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Note: This is the last of a two-part series.  Yesterday’s piece took into account Afghan public attitudes in determining what the real issues are there.  Today’s piece will look at what we can and should do based on this information.

Yesterday I wrote about Afghan attitudes toward U.S. forces, al Qaeda, and the Taliban.  Essentially, based on the results of the newly released BBC/ABC opinion poll, Afghans want help in securing their country against both the Taliban and al Qaeda.  The question with which I left off centered on how the world could best provide that.

Simply put, we have to close the gaps: The gaps in security, in infrastructure, and in legitimacy.  And this process must have an Afghan face.  That’s why the problem can’t be solved by the U.S. military or NATO alone.  To be sure, the U.S. military has a major role to play in providing security (along with Afghan forces), but other agencies must lead in helping to build the capacity of the Afghan government.  Only then will the legitimacy gap be closed.  And only then will the Taliban and their fundamentalist friends and warlords be marginalized to the point of irrelevancy.

Of course, the odds of successfully building capacity in Afghanistan are long.  Not only is it not one of my areas of expertise, but I don't think many people at all have the wide breadth of experience that could save a complex place like Afghanistan.  I’m reminded of Buttercup’s plea to Westley before crossing the dreaded fire swamp in The Princess Bride: She says, "We’ll never survive!"  And he responds, "Nonsense.  You’re only saying that because no one ever has."  Not to make light of the situation, but our position is similarly precarious and doubtful.

The cost of doing nothing, however--to include withdrawing--could be catastrophic.  Prior to 9/11, one of Afghanistan's two chief exports was transnational terrorism.  And if we leave now, there's no reason to believe it wouldn't be again.  So it becomes a question of how the world can help non-Taliban Afghans achieve a minimal level of governance that won't present a threat to other nations--and won't further destabilize any nuclear neighbors.

Personally, I'm not interested in seeing my country become imperialistic with a military presence in every trouble spot in the world.  Nor am I interested in seeing long-term troop presences in Afghanistan or Iraq.  But more troops in Afghanistan for the immediate future is an imperative so long as the Taliban are massing at the gates of Kabul.

Fortunately, Afghans still largely support the presence of U.S. troops.  They’re still too terrified of a return of the Taliban not to.  And while that support of a foreign military presence has lost some of its intensity over the past few years, 63 percent of the population still wants us there.  And that gives us room to work--militarily, politically, economically, and diplomatically.  But there still aren’t enough troops in Afghanistan to provide either basic security or to train Afghan forces to do the same.

To put this in perspective, we’re trying to assist in bringing stability to a country larger than Texas with a fighting force that would barely fill up a third of Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge.  New York City has more police officers than we have American troops in all of Afghanistan.  With a not-yet-robust Afghan security apparatus and so few U.S. troops, unfortunately, there is no political or diplomatic solution.  The Taliban will never negotiate so long as they’re allowed to freely terrorize the Pashtun heartland.

And therein lies the long-term answer--and it’s something on which I think everyone, including most Afghans, can agree.  We will never exterminate the Taliban, so a settlement must be reached.  In fact, 64 percent of Afghans wish to see a negotiated end to the war with the Taliban.  Only 25 percent oppose.  But the caveat to that--at least coming from the Afghans themselves--is that 71 percent of Afghans don’t want to negotiate with the Taliban at all until the Taliban stop fighting.  Now, that might be a little unrealistic, but it’s certainly telling.  The Afghans are willing to work with the more moderate elements of the Taliban so long as they don’t represent a threat.  And that means we need to provide the necessary security to ultimately reach this point.  Therefore, the primary mission of U.S. forces must be to secure the population, infrastructure, and government institutions of Afghanistan.

Once the Taliban are cowed into no longer marauding throughout the countryside, we can start talking.  But for now, that means more troops in the immediate future.

Everyone wants to see U.S. forces leave Afghanistan as quickly and as safely as possible.  In the survey, almost half of the Afghan respondents--while living in fear of a Taliban return--even answered that they wanted to see U.S. forces decreased in the country.  But only 21 percent said they wanted U.S. troops out now (though that’s up from 8 percent in 2005).  And twice that number--42 percent--want U.S. forces to remain until security is restored (though that’s down from 65 percent in 2005).

So it’s clear that this is a losing battle.  The numbers aren’t quite in freefall yet, but we’re not a long way off.  And once the Afghan population turns against us--not just the Taliban, the drug lords, and the terrorists--then we’re in real trouble.  Like Soviet trouble.

But there’s still a window, however small.  And we need to exploit it immediately--with all the diplomatic, political, economic, and, yes, military might we can muster.  The world can’t afford to lose control of this region.

Originally posted to Brandon Friedman on Fri Feb 13, 2009 at 11:32 PM PST.

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