Just back from an extended trip to Afghanistan, Senator Lindsey Graham discussed the situation on the ground, the role played by Pakistan, and the future of the war on terror.
Eighteen Months of Progress
The situation in Afghanistan eighteen months ago was fairly bleak, Graham said. He argued that President Obama’s decision to send in 30,000 more troops was correct and that the focus on the south has produced real results. He described progress on a number of fronts:
- Training: Graham spoke of the importance of training Afghan forces. Seventeen months ago, there were two nations in the coalition providing 30 trainers, but now there are twelve nations with 1,300 NATO trainers. These training efforts have paid off, Graham added. A year and a half ago, only 10 percent of Afghan soldiers could shoot to NATO standards and the literacy rate of graduating Afghan non-commissioned officers (NCOs) was 20 percent. Now 90 percent are qualified with their weapons and the NCO corps is around 70 percent literate.
- Rules of Engagement: Graham argued that until recently, the coalition strategy was not working: the police were outgunned and the army had no standards for training. Part of the problem was that American forces were fighting under what Graham described as an impractical law enforcement model, which, among other things, limited the amount of time potential insurgents could be held before trial to 96 hours. Under General Stanley McChrystal and General David Petraeus, the United States has transitioned to new rules of engagement that allow coalition forces to detain insurgents for longer and better combat the Taliban.
- Coalition Capacity: The security situation has improved tremendously in both Helmand and Kandahar, thanks to the presence of the surge forces operating under a strategy designed to minimize civilian casualties while engaging in counter-terrorism efforts that are successfully killing and capturing Taliban forces, Graham said.
The Road Ahead
Graham argued that the best way forward is to continue the model currently in place and ensure that the U.S. Congress doesn’t undercut it by demanding a hasty withdrawal. A modest reduction in forces this summer is called for and would not undercut the overall effort, Graham said, but challenges remain.
- Biggest Threats: The biggest threat to success in Afghanistan is not the insurgency, but rather the Afghan government, Graham said. The Kabul Bank incident, which saw the theft of thousands of dollars, is an example of the governance and corruption problems Afghanistan faces. Poor governance by the Karzai government leaves a vacuum that the Taliban can fill, Graham added. He suggested that the United States government should create a task force to show its unwillingness to tolerate this level of corruption from the Afghan government.
- Pakistan: The fact that Afghan insurgents can find sanctuary across the border in Pakistan creates problems for any successful effort in Afghanistan and is unacceptable, Graham said. He suggested that convincing Pakistan to close the borders to Afghan insurgents will take more than threats to cut American aid. Instead, the Pakistani army needs to see that popular support for the army in Pakistan is being eroded. If the United States can convince the army that they must reform, then change is possible, Graham concluded. But he added that the United States must put Pakistan on notice that if it does not reform, all options will be on the table, including strikes into Pakistan from Afghanistan.
- Costs: There is certainly a cost to maintaining a U.S. presence in Afghanistan, especially if that presence continues beyond 2014, but the cost of staying and winning is much lower than the cost of losing, Graham argued. If the United States accelerates its withdrawal, the risk exists that it will undercut recent gains and jeopardize American security.
The War on Terror
Graham highlighted the fundamental difference between fighting a war and fighting a crime, arguing that the attacks on September 11, 2001 were an act of war. The U.S. response to September 11 is vital, both to the country’s national image and to keeping dangerous enemies from causing further harm.
- Torture: Graham stated that waterboarding causes the United States to lose the moral high ground, sows confusion among the country’s fighting men and women, and forces the United States to abandon its principles. It violates the War Crimes Act and will hurt America more than it helps America, he said. However, Graham also argued that it isn’t wise to advertise that the Army Field Manual restricts what means American forces will use in interrogations.
- Detention: Given the long-term nature of the war on terror, and the fundamental difference between a war and pursuing criminals, Graham argued enemy combatants should not be brought into the civilian judicial system. Instead, they should be held indefinitely in a parallel system. Under the laws of war, Graham said, the United States is not required to charge an enemy combatant with a crime. There should be a process where detainees can challenge their status yearly, but if an independent review process agrees that they continue to pose a threat, they should be held indefinitely, he added.
Investing in Moderation
The popular movements occurring in Libya, Syria, Egypt, and the rest of the Arab Spring represent an incredible opportunity to make the world better, Graham argued. As change occurs across the region, the isolationism advocated by some in Congress is not a viable foreign policy.
- Funding Civilian Agencies: Graham spoke of the importance of funding the civilian side of foreign policy efforts, as well as the military. In places like Africa, America’s primary presence is through foreign assistance. In Afghanistan, civilian-military partnerships are making great strides in improving rule-of-law, governance, and development efforts, he added.
- The Arab Spring: The United States must help cement the gains of democratic forces in Egypt and across the region, aggressively pursue Muammar Qaddafi’s exit from Libya, and consider a similar plan if President Bashar al-Assad in Syria continues his present actions, Graham said. Investing in moderation is costly, labor intensive, dangerous, and requires patience, but it is necessary for long-term development and security.