WASHINGTON- U.S. General Stanley McChrystal correctly warned — months ago — that unless the international community and its Afghan allies quickly put in place a full-spectrum counterinsurgency strategy to protect the Afghan population while building up Afghan security forces and governing institutions, the conflict there could become unwinnable. Yet victory by the West and its Afghan allies remains eminently achievable: the Taliban enjoys very little popular support and lacks the kind of superpower patron that enabled the Afghan mujahadeen in the 1980s to defeat the occupying Soviet Army and the Vietnamese communists to outlast American forces in Southeast Asia a decade earlier.
Western skeptics of today ‘s Afghan mission should make no mistake: unlike those earlier conflicts, the international community ‘s objectives in Afghanistan align closely with those of the Afghan people. The Taliban cannot win by popular consent — polls regularly show that only 5-7 percent of Afghans support them or their aims. That is why they terrorize civilians through the threat and use of violence — including concerted attempts to sabotage the Afghan elections — and only sustain their campaign through revenues from illegal narcotics, financial support from fellow extremists overseas, and military training by Al Qaeda’s foreign legions. Put bluntly, the Taliban can only prevail if the international community loses its will to help the Afghan people build a functioning state and society governed by law rather than the barrel of a gun.
The fate of Pakistan is intimately bound up with the success or failure of the state-building process in Afghanistan. Afghanistan ‘s re-Talibanization would dangerously and perhaps fatally destabilize nuclear-armed Pakistan, whose population is increasingly radicalized by spillover from the insurgency in Afghanistan and the failure of the Pakistani state to deliver for its people. Conversely, a long-term Western recommitment to help Afghanistan develop a state that can provide security, opportunity, and rule of law to its people would strengthen governance and security in Pakistan, crowding out violent radicals who flourish in the absence of these values and compromising their ambition to use Pakistan as a base to export jihad to Europe, North America, and India.
A transatlantic recommitment to a sustained counterinsurgency strategy that turns around the conflict in Afghanistan would demonstrate more broadly that the Western community of democracies remains the principal provider of public goods €“ in this case, the security and stability of a strategically vital region that threatens the global export of violent extremism €“ in the international system, shoring up an international economic and political order that has provided greater degrees of human freedom and prosperity than any other governmental model.
In contrast, a Western decision to wash its hands of Afghanistan would send a different message to friends and competitors alike. Islamic extremism, rather than continuing to lose ground to the universal promise of democratic modernity, would gain new legs. After all, Afghan Islamists would have defeated their second superpower in a generation. Rival states that contest Western leadership of the international order and reject the principles of open society would increase their influence. Just as most Afghans are not prepared to live under a new Taliban regime, surely most Americans and Europeans are not prepared to live in a world in which the West voluntarily cedes its influence, power, and moral example to others who do not share our commitment to human dignity and liberty.