Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Should We Leave Afghanistan?

Time for more controversy. I have been thinking about Afghanistan for some time now, and I’m seriously starting to doubt the wisdom of staying. Unfortunately, I do not believe that our current strategy (or any strategy that we would employ) can succeed because our policies are promised on fallacies. If we don't reconsider our premises and change our strategy accordingly, we need to stop endanger any more American lives.

Before I delve into this issue, let me be clear -- this is not about Obama. I don’t believe that Obama is doing anything significantly different than Bush did or than McCain would have done. And in all honestly, it is difficult to fault him for doing what the entire establishment advocates.

Secondly, I do not think going into Afghanistan was a mistake. Far from it, it was a necessary act. Al Qaeda, a terrorist group bent on the death or forced conversion of all non-Muslims, was using Afghanistan as a base of operations against the United States. They had direct ties within the government itself and were using Afghan territory to train and equip terrorists who would attack the United States and other Western countries. Destroying that ability was the key reason to go into Afghanistan, and it was a worthwhile goal.

So what's the problem? The problem is that there is no exit strategy. . . there can be no exit strategy under our current thinking. And that is because we are working under the illusion that Afghanistan is a country. Every strategy put forward by the left or right begins with this assumption, and it is faulty.

Afghanistan the country is a fiction, like many countries in that part of the world. When the British arrived during their empire building phase, they found thousands of small fiefdoms, each ruled by a local prince or potentate. The British co-opted or conquered them all. When the British left, they drew arbitrary lines that bound groups of these fiefdoms into single countries. These new countries lumped together different ethnic groups, tribes, clans and religions, each of whom hated the others, and they’ve been fighting ever since.

Afghanistan is a collection of different ethnic tribes (see map above). They do not get along. They will form alliances with other tribes where it is in their interest, but they break those alliances the moment their interests change. They have no common beliefs to hold them together. To the contrary, they hold many ancient grudges that tear them apart. And even apart from the grudges, the influence of Iran and Pakistan tear the country apart.

Yet, all of our strategies assume not only that this collection of waring tribes can be turned into a single country if we only impose a democracy. But there is nothing about Afghanistan that tells me that they are ready for democracy.

And this is the core of the problem. Liberals and neocons naively believe that the rest of the world is “just like us, waiting to happen.” All we need to do is stick a ballot box under their noses, find a George Washington proxy, and they will suddenly become committed democrats. But that’s simply not true. There are people in this world who worship strength, who find lying to be an acceptable form of behavior, and who savor revenge for grievances that began thousands of years before they were born. These societies function on the same level as a fifth grade schoolyard. . . power is privilege.

From ethnic cleansing/revenge in the Balkans, to ethnic slaughters in Rwanda (and a half dozen other African countries), to the anti-Christian genocides in places like Somalia and Sudan, to clan on clan violence throughout the Middle East, the evidence is clear -- the Western model of civility and constitutional democracy is the outlier.

It took us 2000 years to get to the point where we are. Two thousand years to develop a legal system that prizes truth and clear rules. Two thousand years of overthrowing dictators for us to learn how to govern without force and accept rule of law. Two thousand years of church, and state, and educational institutions, and culture working together to instill in us the beliefs that are needed for a democracy to work. And even now, those beliefs are precariously balanced and sometimes fail us.

Afghanistan has no history akin to ours. They have no real educational system, and no culture of freedom or democracy. They have no shining government to look up to, no history of increasing freedoms. They have no independent courts. And, ominously, they have a religion that preaches hate and division, not unity and peace. For all practical purposes, it is a society of feral children grown old, all suffering from stunted intellectual and emotional growth.

There is nothing about Afghanistan (or anywhere else in the world) that tells me that democracy can be imposed by outsiders where it does not have strong roots already. Their culture is destructive and is simply not suited for any form of cooperative government. Yes, we can create a pretend democracy as long as we occupy the country. But the moment we leave, they will revert to their natural instincts. Thus, our plans to create a stable Afghanistan by imposing a democracy on these people are doomed to fail. The moment we leave, everything will evaporate.

Indeed, unless we impose democratic values on the Afghan people, any democracy we create will be a hoax. And therein lies the rub. Not only do I doubt that it is possible to impose such values on a backward people, but our policy makers would never even attempt it. To achieve that, we would need to reform their government, their educational system, their culture, and their religion, much like we did in Japan, and that would need to be imposed upon them. But that would make us “cultural imperialists,” and it would bring immediate cries that this is a war against Islam. This is unacceptable to our policy makers.

That leaves us with only one other viable strategy. Break Afghanistan into parts along ethnic lines (like what solved the Yugoslavia problem), and install favored strongmen in each enclave to ensure stability. But our policy makers won’t do this either because they can’t stomach the idea of abandoning the fiction that Afghanistan is a country. . . not to mention they refuse to be seen supporting dictators or warlords. So we are an impasse.

Thus, rather than correcting our strategy, we keep muddling through with the current strategy, hoping that somehow the house of cards we call the Afghan government suddenly morphs into a creature so wonderful that the Afghan people skip over 2000 years of cultural development, abandon everything they truly believe, and suddenly fall deeply in love with the concepts of democracy, rule of law, and clean government.

I see this as a fool’s errand.

Thus, I also question the desire to send more soldiers to Afghanistan. We are told they are needed to control the country (we’ve given up on the idea of destroying the Taliban) until the Afghan government and military can stand on their own feet. But the government will never stand on its own feet without a Western army to prop it up, and the Afghan army suffers the same lack of cohesion as the country. Indeed, they are beset with ethnic tensions, they are not trusted in most parts of the country, and they suffer a desertion rate in excess of 20%. And this is after we spent billions of dollars training them since 2002 -- a longer period, by the way, than World War II lasted from start to finish (1939-1945).

It strikes me that it’s time to face reality. There is no point to wasting American lives trying to prop up a government that will evaporate the second we leave. We either need to seriously remake their society from top to bottom, or we should admit that Afghanistan is a fiction and set about creating smaller, more stable fiefdoms and pairing them off with larger partners (like Pakistan or Iran) to keep the Taliban from returning. If we won't do that, then I don't think we should risk another American life.

At least, that’s how I’m see it.


Cheryl said...

So, if we don't do what you suggested in your last paragraph, (and I don't think we will either), and we do just get out, then the Taliban WILL return and we'll be right back where we started?

AndrewPrice said...

That's the problem Cheryl as I see it. Without a dramatic change in our thinking, we are only kidding ourselves that we're changing the situation.

If we don't change the way we are handling this, then all we will achieve is wasting time. We will stick around until the public decides that they don't want our soldiers over there anymore. Then we will declare the government fixed, and then we leave. A short while later, the Afghan government falls apart, the Taliban move in, and we start all over again.

AndrewPrice said...

Cheryl, The other problem is that as long as the other side and the people of Afghanistan know that this will be the result, they will continue to believe that the Taliban are winning. As long as they believe that, there is no hope that they will work to improve the country.

Cheryl said...

Do they want the Taliban ruling their lives?

Have you seen The Kite Runner?

AndrewPrice said...

Cheryl, That's a good question. Most don't want the Taliban back, but there are reasons that many of them will choose the Taliban to the current government.

For example, some see the Taliban as providing the law and order that is missing today.

Some are ethnic allies of the Taliban and see them as a better choice than being "dominated" by northern ethnic groups.

Finally, some are sympathetic to the religious goals of the Taliban.

Many of the rest are simply afraid of the Taliban and they believe that we will eventually leave, leaving them hung out to dry if they stand up to the Taliban.

AndrewPrice said...

P.S. I have seen the Kite Runner.

Cheryl said...

So, I know that Hollywood can't always be trusted for an accurate view of history, but it seems like life was kind of ok in Afghanistan before the Russians and then the Taliban showed up.

However all of your reasons, especially the last, seem logical as to why they might accept rule under the Taliban again.

BTW: my son and I were just discussing this this morning and I am anxious to send him your article. Thanks.

AndrewPrice said...

Cheryl, You're welcome. By Western standards, there isn't much that would be worse than living under the Taliban. Even the communists were freedom lovers by comparison.

But we also don't subscribe to the ethnic and religious beliefs that dominate that region. That's my point in the article, is that they don't see things the way we do, but our policy makers all assume that they do. And that's setting us up for failure.

Tennessee Jed said...

Lots of very interesting stuff here, Andrew. In many ways, the problems are the same as in Iraq where there has been talk about partitioning between Sunni, Kurds Shiite(?). We have a tremendous political/cultural divide here as well, but at least a history of working things out at the ballot box.

We obviously had to throw the Taliban out, and it might have been interesting had we quickly gotten the head of the Taliban and Bin Laden early on. Iraq was a very interesting experiment, albeit a long shot. If we somehow end up with a quasi democratic government in Iraq, it certainly changes the dynamic in the Middle East.

I see this as a global struggle against fundamentalist jihadism. We cannot wage it without the help of the powers that should be helping, but Russia, China, etc. seem to more enjoy seeing us struggle. At the very least, I can appreciate American foreign policy of the past in the fight against communism. We would take on allies who were not very good guys such as Saddam, The Shah, Diem, etc. because "the enemy of my enemy is my friend."

Good post, Andrew . . .lots of food for thought.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Jed. We do try to challenge the mind, and I've been thinking about this one for a while now.

I think the comparison to Iraq is an interesting one.

Like Afghanistan, Iraq too remains uncertain -- though less so. The Kurds basically run an independent country that could break free at any time. The Sunni are heavily influenced by Iran and could easily break away as well -- and would even find a sponsor if they chose to leave. The central government is corrupt and ethnically divided. So there is a danger that Iraq could yet implode when we finally leave.

And by comparison, Iraq has a very Western history, having been part of the Western World from 2000-BC until the present -- while they haven't really been truly Western, they at least have had many of the same institutions and have shared many of the developments of the West.

So if Iraq is in danger, then Afghanistan is many times worse.

In the end, I think we'll hold Iraq together -- because it's more important to everyone in the Middle East that they hold together, and because they have oil money to gloss over a lot of disagreements. But Afghanistan doesn't have that.

DCAlleyKat said...

I don't have a problem with Afghanistan being a battleground of our 'War Against Terrorism' but if the goal is to try with Afghanistan what we accomplished in Iraq - well, frankly that ain't going to happen.

As an aside one of the Bush Adm's biggest failures was allowing the msm to present Iraq as a war in and of itself rather than as just another battlefield in our War Against Terrorism.

Writer X said...

If the reports are true that the Taliban has moved into Pakistan, wouldn't that mean that some of the strategy in Afghanistan is working?

I agree with you, Andrew. Something has to change with the strategy. I think the fear is that if there is a complete pull-out, won't American troops have to return at some point. Would leaving delay the inevitable? I don't have any good answers; just asking questions.

StanH said...

Afghanistan has always been a hell hole, I think it was Rudyard Kipling that coined the phrase, “a place where empires go to die.” I think we allow Gen. McChrystal his plan to stabilize the country. Beyond that get the hell out. My guess however is Barry will go half measure, therefore dooming the effort, and if that’s the case get the hell out. As far as turning Afghanistan into a Jeffersonian Democracy, no way!

AndrewPrice said...

DCAlleyKat, If the only goal is to fight, then I would recommend a different battlefield -- one where it's easier to draw them out into the open and where they have less ability to merge into the population.

I agree with you about Bush. They really mis-sold the Iraq war. In reality, I think that Iraq was about drawing all of these terrorist groups onto easier terrain for a fight, and in that regard, it worked very well.

AndrewPrice said...

Stan, There is no military solution here. First, no army has ever beaten an insurgency that is rooted in the population. And this one will be harder than most to beat because of the terrain and the nature of the ethnic loyalties in the region.

Secondly, whatever we do evaporates the second we leave, so we're just delaying the inevitable at the cost of US lives. That's why I say we either need to change our thinking or stop wasting American lives.

AndrewPrice said...

Writer X, A couple points.

First, no, disappearing into Pakistan is not evidence that they are losing. It's like the Chinese hiding across the river in Korea or the Vietnamese using Cambodia as a base. They have simply moved into very friendly territory, where we can't reach them, to protect their base of operations.

The evidence on the ground is that we're losing. We control less of the country today than we have at any time since the original invasion. Moreover, everyone seems to agree that we're losing the people (particularly in the South) because they see the Taliban as winning. That's one of the reasons some want to send 40,000 more soldiers, because they think the extra troops can turn that around. BUT,

1. There is no precedent for a military defeating an insurgency rooted in the population. All you can do is holding it in check.

2. We already outnumber the bad guys 12 to 1. Indeed, we have more troops there already than the Russians did. And yet, no one over there believes we are winning.

3. Even if we do push them back again, it will only delay the inevitable, because the locals know that we will eventually leave, so they will simply smile at us until we're gone and then shift their allegiance back to the strongest guy in the room -- the Taliban.

In terms of coming back, I would say first, that if we're waiting for a military victory or a point where we see the government as sufficiently stable for us to leave and be certain that it won't collapse, then we'll never leave.

But if we set up smaller ethnic countries, they will be stronger -- because the locals are unified and will fight to defend their new countries, rather than playing off the government against the insurrection.

FB Hink said...

Very inspired, Andrew. Great piece. My only disagreement: I don’t think we should even be involved with helping them establish nation-states. That’s the Afghan’s business. I think Bush got caught up in Colin Powel’s “if you break it you’ve got to fix it” thinking. Typical neocon.

Why did we invade in the first place? To kick out the Taliban and destroy Al Qaeda as much as possible. Mission accomplished. We didn’t go in guns blazing but rather in support of the Northern Alliance which did a lot of the heavy lifting. We earned tremendous respect throughout the world for that strategy – not that that should be our primary goal.

Our foreign and military policies should be that we’ll leave you alone so long as you leave us alone. Once you cross that barrier be prepared for our wrath. Citizens of the world need to understand that they are responsible for their government’s actions, regardless of whether they’re repressed or not. The crimes of their government are their crimes. We, as Americans, took on the danger and responsibility of overthrowing what we perceived to be an unjust government. I don’t think it’s too much to ask of the rest of the world.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Hink!

I think you're right that we did what we came to do, and we should have left -- we never should have gotten into the nation building game.

The reason that I recommend that we set up the smaller countries is that it prevents them all from going to war to try to do the same thing once we leave, which creates an opening for groups like the Taliban. We could do that now on the way out and prevent the need for them all to fight, which leaves a much more stable "country" behind.

Unfortunately, like I said, I don't see anyone in our establishment thinking about this because they refuse to admit that Afghanistan isn't a country.

Melissa Marsh said...

Andrew, this is a fascinating article and a great discussion here in the comments. Thanks. I'm going to share this article with others.

FB Hink said...

I understand your point. Since we’ve already meddled it might be a good idea to help facilitate these smaller tribal states. As you mentioned the example in Iraq, these nations were arbitrarily drawn to benefit the imperialism of Britain and we do have to work within these constraints. I’m just ready for us to get out of the Middle East all together. Drill baby drill.

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Melissa! As I said, I've been thinking about this a long time and this is what I've come up with from everything I've seen or read or observed, plus what I know about human nature.

I think the questions have been fantastic -- very thoughtful. In fact, they were much more thoughtful than what I've seen in most articles about the current situation.

Unfortunately, in the end, I fear that the easiest answer for Washington will be to keep hanging on and hope things improve. I would at least like to see them start asking these questions.

AndrewPrice said...

Hink, Right, since we're there already, and we basically control the place, I would say that we should help them along so that we can leave and be reasonably sure of not having to come back again. Otherwise, we have no idea what is going to happen there when we leave, and we might find ourselves right where we started in 2001.

Beyond that, I agree. I would like to see us only risk American lives where our safety is at stake, not for the purposes of settling ancient scores.

DCAlleyKat said...

Andrew: If the only goal is to fight, then I would recommend a different battlefield -- one where it's easier to draw them out into the open and where they have less ability to merge into the population.

You've hit one of Obama's Afghan nails on the head Andrew...what is the goal if we are no longer engaged in the 'war of terrorism'. Battlefields change and a military needs to adapt if it expects to engage its enemy successfully, how does one do that when its commander in chief no longer acknowledges the war?! Iraq proved the ability of combatants to adapt and the arena changes brings success, but Obama cannot go near a Bush success. What a mess!

Unless some clear cut strategies and goals are presented pretty quick, we indeed need to bring our sitting duck military home!! Then hold our breath, because on the heels of that is more chaos on the homefront.

rlaWTX said...

Unfortunately, I agree with the maintenance of the "viewpoint" of the war. Iraq had a different goal, but nearly the same result, but then there were some on the ground changes and the local upswell of support that turned it all around. And, even if it was a dictatorship, they have a strong feeling of "nation-ness". There are factions and tribal rumblings, but they are Iraqi. Are Afghans Afghans?
So, if the US were to go into those areas on your map and discover that, yes, they'd like to be split up into nation states, would it be a viable Confederation, or would they be separate entities? And if we did, the Taliban would have the possibility of taking over 1 or 2, but all of them? I'd doubt it (on the face of things).
I liked the comment about the policy of "we broke, we fix it". That is an excellent description of our attitude. An attitude that is very sweet and noble, but…
BUT, if we had declared war on the Taliban, bombed them back to the Stone Age (not a long trip, unfortunately), and left, what would have been the international response? Can you imagine??!! So, actually, Bush's way was much more internationally acceptable than the alternative – let the libs chew on that!
Great conversation!

AndrewPrice said...

DCAlleyKat, As I said, I don't see this as a particular Obama problem, I see this as a problem with the way the entire establishment thinks.

But you're right about the problem Obama is creating for himself by rejecting the idea that this is a war. The bad guys are not in places where the police can arrest them, they are in places that only the military can get them.

Still, I don't see how Afghanistan itself has a military solution.

AndrewPrice said...

rlaWTX, That's part of the problem though, that this whole thing is based on what is accept to the international community rather than doing what will work.

"The world" want us to provide security until it all somehow works out. The problem is the somehow -- we'll never get there with the present strategy.

In terms of whether or not the Taliban would return, I would say no. And here's why.

Right now, these tribes have no reason not to work with the Taliban because they see the central government as an evil force that needs to be balanced -- the Taliban are that balance. If we eliminated the national government, and let them run their own smaller countries, they would no longer need the Taliban to play off against what they see as an over-bearing, corrupt national government. At that point, the Taliban stops being a chip for their poker game and instead becomes a danger to their way of life. If the Taliban loses the popular support that it has, it dies.

Would one or two of them still fall to the Taliban? Possibly. But that's not really different than what's going on now. Right now the Taliban controls more territory in Afghanistan than they have at any point since the invasion.

So the worst that happens is that we formalize a situation that already exists.

AndrewPrice said...

FYI, in an AP article today, a recent poll of Afghans found the 53% blamed the war on poverty and corruption, and only 36% blame the Taliban. Those aren't good numbers for the current strategy.

DCAlleyKat said...

Like you Andrew I don't particularly see it as an 'Obama problem' except that Obama is the current commander in chief, sort of a 'the buck stops here'...and for quite a while now that buck has been in the waffle stage!

The establishment having grown weary of war made the horrific error of being too quick to embrace the leftist outlook in regards to a 'war on terror'.

I don't think the numerous situations facing us in regards to the battlefield of Afghanistan will all be solved by military, unless we are willing to basically emaciate the place and leave. We're not going to do that. However, I do not believe this commander in chief is going to be open to any of the 'what we really need to do' thoughts. He's not man enough to make the tough decisions that must me made and take the political hits. So he and his advisors are going to micro manage Afghanistan, things are going to go from bad to worse, and Americans are going to start demanding the WH call the whole thing off and bring our kids home!

And because there is no longer a 'war on terror' all the good folks here at home are ill prepared for the arrival of the terrorists that are going to flood in with our citizens as their targets.

AndrewPrice said...

DCAlleyKat, I agree. While I don't think the Republicans would have been any more likely to consider the hard choices that need to be made, I do agree that Obama's handling of the options appears to be particularly poor.

He needs to make a decision. Take action (whatever that is) or leave. But Obama isn't a man of action. So we are seeing him dithering around trying to find a magic selling point that lets him leave the current situation as it is just long enough to get enough guts to pull out. That's weak leadership.

If he thinks this is a hopeless situation, then don't waste more American lives -- leave. On the other hand, if he thinks there is a solution, then implement it and explain why you're doing it. Being a leader is about doing the right thing, even if people don't like it.

There is a real lesson here about electing untested people as President.

Individualist said...

Hi Andrew - thanks for the link here very interesting discussion.

If we set up different states I think it would be good to understand the cultural diffrences between the tribes. The problems in Afghanistan I guess has been the terrain because it has been uncontrollable since the time of the Indian Hindu princes even before the British. Understanding the cultural differences might allow us a way to figure out a way to set up some body where these states could deal with each other diplomatically. Otherwise I do think the Taliban could come back because they are willing to kill themselves to murder innocents. These states will at a minimum have to ahve the ability to ban together to stop well funded terrorist groups funded by Iran and the Islamic Terrorists. They are at a disadvntage.

The reason that the Iranians and Al Queda would make this effort I think is to control the poppy fields there. I heard they produce 95% of the world's heroin crop - not sure if that is true. Unfortunately I feel your states will end up controlled by drug lords in the end much the same way the Zetas control Northern Mexico near the border in places like Laredo.

I think you might be correct in your analysis but I think it is still a lessor evil. I don't like it but I don't have a better plan so I'll go with yours.

AndrewPrice said...

Individualist, I'm not sure I agree that these kingdoms would be easy marks for Al Qaeda. I think that without the "federal" government to balance against the Taliban, they would need to start taking care of themselves. I think they would be surprisingly effective in that -- much more so than they are as a group.

Also, I have no problems connecting them with bigger neighbors like Pakistan.

If it was a question of arms, I'd be happy to arm them if they are attacked. But keeping US troops there just seems like a bad idea at this point.

I think that staying there is causing more trouble throughout the region than anything we are solving.

Also, the problem with our current plan is that all we are doing is delaying the inevitable. Unless we try something different, Karzai will cut a deal with the Taliban five minutes after we leave -- or he'll be killed and his successor will cut the deal.

So I think we need to change tact.

In terms of the drugs, you're right about the drug lords, but they are there right now already -- that's one of the problems with Karzai's government, so I don't think we lose anything there.

It's not an easy situation, but I think this plan is better than the current plan.

Individualist said...


My worry is not that the Taliban come back. My worry is that without some outside presence there that Al Queda or the Iranians will end up in control over the drugs but who knows they may already have influence over the poppy fields now so maybe its not a valid concern.

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