Way to Punt, SecDef Gates

by Joshua Foust on 12/12/2007

Bob Gates is pissed at NATO:

Cross-border attacks from Pakistan, a rising drug trade, and a corrupt police force threaten the “real but fragile” progress in Afghanistan, Defense Secretary Robert Gates is scheduled to say, in testimony today before the House Armed Services Committee. But that’s not all at stake in the six-year Afghan war. The fate of the NATO alliance also hangs in the balance, Gates contends…

In recent months, NATO allies have been bickering over their roles in Afghan campaign. Germany has been accused of sheltering its troops in a relatively safe corner of the country. A French general recently said the 41,000 coalition troops there are “largely insufficient to ensure security.” But Paris has been reluctant to send more of its soldiers to the region. (Check the links below to read David Axe’s excellent Afghanistan dispatches from over the summer.)

Despite the shortfall, coalition forces “took the initiative away from the Taliban” in early 2007, Gates — just back from Afghanistan — contends. “There is reason for optimism tempered by caution” for the success of the Afghan campaign. But he acknowledges that “significant problems in the mission do persist.” The police force “continues to struggle due to corruption and illiteracy.” A “cross-border insurgency,” fueled by “Al Qaeda sanctuaries in Pakistan,” is contributing to the “continuing violence.” And “the drug trade in Afghanistan threatens the foundations of this young government.”

Granted, Gates has been beating this horse since he came into office. And regular readers know our deep antipathy over NATO countries’ refusal to send the troops required to secure the country. But the U.S. is also guilty of a critical misstep as well: willful, and continued, underinvestment. In all areas.

According to a Congressional Research Service report issued in October (pdf), spending on the Afghanistan mission has been about 1/4 the spending on Iraq, and that is over the past six years. Taking into account the billions of dollars and thousands of troops that were siphoned off both for the initial invasion and later the Surge, a clearer picture of just how badly Afghanistan has been shorted emerges: in 2003 and 2004, $6 billion of the Afghanistan mission was cut, then raised in 2005, then cut again in 2006; it is only in 2007 that funding has crossed the $30 billion mark—and that’s while Iraq enjoys funding levels nearly four times as high.

It should be no surprise that when the government’s own funding priorities indicate Afghanistan is at best a second tier issue Allied countries refuse to contribute more. What promises do they have that their troops will be used appropriately, or that they will be integrated into a cohesive joint command structure? They have promises, to be sure, but no assurances, given how volatile American funding is. With a gay porn star-turned-conservative journalist polluting the public space by claiming “Afghanistan will eventually be fine” after returning from the Battle of Musa Qala while blaming it all on “the media,” it should be no surprise that support for the mission in Brussels is, at best, tepid.

The rest of what Gates said—about Coalition troops seizing initiative from the Taliban—simply does not match with reality. Musa Qala, said the star of Jawbreaker and Montreal Men? It was only this week that the ten-month seige of Musa Qala was broken, and the Taliban now control vastly more territory than they did in 2004. Contrary to what SecDef Gates says, the country is in fact slowly slipping away, and every day of American apathy simply increases the cynicism of regular Afghans—the very same people the Coalition so desperately need to take a stand against the extremists.

Actions, however, speak much louder than words. If a village elder in, say, Helmand sees that a seized town won’t be freed for almost an entire year, and only then at the expense of leaving other towns open to attack, how likely is he to take a decisive stand against the Taliban and throw his support behind the West? When both Kabul and Brussels know there is a looming Taliban offensive against a major city yet they do nothing, what sorts of conclusions do they expect people to draw? Where there is a troop presence, the relationship tends to be a positive one: locals appreciate the security and development, as anyone would (despite obvious examples of friction); but the appalling shortfalls six years after the war began have finally come home to roost. While it must please Congressional Committees to hear yet another Secretary of Defense bashing Europe for American failures, it really does avoid the problem: Afghanistan will simply get worse until more decisive action, not promises, is taken.

But hey, at least Robert Gates is not alone! Gordon Brown, the eponymous Prime Minister of Great Britain, thinks Afghanistan is doing just fine. He also promised a whole £400 million for the country. Awesome.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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