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The public in the West has to buy into Afghanistan - and soon

Marco Vincenzino feels that the public in NATO countries are losing their interest in the war in Afghanistan. And he argues that losing their interest - and support - could lead to losing the war.

Ultimately, Afghanistan’s future will largely depend on whether its central government can deliver, or at least create the perception of delivering, on the high expectations of ordinary Afghans. If it doesn’t deliver, the potential for an irreversible loss of legitimacy of the central government will be one of the greatest long-term threats to ‘success’ in Afghanistan.

Although the international community can still improve its levels of engagement in most sectors, the best this can do is buy time for Afghanistan. Nonetheless, the Afghan public needs assurances that the commitment of the international community will be long-term, consistent and reliable. Memories of international neglect after the Soviet withdrawal, along with the rise of the Taliban, remain fresh in the minds of many Afghans.

So how committed is the international community to Afghanistan? Although the level of support varies from one country to another, overall the signs have not been very encouraging, particularly for ordinary Afghans.

For one, obtaining additional funds and supplies from NATO states for Afghanistan has been comparable to pulling teeth. Fierce debates have taken place in the parliaments, media and courts of public opinion of many NATO states. Although all 40 nations involved in Afghanistan are providing some form of contribution, as a whole the efforts and resources are still inadequate for the mission. And greater burden sharing is required on all fronts. For example, US, British, Canadian and Dutch troops continue to bear the brunt of heavy combat in the south and east of Afghanistan.

The threat of NATO countries’ parliaments failing to renew their mandates beyond the next few years remains real, as public support in many NATO states continues to taper. Much has to do with the failure of political leaders to engage in direct dialogue with the public to explain the importance and magnitude of the mission. This failure, or perhaps more accurately lack of will, derives primarily from politicians’ fear of retribution at the polls.

Many need reminding that 9/11 largely emanated from Afghanistan, and that the area continues to pose a regional and international threat

Simply put, the primary issue that challenges the very existence of NATO is the mission in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, it still does not receive the appropriate attention or critical debate it deserves within NATO countries. Although some countries have announced some contribution increases in recent months, greater engagement is necessary to ensure long-term public support to make the international mission in Afghanistan sustainable and successful.

In the US, Afghanistan receives limited attention, as domestic issues continue to dominate the presidential debate. US taxpayer money spent in Afghanistan is relatively low compared to Iraq. The fact that Afghans are generally in favour of the foreign presence and willing to assume their responsibilities on the front lines makes the conflict far less controversial than Iraq.

For those with no interest in foreign affairs, the conflict in Afghanistan has become ‘yesterday's war’. For those with limited interest it has become the ‘other war’, one which generates the occasional campaign sound-bites to contrast with Iraq or headlines covering a gruesome suicide bombing or Taliban attack.

Leaders on both sides of the Atlantic have a responsibility to begin a wider debate with their publics over the conflict in Afghanistan. This requires an insightful and substantive discussion beyond mundane sound-bites and colourful rhetoric.

Put simply, what is at stake will impact national security, international stability and future generations for the US and its allies. Many need reminding that 9/11 largely emanated from Afghanistan, and that the area continues to pose a regional and international threat.

Political leaders have an obligation to clarify an approximate time-line and magnitude of the operation. It must be emphasised that the struggle in Afghanistan, and other parts of the world, will require at least a generation of commitment and resources. A lack of support on the domestic home fronts in the US and Europe will seriously discourage the Afghan public, which needs to be convinced by words and, above all, actions that long-term support exists and is sustainable.

The aim is to buy time in the short-term with the long-term objective of Afghans becoming more self-sufficient and assuming control in all spheres, particularly the security realm. After three decades of war, the task appears overwhelming, but success is far from impossible.

Information…and results

To sustain public support, political leaders must provide regular, and not sporadic, progress reports, particularly in the non-military sphere. People want to see results from their tax money.

In the US, this becomes even more challenging due to systemic difficulties, principally the inadequate level of non-military expertise of the US government. There are also short durations of experts' appointments to specific overseas locations, meaning that even if a qualified expert is found, his or her posting can often last no more than a year, hindering often well funded programmes in sectors such as agriculture, education, health and rule of law. This shortage of competence and lack of continuity has seriously hampered the ability to report on programmes’ progress or shortcomings.

On the US home front, a disconnect has also developed between the American public and members of the armed services, particularly in the army and marines. Many in the military view ordinary citizens as completely detached from their realities, including direct combat, extended tours of duty and strains on family life.

After the high expectations created by the architects of the Iraq war, it is understandable that many ordinary Americans remain wary of overseas engagements.

This is where responsible political leadership plays an essential role.

First, it can explain the serious consequences of failure in Afghanistan, helping to restore credibility to the mission.

Second, it can reassure both home public support for the armed forces and Afghan public opinion of the long-term intentions of America and NATO.

Failure in Afghanistan would seriously undermine the transatlantic relationship and international stability, as NATO is a linchpin of global security

Furthermore, political leaders must emphasise that with a volatile Pakistan to Afghanistan's east and an increasingly assertive Iran to its west, the US and NATO cannot afford to lose in Afghanistan.

For the US, failure in Afghanistan would further damage its credibility and prestige as a global power and expose it to greater international threats.

For NATO, failure in Afghanistan could mean the end of the most successful military alliance in history after its first ever deployment beyond its immediate perimeter. And failure would seriously undermine the transatlantic relationship and international stability, since NATO remains a linchpin of global security.

For the Afghan people, failure would mean another tragic missed opportunity. History would record that their resilience and commitment to rebuild their nation after 30 years of conflict was not matched by the international community, which over-promised and under-delivered.

Ultimately, failure in Afghanistan would mean a collective defeat for all with disturbingly unpredictable and irrational repercussions.

This underscores the fundamental need for greater efficiency, complete engagement and a long-term commitment by the international community in Afghanistan, principally by the US and its NATO allies.

While discussions on NATO's expansion are certainly important, stabilising Afghanistan is a far more critical goal for the alliance, and one that members should rally behind.

No one needs reminding of 9/11. But do some people need reminding that it emanated from Afghanistan?

Marco Vincenzino

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