By William Beecher
It is time to rip the cobwebs from our eyes and recognize that our current strategy in Afghanistan is failing miserably.
It is time to recognize that to continue on our current course will not only squander scores of additional lives of our courageous young men and billions of dollars, but also lead almost inevitably to a bloody civil war in Afghanistan after the US and NATO troops pull out in 2014.
In the eleventh year of war, it is long past due to revamp the model of Afghanistan ruled from Kabul to a more traditional,decentralized, tribal-oriented system that has characterized the country’s experience for centuries.
And it is time to bring other interested nations, which have a stake in the evolution to a more stable Afghanistan, to the planning table.
This is not a partisan matter.
Barack Obama, when he was running for president, declared that Iraq was the wrong war, but that Afghanistan was the right one. Consistent with his assertion, when he came into office he doubled down on US troop levels, twice surging additional forces into the fray.
Mitt Romney, the likely Republican challenger for the White House, contends that Obama was wrong to put a deadline on our combat presence, because that only encourages the Taliban to wait us out before vigorously pressing to reassert control.
But neither man is calling for us to transform the mission and our role in it.
In supporting the current war strategy, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney recently told reporters: “(The President) does not want American troops to be in Afghanistan any longer than they need to be to complete the mission. It’s a clear policy with very clear goals. And it is a policy that is very clear-eyed about what our objectives are, and what can be achieved in Afghanistan.”
Why are we there? What national interest compelled us to war?
Clearly we’re there because al Qaeda planned, mounted and carried out the horrendous attacks of 9/11 on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. And had valiant passengers not downed a fourth hijacked airliner, that plane was destined to crash into either the White House or the Congress.
And when Mullah Mohammed Omar, the leader of the Taliban, refused our entreaties to turn over Osama bin Laden and his henchmen to the US, President George H.W. Bush decided to employ the CIA and Special Operations forces, together with tribes of the Northern Alliance, to drive not only al Qaeda but also the Taliban out of the country, into Pakistan. The premise was that we didn’t want to see al Qaeda allowed to train and scheme once again from Afghan territory.
However, since then al Qaeda has established significant bases in Pakistan, Yemen and Sudan. So that rationale makes a lot less sense.
When and why did the short-term mission become transformed into one of nation building? And why, once again, did we ignore the history, the customs, and the culture of another nation in crafting our strategy?
Initially we installed Hamid Karzai as Afghan president. We hoped he would be the focus of a strong central government, appealing to members of the four major tribes–the Pashtun, the Tajiks, the Uzbeks and the Hazaras–to help combat the generally unpopular and feared Taliban forces and keep them from reasserting control. But the Karzai government is rife with corruption and nepotism and its minions around the country have generally not garnered public support.
Afghanistan traditionally has not had a strong central government, instead being run by militias of regional governors and warlords. Most of the Taliban’s forces come from the Pashtun tribe, which is the largest in Afghanistan, and has a strong presence as well across the border in Pakistan. The other three make up the so-called Northern Alliance, which in the fall of 2001 played the dominant role in routing the Taliban.
We ought to help the tribes reestablish local defensive militias to protect their people from a resurgent Taliban in preparation for the departure of Western troops. In Iraq we belatedly convinced the Sunnis in Anbar province that they would be better off rejecting and defending against the al Qaeda in Iraq organization–a move that helped turn the tide of that war.
And we ought to actively explore with Pakistan, Iran, China, Russia and India–all countries with significant interest in how Afghanistan evolves–how they might contribute.
Pakistan,which we accuse of playing a double game, believes it has a strategic interest in an Afghanistan on its western border which is not only friendly but somewhat hostile to its traditional enemy, India. It originally organized, trained and armed the Taliban, largely from Pashtun students in its religious schools or madrassas. Taliban means “students” in Pashto.
Russia is especially concerned about the stream of heroin and opium from Afghanistan north. There are an estimated 2.5 million heroin addicts in Russia, with an annual overdose death toll of about 30,000. China has invested $3 billion in a copper mine in Afghanistan. Iran sees the Taliban as a threat and in the past has supported the Hazaras in Herat province on its border. India is concerned about suspected militant training camps in Afghanistan for fighters destined for Kashmir and has developed relations with some of the northern tribes.
Why not gather these countries, which have significant interests in the future of Afghanistan, to see how they might play a constructive role in a peaceful future? When they see the entire concept for Afghanistan’s future is changing, and that they are invited to help shape that future, and at the same time serve their national self-interests, it stands to reason they would at least want to seriously explore the possibilities.
The result conceivably could be an Afghanistan made up of regional power centers, protecting and providing for the needs of their people. The government in Kabul could deal with foreign policy and other functions that the decentralized system would find useful.
Might this not promise a better outcome than seems destined today?
This blog also ran in the World Policy Council blog.