The closest thing to good news about the future of U.S. engagement in Afghanistan is that while the Obama administration is committed to sending as many as 30,000 more troops into Afghanistan, several news stories have suggested that the purpose of doing so is to achieve a bit more stability to buy time to reevaluate the situation and develop a new strategy. If the administration is wise, that reevaluation will be thoroughgoing and lead to the sensible conclusion that the U.S. has no interest in what kind of government rules Afghanistan so long as it isn’t harboring al-Qaeda bases, which should lead to a decision that this goal has been achieved and it’s time to withdraw all U.S. forces and let the Afghans run Afghanistan.
What emerges is unlikely to bear even a passing resemblance to a Western-style parliamentary democracy that adheres either to UN, EU, or NATO standards of respect for minority or women’s rights. (Indeed, there might not be an effective central government at all.) But nice as it might be to see a more tolerant regime emerge not an impossibility, but it would be tolerant by Afghan rather than Western European standards it is not a core interest of the United States to eliminate every burqa in the world and see to it that every regime gets the Gloria Steinem seal of approval.
During the late, unlamented presidential campaign, President Obama repeatedly said that Afghanistan is the true central front in the “war on terror.” He said he would commit additional troops (on top of 36,000 U.S. troops already there) to root out Taliban, al-Qaeda, and insurgent forces operating in the southern part of Afghanistan and in relatively safe havens across the border in parts of Pakistan where the Pakistani central government has no effective control. Now, while it is unlikely that more than 10,000 or 12,000 will get there by summer, the talk is still of 30,000 more eventually.
In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates described the war in Afghanistan as “a long slog” in which it would be necessary to scale back U.S. objectives in that country, focusing on military activity and leaving “nation-building” activities like training Afghan troops and reconstruction to our NATO allies.
One wonders just how central this war is to core U.S. interests. It is time to blow up some assumptions and focus, as George Friedman of Stratfor.com argued in a recent piece, on the real interests of the U.S. in Afghanistan.
He argues that it is important to think of the Taliban and al-Qaeda as separate entities and separate problems; the Taliban may not really be the U.S.’ problem, and in any event the U.S. is as likely to defeat it in Afghanistan as the Russians and British were during previous failed occupations.
Unlike many observers, Stratfor has been arguing for several years now that al-Qaeda prime, whatever is left of the group surrounding Osama bin Laden, is a depleted force that is probably incapable of launching an attack on the U.S. or Western Europe. It is effectively contained in its Pakistani redoubts, is not recruiting actively, and is more likely to diminish than to grow. Groups in other parts of the world nominally linked to al-Qaeda do not have the capacity to operate in other parts of the world beyond their particular regions. Osama and the neocons might like to fantasize that al-Qaeda is a worldwide, coordinated threat to all we hold dear, but national or local insurgencies have assumed the al-Qaeda brand.
"The situation was very different with the Taliban," Friedman writes. "The Taliban, it is essential to recall, won the Afghan civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal despite Russian and Iranian support for its opponents. That means the Taliban have a great deal of support and a string infrastructure, and, above all, they are resilient." They are stronger now by far than right after the U.S. invasion, and as an Afghan rather than a multinational group, they are not going away. They can wait out the foreign occupiers.
Is it likely that a variant of the "surge" strategy in Iraq even if the surge was a bigger factor in the relative calm that prevails there than it really was can be adapted, with due consideration for different conditions, to subdue the Taliban and give a Karzai or post-Karzai foreign-approved government a secure hold on power in Afghanistan beyond Kabul? No.
After seven long years of hard slogging, conditions have improved in Iraq, in part due to the U.S. “surge” in numbers of troops and different tactics, in part due to developments like the Sunni “awakening” that began before the surge, and in part due to general war-weariness and plain luck. But in Afghanistan, where conditions have been deteriorating (roadside attacks and suicide bombings are up 40 percent over last year), the challenges are significantly more formidable .
Afghanistan is larger than Iraq, has a larger population (32 million to 27 million), and has a much more challenging, largely mountainous terrain. Whereas Iraq is rather urbanized, Afghanistan is largely rural. Afghanistan has never had an effective central government; the current Western-installed government has little effective control outside the capital of Kabul and is deeply corrupt. The largest cash crop by far is opium, and the Taliban and other insurgents finance operations to the tune of $300 million-$500 million a year, according to various estimates largely through heroin smuggling. The ethnic and tribal mosaic in Afghanistan is far more diverse and complex than in Iraq.
No wonder Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires.
Almost all supplies for U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan come from two roads through Pakistan that are often harassed by insurgents and sometimes closed down by the Pakistani government. Gen. David Petraeus, who heads the U.S. Central Command, with responsibility for Central and Southern Asia as well as the Middle East, recently traveled to Kazakhstan to negotiate a supply route through that country. Establishing such a route, however, would require cooperation from Russia, with which U.S. relations are hardly warm, and which would want concessions the U.S. might be reluctant to grant.
In short, as Petraeus recently told Foreign Policy magazine, Afghanistan is likely to be the longest campaign in the long war on jihadist terrorism. Success is hard to define and will be even harder to achieve.
Thus it is legitimate to wonder whether it’s a good idea to commit more troops to a country in which almost the only point of agreement is resentment of foreign troops to achieve what Petraeus and virtually all other authorities agree must lead to a political solution especially after seven long years of sometimes desultory combat in Iraq.
Petraeus has stressed that we can’t kill our way out of trouble there. Presumably, what would be perhaps the most effective way to undermine the Taliban legalizing heroin, thus cutting their profits is off the table. Or are U.S. strategists capable of doing a fundamental reevaluation and acknowledging that maintaining an ineffective and socially corrosive Holy War on (Some) Drugs also serves to finance terrorism and violence throughout the world, especially in producing countries? But the drug war is something like a religion.
We don’t have to get that fundamental to come up with a strategy that defends core U.S. interests and reduces the likelihood of another 9/11 in the U.S. or Western Europe more effectively than the sharp-elbowed yet ultimately vague policy the Bushies have inconsistently followed. Building Potemkin democracies wherever self-styled jihadists are operating is not possible, but clinging to authoritarian allies like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt isn’t wise either.
Although no jihadist force capable of attacking the U.S. seems to have emerged, military occupation, guerrilla operations, and support for corrupt regimes in Muslim countries is more likely to increase the number of jihadists in the world than to reduce it. With superior military forces, this approach might seem to work from time to time as local groups are neutralized or expelled for a while, but as a strategy it is flawed, little more than a holding action.
Instead, the U.S. should as quickly and gracefully as possible withdraw all forces from Afghanistan while putting the various factions there on notice that any tolerance of new al-Qaeda bases will trigger either air strikes or special forces attacks, with perhaps five minutes’ notice.
It may be that in such a scenario aggressive action against whatever al-Qaeda prime forces remain in Pakistan will be unnecessary, since al-Qaeda doesn’t have the capacity to attack the U.S. and is more likely to decline than to grow. If al-Qaeda does start to grow, however, a return to the traditional tools of intelligence, and perhaps the occasional use of special forces or air strikes, should be sufficient to keep that threat contained.
If the U.S. conceptually separates the al-Qaeda threat from the Taliban phenomenon and focuses on the former, quite modest operations are likely enough to prevent another 9/11.
The key to such success, however, will be a determination to rethink the assumption that it is necessary to subsidize a regime in Afghanistan that meets international human rights standards and is run by people subservient to the U.S. Let the Afghans build their own nation, if they’re inclined to do so. And if they’re not so inclined, if they prefer to maintain an evolving variant of traditional tribal and regional governance (what bien pensants might refer to as the rule of warlords), they will pose zero strategic threat to anybody.