Escaping the Afghan Quagmire

In his campaign, Obama pointed out that instead of finishing the job in Afghanistan, the actual origin of 9/11, we had squandered resources, lives, and reputation on an unnecessary war in Iraq. He proposed to remedy this mistake by moving as fast as possible to get out of Iraq while inserting another 30,000 troops into Afghanistan. He seems determined, and his generals seem determined to follow this approach. Some argue that it is essentially the transfer of the successful surge and tribal militia tactics in Iraq to Afghanistan.

Unfortunately over the last year or more, information has been coming in that we are failing to a greater extent in Afghanistan than had been imagined. The trends are negative, and they are not trends that 30,000 or so additional troops are likely to reverse. A good analysis of the situation from an Australian perspective may be found here. On January 22, the NY Times came out with a description of what is happening in the south that is reminiscent of the Russians found themselves in before they left. Our side (U.S., NATO, government forces, etc.) control the major cities and some district capitals most of the time. But the vast majority of the villages are essentially under Taliban control or open to the Taliban whenever they wish to come in. The situation is much the same in the eastern part of the country. In the west and north the situation is better, but even here there have been significant Taliban inroads. Meanwhile, over the border, Pakistan’s army has been making a major effort to reduce the sway of the Taliban in the tribal agencies and the Northwest frontier provinces. Success remains limited. The Taliban have, for example, been able to move beyond the border areas and now control essentially all of the Swat District of NWFP, imposing their fanatical way of life on a formerly moderate people.

On Sunday, the NYTimes “Week in Review” gave the opinion of a number of experts on what was referred to as a developing “quagmire”, with or without the extra troops. The Kabul government is not performing, its agents are widely despised, and its police forces are generally ineffective. We are reminded that with 100,000 troops the Russians were able to do little more than control the cities and maintain logistics routes and provide secure living facilities for their forces. The more effective our forces become, the more they end up killing civilians. For both our forces and the Russians, airpower is regarded as essential for tactical success, and yet after many such successes, we find we have made yet another community turn against us because of the lives and property we have destroyed. In most areas our successes against the insurgents are not followed up with consistent protection of the people. Many Afghans do not like the Taliban, but if they have to exist alongside them, they have to act as though they do. There are too many villages for our forces to do much more.

One solution might be to simply pack up and leave as the British and the Russians did before. However, this would have moral and strategic downsides. In Kabul and other parts of the country we have encouraged people to adopt new values and new hopes and new behaviors that they would have to abandon should we leave. The bravery of school girls in the face of deadly threats suggests how important a new way of life is to these people. People of this kind are still a minority, but yet a vital minority whose protectors the West and the westernized middle classes have become. We should also not lightly abandon the tribal peoples of the west and the north of the country who fought in our cause after 9/11.

Another approach is to rethink our strategy. The first step would be to develop improved relations with Iran and Pakistan. Iran helped us initially. It has many logistics routes we could use. It has historical and ethnic ties to the Hazara and more broadly to the Tajiks (who literature and history is essentially inseparable from that of Iran). Herat was formerly a major Iranian city. Iran continues to provide assistance to Kabul, with which it has close and friendly relations. In the east and south, Pakistan has theoretical control over the longest Afghan border. Historically, it has not controlled many border areas, but it now realizes that it can no longer allow these areas to remain outside its control.

I emphasize improving relations with these states even though they are neither ideal, well-governed, nor reliable. But if they are weak and corrupt, the are still far from being as corrupt and feckless as the Afghan government. Afghanistan has nothing like the well-educated bureaucracies of the civil and military services that Pakistan inherited from the British. If we could develop effective means of dealing with these states, we would have a much more plausible basis for eventual success in Afghanistan.

Within Afghanistan, we should build from our strengths. We should bolster our rear by making more sure than we have that Kabul, Herat, Mazar i Sharif and other relatively peaceful cities remain outside the war zone. Qandahar should perhaps be included in the list even though it is very much in the war zone. (Qandahar is particularly important to the Pashtun section of the population, and thereby to President Karzai. It also has a remarkable group of anti-Taliban, pro-women’s education advocates.) We should strengthen those leaders in the north and west who reject the Taliban. By various inducements, we may be able to modify their addictions to drugs and corruption and gradually make certain parts of the country into models for the rest. The Hazarajat, the land of the Hazara shi’a minority, is prepared to defend itself against the hated Taliban. These are the areas in which we should emphasize development projects, the training of police and judges, etc.

In the east and south, we should initially try to reach a stalemate with tactics similar to those we have followed up to now. But our side should strive to rely less on air power, since the potential for error is not going to go away. We should also reduce the number of offensive operations. The goal should be to give whoever we contact a sense that they can rely on us to protect them if they assist us. We might try in a few areas to resurrect CAP units like the Marines used in Vietnam. This meant that a platoon would establish itself in a village (“hamlet” in Vietnam terminology) and stay there as they trained the local self-defense forces and helped local development. The approach worked quite well. (For more on this see the book “Can We Win in Vietnam?”) In areas where this model started to work in Afghanistan, more villages might gradually be included. Note, however, that real progress beyond this stalemate would depend on the effectiveness of an increasing effort by the Pakistanis in border areas — supported indirectly by American military and nonmilitary assistance. This includes education.

Note that we are talking here of a long term strategy. The Australian analysis referenced above was developed on the basis of a fifteen year stay. This will be possible only if we show some progress.

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