The U.S. Afghan (In)Security Pact

The security agreement signed in Kabul this week is being touted as a step toward stability and peace but it will likely bring neither. By allowing the U.S. to maintain military bases and forces in Afghanistan beyond 2014 it will prolong the war.

Under current U.S. military strategy, which will be ratified at the forthcoming NATO summit in Chicago, most NATO forces will disengage by 2014, but thousands of U.S. troops will remain at military bases in Afghanistan. This will be ‘counterinsurgency light,’ essentially the same policy as before but with fewer troops: military operations to kill and arrest insurgents, and support for the armed forces of the corrupt Kabul regime. This formula has not worked over the past decade and has little chance of succeeding in the next.

The U.S. strategy has no effective plan for ending what General Petraeus has called an ‘industrial strength insurgency.’  If U.S./NATO forces could not subdue the Taliban with 140,000 troops, how will they succeed with far fewer soldiers? When I was in Kabul last October security specialists said the insurgency is stronger than ever (with an estimated 20,000 armed fighters) and that the Taliban control vast swaths of the country.

U.S. officials have described the security pact as a sign of the American commitment to support the Afghan people. We certainly should not abandon the Afghan people, but keeping thousands of troops there is not the way to help. We can demonstrate our solidarity with Afghanistan through other, more effective ways: pursuing a comprehensive peace negotiation process in the country and the region, continuing to fund successful social development programs, and supporting the rights of women and other under-represented populations.

Democracy in Burma…and Poland

The remarkable political evolution of Burma in recent weeks has interesting parallels with events in Poland in 1989.

Aung San Suu Kyi is now free, and has been elected to parliament along with members of her party, the National League for Democracy. The NLD scored a stunning victory in the April 1 by-elections, winning 43 of the 45 contested seats in the national parliament and regional assemblies. Party candidates polled well even at military bases and in districts near the capital with large populations of civil servants. Some members of the democracy movement had cautioned against joining elections in which so few seats would be openly contested. Suu Kyi took a leap of faith in deciding to participate, and so far her decision has paid off. The NLD has gained significant national prestige and influence.

This calls to mind Solidarity’s unexpected ascent to power in Poland in 1989. When the beleaguered communist regime finally yielded to Solidarity’s demand for free elections in June of that year, they restricted the number of contested seats to just one third of the parliament. Some activists wanted to reject the deal, but Solidarity wisely decided to take advantage of the narrow opening, hoping to widen the movement’s clout and political legitimacy. Solidarity won 160 of the 161 parliamentary seats that were openly contested, defeating even top communist officials in their home districts. The regime unexpectedly capitulated and Solidarity took responsibility for governing.

What both of these stories have in common is their genesis in nonviolence. Nonviolent movements inspire public participation and dialogue and are far more likely than armed struggle to generate successful democratic transitions.

The drama in Burma is still in its early days, but already we have seen surprising progress. Let’s hope more will come in the months ahead as the democracy movement navigates the torturous path of persuading the military to go back to the barracks.