq's, is a country ideally suited to guerrilla warfare. Moreover, its population is 4 million or so greater than Iraq's, yet there are three times more soldiers and police in Iraq than in Afghanistan.

Because the U.S. military and NATO are now stretched to the breaking point, the vast majority of additional soldiers and police officers must be supplied by the Afghans. What the U.S. and NATO need to do is to send in more Special Forces and civilian advisers who specialize in the training of indigenous forces.

2. Solve the security shortfall in the short term.

Establish tribal militias of 50 to 300 men to establish security at the district level and provide a counterweight to local militants. Ordinary Afghans tend to trust their tribal shuras (councils) to solve their problems, and these "Sons of Afghanistan" could fill the security void until the Afghan army and police grew in size and ability so as to be able to secure the country -- a process likely to take many years. Such tribal militias could be paid with U.S. funds, just as the Sons of Iraq have been.

3. Reduce the size of the insurgency.

Just as important as building up the Afghan army and police force is combating the insurgency by reducing its size. At the 2001 Bonn Conference that set the stage for the present Afghan government, there were no mechanisms to include the Taliban. This is no longer a viable position. An effective amnesty program has disarmed hundreds of Taliban soldiers; the time has now come to reach out quietly to more senior members of the Taliban who are open to negotiating a lasting peace

4. Embark on effective reconstruction.

The United States should focus on completing three high-profile projects that will have real benefits for the Afghan people. The first is to turn on the lights in Kabul, which receives on average only a few hours of electricity a day.

The second is to secure the important Kandahar-to-Kabul road, which was opened as a blacktop freeway with much hoopla in 2003 but is now a suicidal route for anyone driving it without a security detail.

The third is to finish building the Kajaki Dam in southern Afghanistan, which will provide electricity to 2 million Afghans, most of whom live deep in Taliban country.

Additional American aid should be tied in part to an Afghan public employment program similar to the Works Progress Administration program that President Franklin Roosevelt instituted during the Great Depression.

Afghanistan has a chronic 40 percent official unemployment rate. It also has a desperate need for new roads and dams, and must repair the agricultural aqueducts destroyed by years of war. Meanwhile, Kabul and other major Afghan cities are awash in debris and trash. Cleaning up that rubbish would have a salutary effect on the residents of those cities.

5. Hold a free, fair and secure election in 2009.

Looking ahead, it is vitally important that the presidential election scheduled for August, when Hamid Karzai's five-year term as president is up, be seen as fair and inclusive as possible. NATO and the United States will have to pay the costs of the election -- hundreds of millions of dollars the Afghan government simply doesn't have -- and focus on providing security, particularly in the south, so the election can go forward without significant interference from the Taliban.

6. Decouple the Taliban from the drug trade.

Feeding the Taliban's comeback is the boneheaded U.S. counter-narcotics strategy of poppy field eradication. Two million Afghan farmers and their families survive on poppy production, and those whose crops are destroyed are generally the poorer ones who can't pay the bribes to have their fields left alone. It's no surprise that those farmers are easy recruits to the Taliban cause.

Instead of penalizing farmers who cultivate poppies because they have few other options, the United States needs to invest in the legitimate Afghan agricultural economy by providing subsidies, price supports and seeds for alternative crops, and by building the road system that will get those crops to market. As Lt. Gen. David Barno, the U.S. military commander in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005, has said, the measure of success of a successful counter-narcotics policy should not be hectares of poppy destroyed every year but hectares of other crops that are planted.

To end the culture of impunity that Afghan drug kingpins enjoy, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration should make public the list of the country's top drug suspects, including government officials, a practice that would probably see results in Afghanistan's shame-based culture.

It appears that the list has not been published because it would embarrass certain officials in the Karzai government. Publication is long overdue.

Because Afghanistan's judicial system is still too weak to handle major drug cases, Washington and Kabul should sign an extradition treaty allowing Afghan drug kingpins to be tried in the United States, as has happened with Colombian drug lords.

And now that the United States is finally talking to Iran, which has perhaps the highest percentage of heroin users in the world, one area of strong common interest should be closing the trafficking routes on Afghanistan's western border.

7. Fix the problems in the NATO mission.

In all of this, the United States must take the lead. Over the past three years, since NATO took over responsibility for military operations in the north, west and south of the country, violence has grown exponentially. Although the Taliban's resurgence is not NATO's fault, it's time to recognize that NATO's involvement in Afghanistan has been a strategic failure.

Although it is still politically and financially useful for the overall operation to be a genuine multicountry coalition, the time has come for the United States to admit that military operations, particularly in the unsettled south, must be taken over by American forces, with help from those allied Special Forces that are up to the job.

Even the most able NATO allies don't have the capability of American forces, and other NATO allies come to the table so freighted with "national caveats" about what they can and cannot do that they are largely useless in battle.

8. End coalition air strikes that have a high probability of killing civilians.

If the United States wants to stop adding fuel to the Taliban fire, it must stop killing civilians. Because Afghanistan is an operation that attempts to act with a minimum of troops on the ground, U.S. military operations rely on airstrikes far more often than is the case in Iraq, with predictable consequences.

In a 2007 ABC News/BBC survey, 34 percent of Afghans said civilians had been killed or seriously injured by coalition forces in the area where they lived.

Of the 700 civilians killed in the first six months of 2008, about a third were killed by Afghan, American or NATO soldiers, according to U.N. figures. That is an improvement over the same time period in 2007, when, the U.N. found, coalition forces killed more civilians than the Taliban. But the numbers must continue to come down.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Peter Bergen. His letter to the president on steps to take in Pakistan will appear next week on CNN.com.

All About AfghanistanIranHamid Karzai

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