Posted by Jerrod @ 9:43 pm on June 29th 2010

Petraeus is not the answer

I’ve surprised myself over the years by opposing the war in Iraq before it started but then supporting the post-war efforts of President Bush. I never really opposed the initial incursion into Afghanistan but also found myself siding with those who argued that to leave Afghanistan would only serve to make the problem worse. I trusted policy makers, both civilian and military, especially General Petraeus, and believed that we’d learned enough from our experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan and were distanced enough from 9/11 to make appropriate decisions based on accurate analysis of the situation and solutions. We need someone who will take us out of Afghanistan. Petraeus is good, even great, but he’s there for COIN and that’s no longer what we need.

Looking at it now, it’s quite shocking that we’ve only had 2 national reviews of the war in Afghanistan. The first came in the first few weeks after 9/11 and consisted mainly of “Which targets? All of them!” and then again in 2009 with a change in national leadership. The resignation of McChrystal is another opportunity for revisiting the issue but it’s clear that President Obama is not going to do that. We’re changing personnel, not policy, he says. This is very unfortunate.

I no longer believe that the current policy is either feasible nor appropriate for the United States and Afghanistan. As I understand it, our policy is designed around two pillars. The first is to eradicate Islamic terrorist activity in Afghanistan and the second is to stamp down on the Taliban (an indigenous Afghani movement) long enough for a national government to do the stamping down on its own. The former objective is essentially complete; Al Qaeda remnants probably can be found in Afghanistan but functionally the “group” (Al Qaeda is more of a widespread ideology inspiring distinct groups rather than a monolithic organization like Hezbollah or the Weather Underground) operates outside of Afghanistan (Pakistan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia). Most of what is called Al Qaeda or terrorism in Afghanistan these days is actually Taliban activity. While the Taliban and Al Qaeda do share a lot of the Salafi/Wahhabi Islamic ideology about how to live their lives and run their societies, the Taliban has no apparent aims outside of Afghanistan. They are vehemently anti-non-Afghani, an attitude shared by most non-Taliban as well.

The second function of our mission in Afghanistan, namely the suppression of the Taliban in favor of nation building, has thus become almost the entirety of our mission. Essentially we are in Afghanistan fighting one group of Afghanis who’s political beliefs we abhor in favor of another group of Afghanis who otherwise wouldn’t be able to stand on their own. I really hate to jump to Vietnam comparisons, but it has to be said. Yes, there are major differences, the least of which is that the Taliban are hugely supported by Pakistan. At best, though, this point only can be used to argue against painting with the Vietnam brush, as it is further evidence of the futility of our anti-Taliban mission.

I can’t support the anti-Taliban mission any more because I no longer am convinced that it is any kind of threat to the United States. The only threat that the Taliban ever posed to use was when they provided a haven to Al Qaeda for training. That isn’t happening any more and is unlikely to now that our operation to remove the tumor has led to a metastasis with pockets of Al Qaeda all over the region now. We should continue to monitor Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and be prepared to perhaps re-enter the country if needed to attack such camps. It’s even arguable that it would be better if Al Qaeda re-established itself in Afghanistan since its politically easier (albeit logistically harder) for the U.S. to violate Afghani state sovereignty to take out some camps than it is to do so in Pakistan or Yemen (neighbor of Saudi Arabia). It should be possible to develop humint sources that would keep a lid on AQ; Pakistan supports the Taliban but has no love for Al Qaeda. I’m willing to bet that Taliban/ISI would be willing to work with the U.S. to keep Al Qaeda down.

Staying in Afghanistan is pushing the problem into Pakistan and destabilizing that nation. Getting out of Afghanistan would hinder our actions in Pakistan but would likely allow Pakistan to make strides in reducing the Al Qaeda presence there, relocating them back to Afghanistan as I said. Even better, though, would be to withdraw from Afghanistan in a way that legitimates the Taliban (who have moderated many of their more extreme and disgusting policies, even though most Americans still would find them repugnant). There’s been a worldwide backlash to Al Qaeda and its very plausible that a new Taliban regime would no longer be able to justify cooperation or tolerate Al Qaeda as they did pre-9/11.

Afghanistan isn’t suited to become the nation we’re trying to make it into and even if it was, the Karzai clan isn’t capable of creating a stable government. The diversity of identities in Afghanistan fundamentally require a more transparent and inclusive form of government than we’ve got (or are anywhere near getting), but even if we had that, most Afghanis don’t want central government. And really, why should we care? I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t care about the plight of Afghanis or that we should “break it but not buy it” or just shirk responsibility entirely. I’m saying that the form of government in Afghanistan is not of consequence to the US.

Afghanistan needs peace and its true that Taliban may pose a threat to that if they seek to retake the capitol and attempt to consolidate control as they did in the mid-1990s. But a regional organization that includes Pakistan, India, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Kyrgistan, Uzbekistan, and the world community as a whole ought to be able to come together on it. Yeah, yeah, some of you just choked on your coffee, but it really is that simple. Takes real leadership and some serious diplomacy is all.

I’ll close with an extended quote from a note posted by Thomas Ricks from inside Afghanistan that suggests a way forward and out:

I read and see news about reconciliation, etc but at the tactical level that is not the case. There is no question that the TB has embedded itself in the countryside and shadow governance is at its best.

My take on this is that the TB see their position as one of strength and are reinforcing that strength in certain areas. Why? In my opinion, it is a race for strength to come to the negotiations table. It is Negotiations 101 in college.

We must get away from the verbiage of central governance and openly accept that Afghanistan is quintessentially a decentralized society that is further fractured by decades of conflict, complex tribal relationships and geographic terrain that prevents strong central governance — particularly when there was never strong central governance in the past. Under the TB, past dynasties, and the Russians, there was never strong governance. Tribal justice reigned and the people were content.

However, we need to openly communicate to ‘our world’ that we must fight and gain control of the key roads to Kabul in order to open commerce and transportation and in parallel build the capacity and capability of the ANSF to secure and control those key arteries — and let the rest of the country lie in rest. To uproot traditionalist and isolationist communities and extend governance outwards to harsh terrain can only shift focus away from what we can control — the roads to Kabul.

A really big problem is the Pashtu belt which lies astride the PAK-AFG border. If we can get to the negotiations table in a position of strength with acceptable political parties (to include some or a lot of TB), we might then find ourselves in a stronger position with AFG and PAK to target extremists/AQ in the Fatah, etc and destroy them — we would be the stronger coalition. Remember that the Pashtuns make up 50 percent of Afghanistan and 100 percent of the insurgency — and the Taliban. That should help put it in perspective. The Pashtu is not really the enemy. They do not want foreigners and extremists among their tribes — nor do they want us here.

It is the extremist that wants to destroy the Pakistan current state as well as U.S. and other western interests outside of Pakistan and Afghanistan. This terrain provides the safe haven and opportunity for foreign fighters outside of the Pashtu and Afghanistan and Pakistan to target the U.S. as well as Pakistan, which extremists consider a U.S. ally, or puppet. Reaching an acceptable solution among the TB and Pashtu will allow us and Pakistan to target and rid the Pashtu belt of AQ and other extremists — our Commander-in-Chief’s main objective.

Again, it is violent and I strongly believe we are in a phase that requires bargaining from a position of strength — and that strength lies in those key lines of commerce or roads, not in the countryside. In the end, the lessons must be drawn from the 11 Soviet-U.S. Geneva negotiations in the Sov-AFG war that only ended in failure for the Soviets. Soon, we must gain the position of strength and initiate a compromise and enforcement negotiations approach. And we cannot gain a position of strength under a planned timeline. Ask the former President Gorbachev of the Soviet Union and when he said, “we are out in 9 months and we will not be linked to the stability of Kabul.” That did not work out. Look where we are now.

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