Groping in Afghanistan

by , March 17, 2009

There is a great temptation to cut President Barack Obama a certain amount of slack over foreign policy just because he isn’t George W. Bush. He has a certain capacity for acknowledging and perhaps even thinking through complexities, and he was right about the Iraq war before the invasion, for reasons that went beyond the knee-jerk inclination to question Dubya just because he was a Republican. Nonetheless, although the administration gives signs of thinking seriously about Afghanistan, which the new president has identified, only partially correctly, as the central front in the struggle against jihadist terrorism, the signals so far suggest that it is not very close to a correct strategy for that country. In fact, the administration is quite likely to embroil the United States in yet another desultory, unwinnable, and costly struggle, and give up potentially realist advisers along the way.

Stipulating that as Obama and others in the administration have emphasized, U.S. policy toward Afghanistan is still a work in progress, one sign that it seems to be going in an unfortunate direction is an interview the president granted the New York Times last week in which he conceded that it is possible that the American military could "reach out to moderate elements of the Taliban, much as it did with Sunni militants in Iraq," as the Times put it.

Acknowledging in a refreshingly straightforward manner that the U.S. is not winning in Afghanistan (whatever that means at this juncture), President Obama went on: "I think if you talk to General Petraeus, I think he would argue that part of the success in Iraq involved reaching out to people that we would consider to be Islamic fundamentalists, but who were willing to work with us because they had been completely alienated by the tactics of al-Qaeda in Iraq." Although he continued that "the situation in Afghanistan is, if anything, more complex," this suggests a fairly serious misunderstanding of how and when the "Sunni Awakening" that was so important an element in reducing violence in Iraq over the last year or so (though it is far from utterly peaceful even now) came to have such an impact.

For starters, the forces that came to be identified as the Sunni Awakening were not really "people we would consider to be Islamic fundamentalists," but traditional tribal leaders opposed to U.S. occupation who had decided in a more or less opportunistic way to work with al-Qaeda in Iraq but became disillusioned with the mostly foreign al-Qaeda fighters before the U.S. "surge" began. To be sure, Petraeus exploited the situation fairly skillfully – though it still hasn’t led to anything like political reconciliation in Iraq.

Now some of the tribal elements colluding with the Taliban in Afghanistan are probably more allies of convenience than people who share the rather constricted worldview of the Taliban. But so far none of them have come forward (though there may be early feelers) and asked to join with the U.S.-NATO military forces in Afghanistan or with the typically weak and ineffectual central government in Kabul. Petraeus himself downplays the similarities. As Stratfor.com put it in a recent analysis:

"The Taliban and their allies in al-Qaeda and various other radical Islamist groups are pursuing a strategy of exhaustion where success is not measured in the number of battles won, but rather the ability to outlast the occupier. Considering that Afghanistan’s mountainous, barren terrain, sparse population centers, and lack of governance have historically denied every outside occupier success in pacifying the country, the prospects for the United States are not good in this war.

"Talk of reconciliation with the Taliban from a U.S. position of weakness raises the question of how the United States can actually parse out those Taliban members who can be reconciled. It also raises the question of whether those members will be willing to put their personal security on the line by accepting an offer to start talks when the United States itself is admitting it is the losing side of the war. Most important, it is unclear to us what the United States can actually offer these Taliban elements, especially as Washington simultaneously attempts to negotiate with the Iranians and the Russians, neither of whom wants to live next door to a revived Taliban and both of which must cooperate with the United States if Washington is to be able to fight the war in the first place."

As Stratfor’s George Friedman, the Carnegie Endowment, and I have suggested, the least harmful policy in Afghanistan would be to acknowledge that al-Qaeda and the Taliban are not the same and that al-Qaeda is not currently operating in Afghanistan. Indeed, it is an open question whether the recent flurry of recorded messages from Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders presumably holed up in mountain fastnesses on the Pakistani side of the border is an indication of renewed strength of the kind that presages another attack on the scale of 9/11 or a sign of weakness and near-desperation to maintain an impression of continued relevance. The latter hypothesis is more likely.

From the understanding that the Taliban and al-Qaeda are different and that the Taliban is indigenous to Afghanistan but seems to have few if any foreign ambitions flows the understanding that the core interest of the United States in Afghanistan is not who nominally rules the country. Any central government is likely to be ineffective in a country that has never desired a strong, Western-style central government and doesn’t seem to want one now. The core interest is that al-Qaeda or other jihadist forces with international ambitions – to launch more dramatic attacks on the U.S. – are not allowed to use Afghanistan as a base for such operations.

If that is the core interest, it has already been achieved, insofar as al-Qaeda is not now operating in Afghanistan The best way forward, then, is to draw down U.S. and NATO military forces in Afghanistan and inform whatever ostensible government emerges there that the U.S. will not tolerate the establishment of al-Qaeda bases. That is likely to dovetail with any Afghan government’s interests, even if it turns out to be a reconstituted Taliban (which is possible but hardly inevitable). But if it doesn’t, the U.S. can politely inform those who run Kabul that if it sees any evidence of al-Qaeda activity, it will take those jihadists out by whatever method seems most likely to achieve success, and it might or might not give the Afghan government five minutes’ notice before the operations commence.

Freed of concern about who rules Afghanistan, which is none of our business in the first place, the U.S. can then focus on making sure that al-Qaeda elements in Pakistan do not achieve the capability to launch attacks elsewhere in the world. The most effective methods would be not overt military operations, except perhaps in rare instances, but establishing decent intelligence, alliances with tribal leaders who have no interest in seeing radical jihadists run their territory, and perhaps the occasional special forces operation when intelligence identifies a takeable target.

I talked not so long ago to a veteran foreign correspondent who had talked repeatedly with leaders of a large tribe in Pakistan who said they would just as soon see al-Qaeda ousted and who wanted to cooperate quietly with the U.S. This correspondent had taken this information to top CIA and Pentagon officials, and over the course of several years, no effort – none – had been made even to contact the tribal chieftain. If the U.S. really wants to neutralize al-Qaeda, however, such efforts are likely to be much more successful than launching drones into Pakistan and alienating the Pakistani people.

By suggesting possible talks between U.S. military leaders and "moderate" elements of the Taliban – liberals almost always assume that in any insurgency there must be "moderate" elements who are straining at the bit to work with the U.S. – Obama signals, even though there is time to change course, that the U.S. military is going to be engaged in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future, and that it will be the U.S. military – note that he didn’t discuss the Afghan government making overtures – that will really be running things. If that is his preliminary vision of how to handle Afghanistan, U.S. troops are likely to be fighting and dying in a near-impossible mission for years to come.

Of course the global economic crisis, which has put the spotlight on just how shaky the U.S. economy really is, might trump all of this as it becomes apparent that the U.S. simply doesn’t have the resources to continue trying to impose its will on distant parts of the world.

Read more by Alan Bock