What follows is one observer’s attempt to get his arms around this worrisome dilemma for the United States (as well as for Afghans). I’ll recap briefly the relevant history, look at our current policy conundrum, and ask how this war fits into the larger American narrative.
Afghanistan is a mountainous country slightly smaller than Texas, with six potentially interfering abutters, a population of about 25 million (70 percent of them illiterate), and a deeply traditional tribal culture. Around half are ethnic Pashtuns who dominate the governing councils and spill across the Pakistan border to their fellow tribesmen, who constitute Pakistan’s second largest ethnic group. The chief minorities of Hazeras, Tajiks, and Uzbeks formed the Northern Alliance that helped defeat the Taliban in Round One 2001, and live in provinces headed by independent tribal chiefs and warlords. Eighty-four percent of Afghans are Sunni Muslims. They have been at war for over 30 years. There is evidence that Pakistan’s military intelligence service has secretly aided the Taliban as part of Pakistan’s broader strategic interest in curbing India’s Afghan ambitions.
It is common knowledge that Afghanistan has chewed up and spit out one invader after another, starting with Alexander the Great and the Greeks 2,300 years ago. The dismal fate of foreign occupiers runs through 19th century with British attempts to clear a pathway to India, and Tsarist Russian efforts to reach warm water ports. In modern times, the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to keep their friends in power, but were finally driven out by fierce Afghan resistance, fueled by US dollars and ground-to-air Stinger missiles delivered to the mujahedin guerillas through Saudi Arabian channels. The irony is the transformation of many US-supported mujahedin into today’s Taliban enemy. The forbidding terrain has influenced Afghan history, but so has the fact that Afghans have traditionally made their own military hardware in a home-based cottage industry. If some are not good soldiers under US guidance, it’s not because they don't have a reputation as fierce fighters.
Splintered by a civil war when the Soviets left in 1991, by 2001 the country was under the unforgiving rule of the Taliban. Fanatical Muslim extremists like Al Qaeda, and less apocalyptically the Taliban fight to rid the country of infidels and install Islamic law (Sharia) in its most merciless form involving punishment for civil crimes by beheadings and stoning to death, and denial of education and work to women. “Taliban” means student. Indeed, some Taliban have been students in madrassas -- religious schools in Pakistan that teach the Koran and are financed by religiously extreme Wahabi followers in Saudi Arabia.
The US wouldn't be anywhere near Afghanistan if it were not for 9/11. President Bush correctly ruled that we would not only go after terrorists such as Al Qaeda, but would also go after states that harbor them. We invaded Afghanistan and within months made short work of the Taliban, which went into hiding at least temporarily. It's possible that if the US had stayed to complete the peaceful transformation of the country history might have been different. But for four years the US neglected Afghanistan in favor of a mammoth detour into Iraq. It was apparent by 2009 that a war that had lasted eight years was not being won. The Taliban challenge was back and the current situation is as daunting for the US as any since Vietnam. The new US president’s meticulous policy review (accompanied by ferocious arguments between military and civilians, according to Bob Woodward’s new book) produced a new surge, and something like 100,000 US and 30,000 NATO troops will soon be in place, a number more than adequate to defeat any army Afghanistan could field.
The fact, which is becoming generic around the world, is that there is no such army. Instead, there is a bunch of Western-hating bad guys covered with beards and religious fervor, operating not on battlefields but out of family homes and other populated places where a US strike, however justified, inevitably produces collateral damage and civilian casualties. The coalition attacks then become a national issue, further reducing tolerance for the American presence. General David Petraeus selflessly stepped down from command of US operations in the entire region to take on the Afghan command when General McChrystal lost his professional inhibitions.
General Petraeus is operating a counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy for which he literally wrote the book back in the Army’s Fort Leavenworth think tank. In an extraordinary guidance document to all US and NATO forces issued August 1, he set forth a brilliant litany of do’s and don’ts that in tolerable circumstances could succeed in helping and wooing Afghans. The trouble is that COIN needs to partner with a government in which the people have trust, and there doesn’t appear to be much of that in Kabul.
Deals can be made with tribal elders and regional chieftains, and even with some Taliban mid-level mercenaries. But creating local centers of successful governance and development is problematic in a country where there is little confidence in or even contact with the central government. A particularly damaging obstacle is that President Karzai, despite reassuring rhetoric, is widely believed to tolerate corruption. He reportedly stole the presidential election, and the recent parliamentary election appears to reflect the worst of the pervasive culture of corruption. Karzai’s top aide was removed for corruption but restored on Karzai’s command (and also revealed to be on the CIA payroll), and his brother reputedly partners with drug lords in a country responsible for the world's number one supply of heroin from opium poppies. All in all, I can’t help recalling the legend that, just before World War I, the Kaiser sent Count von Ludendorff to Vienna to check out Germany’s great Austro-Hungarian ally, Emperor Franz Josef. Ludendorff reported back: “Your majesty, we are wedded to a corpse.”
A hearts and minds strategy might still help win a war, but not without a partner who wants reform at least as much as we do. Al Qaeda seems to have been forced to decentralize, with a core of some 400 holed up in Pakistan’s northwest border fastness. At the same time, the security situation on the ground has been getting worse. The Taliban is killing aid workers, whose organizations report that security is worse than any time since 2001. The war is increasingly unpopular at home, with over 62 percent turning thumbs down in recent polls. But the agonizing dilemma for the US is the potential danger in abandoning the country to a possible replay of 9/11 after the US leaves. Not surprisingly, in light of all the uncertainties, US goals keep shrinking (as they did in Vietnam). They began with the fanciful dream of creating an American-style democracy, but are now reduced to leaving behind a relatively stable government and better-trained army. The US is committed to start withdrawing combat forces next July, although that date is wiggling at the military's insistence that the rate be "condition-based." It is not surprising that Afghan leaders are reported to be seeking deals with the Taliban.
It is worth pondering the quandary that the US creates for itself when it takes on a war of choice rather than necessity, as defined in a recent book by Richard Haass. US wars of choice have often gone badly as Americans have lost interest and turned negative. Colin Powell, as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, formulated three essential conditions for successful US military interventions: overwhelming force, an exit strategy, and the support of the American people. None of these seems to apply in Afghanistan. On the other hand, General Petraeus is cautiously optimistic about the outcome if we hang in there until the local forces are fully capable of national defense and effective policing. The outcome obviously hangs in the balance, and if I had to give the odds of success, I would put them at 50-50.
Time was that the United States was a model for others. But one wonders when we will learn the repeated lesson about trying to impose democracy at the point of a gun on feudal, tribal societies, and failed states. The US needs to remain able to deter aggression and defend itself and its allies. But the time has come to rebalance resource allocations that fund a military establishment many times greater than the next twelve powers while starving diplomatic and other effective tools of influence and soft power. One can only hope that our luck will hold up, perhaps boosted by the old 19th-century maxim that God looks after drunks, little children, and the United States of America.