Reason One: “Having invaded Afghanistan, the West has a duty to return a half-decent state to the Afghan people.”I hear this a lot and it’s total bull. We owe these people nothing. Afghanistan is a primitive cesspool because its own people made it that way. It was like that when we got there, and it’s not our responsibility to change that. And frankly, claiming this is our responsibility with one hand while claiming that we need to respect their culture and religion with the other is a sucker's game.
Reason Two: “We need to deny al-Qaeda a haven.”This is the primary reason given for being in Afghanistan. But we’ve already lost this one. Al-Qaeda has a haven in Pakistan, in Yemen, and in Somalia. The CIA has even noted that they are starting to use operatives from all over the world now, making “havens” almost irrelevant. Moreover, if the goal is just to deny them Afghanistan, a rather silly goal given their other havens, then there are better ways. Indeed, cutting a deal with the Taliban to toss al-Qaeda out would be more effective.
Reason Three: “If we leave, a civil war might start, which could suck in local powers like Iran, Pakistan, India and Russia.”This one shows how little our policy people understand what is going on. This IS a civil war. The Taliban are not foreign invaders. They do not lack popular support. Indeed, recent polls show that one-third of Afghans openly support them, compared to only 25% who support the government. No matter how much we call them “insurgents,” we are participating in a civil war.
Our real target, al-Qaeda, has smartly piggybacked on the Taliban. Without the Taliban, al-Qaeda has no support in Afghanistan. Yet, we’ve lumped them together and, in so doing, we’ve chosen to fight tens of thousands of Taliban fighters who can draw upon local populations for support, when we should be fighting the 1,000 or so al-Qaeda members that the CIA claims are there and in Pakistan. In fact, once again, our best strategy would be to cut a deal with the Taliban to toss out al-Qaeda and we walk away.
Indeed, the military is starting to get this. Said one U.S. civil affairs officer: “We need to reevaluate who the enemy really is. . . Based on the evaluations and interviews in the report, we're not sure we're fighting the right war or fighting the war the right way."
And as for those other powers, who cares? Afghanistan is a worthless piece of rock populated by a few million goat-herders. It has no strategic value. And if Pakistan or Iran want it, let them have it. Where is the harm? Indeed, it might show the world that there are negative consequences to fighting with the United States. . . mess with us, lose your country.
Further, the idea that Pakistan and India or Iran would go to war over this is simply scare mongering. Those countries are ready to fight over any number of things already, tossing in the rocks and goats of Afghanistan won’t change a thing. Not to mention, we could partition the country before we leave to avoid any such conflicts entirely.
Reason Four: “A defeat would mark a humiliation for the West, that would encourage our enemies around the world.”Finally, we come to the real reason we stay. It is absolutely true that the rest of the world follows the maxim -- “might makes right.” Thus, if we appear weak, then we will be weakened in the eyes of our enemies everywhere. And running away would make us appear weak. But so would losing. And make no mistake, we are losing and everybody knows it.
At the beginning of the year, the military put together an assessment called “The State of the Taliban.” This document paints a grim picture:
Said one official with knowledge of the report:• U.S. and NATO leaders do not adequately understand the Afghan people, and our communication skills are poor.
• Our support for Karzai’s corrupt government has made it easy for the Taliban to recruit insurgents and prevents locals from working with NATO.
• The Afghan army and police forces are years away from providing security for the nation -- even though we’ve been training them for nine years.
• There are not enough civilian workers to complete construction projects, and fear prevents local workers from taking coalition jobs.
• Local governments steal project funding.
• Violence is up 87% since March and bombing is up 94% this year.
Indeed, the military admits that the Taliban are better propagandists than we are. They have persuaded the Afghan people that (1) 9/11 was a response to the planned invasion of Afghanistan by United States, (2) America does not allow Muslim women to cover themselves, and (3) mosques are not permitted in American cities. These are big recruiting points.“We are getting beat up. The Taliban know their own people -- they are culturally accurate. We know the facts but we are culturally inaccurate. The main message in the report is that we don’t fully understand our enemy and we are not clearly communicating our message to the people.”
All of this leads to a quagmire. In fact, the situation is so bad, that the report recommends that US commanders mediate cease-fire negotiations with local Taliban commanders. But that’s not possible because the Taliban don’t respect our side. Said Lt. Col. Tadd Sholtis: “The bulk of insurgents clearly do not see foreign forces as a credible negotiating partner.”
What was supposed to change all of this was the “surge” that Obama and McChrystal promised. But that’s proven to be a failure. It started in Marja, a farming district in Helmand province. Thirty thousand troops moved into the city to push out 400 Taliban fighters. Along with the troops came government people and truck-loads of money. The idea was to establish Afghan government control and thereby gain the trust of the locals, who would then reject the Taliban. That didn’t happen. The Afghan government proved ineffective and the locals were less than impressed with the temporary nature of our military plans. Indeed, the Taliban put out posters telling people the date they would return, right after our withdrawal date. McChrystal now calls this test case for our surge plan “a bleeding ulcer.”
And because of this failure, they have postponed the next step, which was the invasion of Kandahar, a city under the control of drug traffickers and the Taliban. According to the military, the local people in Kandahar “are not ready to back” the invasion yet. Ominously, McChrystal implied, before he was replaced, that if we don’t make significant, irreversible progress soon, Christmas would be the end of NATO operations, i.e. the date we quit.
So What Do We Do?Actual victory is an illusion. What we need is a genuine exit strategy. Obama’s "wait one year and then run for our lives" plan is about the worst thing we can do, apart from staying without any plan except waiting to be driven out. Here are our options as I see them:
Option One: Our first option would be to totally replace the government and impose a modern state on these people. I doubt we have the stomach to do this, but this is the only way we can win over the people who oppose Karzai’s corrupt regime and also eliminate the handicaps that keep us from creating a stable state. This one would require a longer military stay and a realization that we can’t “respect” a defective culture.
Option Two: Our second option would be to carve the country up and hand it to the neighbors along ethnic lines. This strategy actually makes a lot of sense as the neighbors would then become responsible their new territories, and none of the neighbors like al-Qaeda or the Taliban. The weak link here would be Pakistan, which is already a problem in and of itself. BUT, the force in Pakistan that props up the Taliban is Pakistan’s intelligence service (the “ISI”). The ISI use the Taliban as a way to destabilize Afghanistan and fight off Iranian and Indian influence in Afghanistan. If Afghanistan were broken up, then the ISI would no longer need the Taliban. Indeed, their concerns then would turn to maintaining the stability of Pakistan, which would mean ending the Taliban.
Option Three: Our final option would be to negotiate a settlement with the Taliban. In exchange for the Taliban kicking out al-Qaeda, we would either (1) cut the country in half, leaving them with the part they already hold, (2) walk away and let the locals sort it out, or (3) force some sort of power-sharing arrangement on Karzai that included the Taliban.
The advantage to this would be that we could somewhat-credibly declare victory, al-Qaeda would be denied the Afghan haven, and this would likely prevent foreign powers from getting involved. And if the Taliban don’t want to agree, then we use Option Two and their whole country disappears right out from underneath them.
As I read the tea leaves, we are giving up at the end of December. If we don’t come up with a better plan than "keep doing what isn’t working," we will leave Afghanistan in disgrace and we will face a much broader mess. But if we act now, and we stop thinking about winning this war in the traditional sense, then we can salvage a real victory. If we don’t, then this will be a defeat we will regret.