Whither Afghanistan?

by dday

In Barack Obama's op-ed on Iraq today he pledged to commit additional manpower and resources to Afghanistan.

Ending the war is essential to meeting our broader strategic goals, starting in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the Taliban is resurgent and Al Qaeda has a safe haven. Iraq is not the central front in the war on terrorism, and it never has been. As Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recently pointed out, we won’t have sufficient resources to finish the job in Afghanistan until we reduce our commitment to Iraq.

As president, I would pursue a new strategy, and begin by providing at least two additional combat brigades to support our effort in Afghanistan. We need more troops, more helicopters, better intelligence-gathering and more nonmilitary assistance to accomplish the mission there. I would not hold our military, our resources and our foreign policy hostage to a misguided desire to maintain permanent bases in Iraq.

The Bush Administration is making googly eyes at this prospect as well, though in their case it's almost certainly meaningless talk designed to raise hopes for an eventual withdrawal, a naked play for electoral glory for the GOP.

Certainly there are pretty dire portents in Afghanistan, but the question is what the "mission" of which Sen. Obama speaks should be. There is a militant faction which is indeed resurgent and able to pull off large-scale attacks. They've taken over increasing amounts of territory and large-scale production facilities on that land, like Pakistani marble quarries, to fund the insurgency and strengthen their positions. As they fortify more territory in the region, additional foreign fighters are flocking to them. And as a possibly related outgrowth, there are growing signs of additional terror attacks globally, which would certainly point to an expanded Al Qaeda network newly able to direct operations.

That would seem to point to a need to dismantle these networks, but there are plenty of roadblocks to this strategy. The new Pakistani government is publicly stating their opposition to any foreign entity hunting for Al Qaeda or Taliban remnants on their soil, and so this safe haven in the FATA region is thriving and feeling no pressure from local governments. This gives US forces little recourse beyond targeted airstrikes, which anger local populations. We continue to hit wedding parties in areas where the clans are the de facto ruling governments, and this is the very opposite of any counter-insurgency strategy. While in the past Afghanis have wanted a Western military presence in their country for protection, I'm not sure that is the case anymore. Furthermore, putting two brigades, not an overwhelming number of troops, into Afghanistan in remote bases increases the possibility for more tragedies like the one over the weekend which killed 9 US soldiers, the most in a single attack in Afghanistan in years.

The Taliban of the late 1990s was a particularly gruesome bunch of fundamentalists on their own, and their willingness to harbor Al Qaeda as they plot terror attacks makes their return to power in Afghanistan threatening. But it's even an open question whether or not the large-scale insurgency that's come to Afghanistan is Taliban, in the strictest sense. And what's truly puzzling is whether we have anything left to fight in that country, and how productive - or counter-productive - we would be while doing it. Juan Cole has some very good thoughts about this.

When was the last time that an al-Qaeda operative was captured in Afghanistan by US forces? Is that really what US troops are doing there, looking for al-Qaeda? Wouldn't we hear more about it if they were having successes in that regard? I mean, what is reported in the press is that they are fighting with "Taliban". But I'm not so sure these Pushtun rural guerrillas are even properly speaking Taliban (which means 'seminary student.') The original Taliban had mostly been displaced as refugees into Pakistan. These 'neo-Taliban' don't seem mostly to have that background. A lot of them seem to be just disgruntled Pushtun villagers in places like Uruzgan.

There has now been a rise of suicide bombings in Afghanistan, on a scale never before seen. One killed 24 people in a bazaar at Deh Rawood on Sunday. Robert Pape has demonstrated that suicide bombings typically are carried out by people who think their country is under foreign military occupation. If the US keeps sending more troops, will that really calm things down? [...]

If the Afghanistan gambit is sincere, I don't think it is good geostrategy. Afghanistan is far more unwinnable even than Iraq. If playing it up is politics, then it is dangerous politics. Presidents can become captive of their own record and end up having to commit to things because they made strong representations about them to the public [...]

Afghan tribes are fractious. They feud. Their territory is vast and rugged, and they know it like the back of their hands. Afghans are Jeffersonians in the sense that they want a light touch from the central government, and heavy handedness drives them into rebellion. Stand up Karzai's army and air force and give him some billions to bribe the tribal chiefs, and let him apply carrot and stick himself. We need to get out of there. "Al-Qaeda" was always Bin Laden's hype. He wanted to get us on the ground there so that the Mujahideen could bleed us the way they did the Soviets. It is a trap.

The problem, as Cole very expertly notes, is that there's no government in any meaningful sense over there, just a loose confederation of tribes and clans. There is probably a more pernicious force willing to subjugate them, but if the clans are willing to resist it will be unsuccessful. As it is the clans appear only willing to resist Western forces.

I don't know if it's as easy as building a bunch of schools, because it may now be easier for a lone Westerner to operate in the region than a tainted US Government. But clearly, there are public diplomacy options, economic options, options for NGOs, etc., that go far beyond sticking two more brigades in and hoping. We've let Afghanistan slip away for 5 years and we're not going to just come back with guns blazing and earn the support of the local population. An imperial mindset breeds an ever-expanding set of imperial strategies. There is a role to play there, and I don't believe the country should be abandoned to fundamentalist control, but that role should not be a bigger, more competent version of what the Bush Administration has revealed to be a failure.