Sunday, October 11, 2009

An Afghan Quagmire in the Making : Considering the Options

We are mourning the loss of eight American soldiers who died in a day-long battle near the Pakistan border. They were killed by a well armed force that dwarfed them in size. Their mission was to try to stem the flow of Pakistani Taliban fighters over the border to join their allies in the Afghan Taliban. Indeed, a number of the fighters were Pakistani Taliban expelled from the Swat Valley by Pakistan’s army.

The guerilla force that confronted the Americans numbered about 300. In Iraq, the guerilla forces seldom exceeded 30, with the possible exception of the fighting in Falluhah.

Now we are facing the decision of whether to send in many more troops to continue a policy of nation-building and providing population security. The situation in Afghanistan is enormously complex, and there clearly is no easy resolution or way out.

Lieutenant General Stanley McCrystal has warned Washington that we are losing in our battle against the Taliban and other insurgents in Afghanistan. He has called for an additional 10,000 to 40,000 troops, and he has the backing of his very popular boss, General David Petraeus. There is a parallel to the “clear and hold” strategy employed in Vietnam, but McCrystal would be more careful with firepower and more interested in economic development.

During the campaign, Barack Obama sought to show that he was strong on national security by saying that Afghanistan was the necessary war. Now those remarks are haunting him as he ponders the sad history of foreign involvements in Afghanistan and our unpromising situation there now. Much of latter was due to the policies of the Bush Administration, but voters have short memories, and Obama will pay for lack of success in Afghanistan. Not long ago, Obama once referred the Afghanistan effort as “a necessary war,” but he has not repeated that term. Necessary wars involve out nation’s vital interests. No vital interests are involved in Afghanistan, so this is a “war of choice.”

The fact is that preoccupation with Iraq and Afghanistan represent massive distortions of American foreign policy. Our main concerns are elsewhere. Obama needs to help our people regain a sense of perspective.

For the moment, Obama is taking time to reconsider our objectives in Afghanistan. Afghanistan has become a NATO mission, and our president would be well advised to invite NATO to join in these deliberations. Otherwise, it will appear that we are continuing the Bush policy of dictating to others. Obama was selected for the Nobel Prize in part because he turned away from unilateralism and opted for engaging our allies and others. France, Germany, and Great Britain have asked for an international conference to discuss how NATO forces can be phased out in Afghanistan. In view of the growing sentiment in Europe against the Afghanistan operation, it would be wise to learn how much support we could count on if we ramp up the effort to provide population security. Already some writers fear that extended involvement in Afghanistan could be the rock on which the NATO vessel breaks. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen has endorsed Obama’s decision to review the policy and has said that it is more important to get the right strategy than to rely on putting in more troops.

Biden’s Approach

Vice President Joseph Biden, after much study and two unpleasant meetings with Hamid Karzai, has concluded that the current regime in Afghanistan will not be a reliable partner for an effort to establish security for the population in Afghanistan. Until recently, National Security Advisor James L. Jones appeared to agree. Biden’s view is that the US needs to focus less on Afghanistan and more on Pakistan, where Al Qaeda is and where instability makes that nation’s nuclear weapons a potential problem.

Biden suggests ramping down the counter-insurgency effort and focusing on damaging Al Qaeda, partly through Predators and air power. Spies and Special Forces and other black ops would also be involved. The US will be able to continue its drone air strikes in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, but it is doubtful that Pakistan can permit the US to bomb Taliban sites in Quetta, capital of Baluchistan province. We can be of greter help to the Pakistanis as they are finally going against their own Taliban. At the moment, they are preparing an offensive in Waziristan.

Of course, the US will need enough stability in some parts of Afghanistan so they can be used as bases to launch all manner of assaults against Al Qaeda. In the long run, it is doubtful that we can put Al Qaeda out of business, but we should make it out top priority inflicting as much damage as possible.

There are signs that some of the insurgents are amenable to negotiations, and it is possible that money and diplomacy could accomplish with them what more troops may not. There are now pilot efforts to negotiate with and build up the forces of some warlords. In some ways this more parallels what the surge was all about in Iraq than manipulating the number of troops on the ground.

Of course, the Biden plan would not stop the training and recruitment of Afghan soldiers and police. It should include giving the army better equipment. Much more attention must be given to rapidly enlarging and retraining the Afghan military. At this point, it has a 24% defection rate. Soldiers even take weapons home and sometimes continue to receive pay. Much needs to be done building a centralized police force. The fact that Taliban fighters could get attack the Indian Embassy in Kabul underscores the dimensions of this problem.

In the last analysis, preventing a Taliban victory in Afghanistan is out of our hands. It depends upon what the people think of the Karzai regime and the extent to which the Afghan police and army can be effective.

Should the Al Qaeda reenter Afghanistan, we would have no choice but to resume round-the-clock carpet bombing of areas where they establish bases. Taliban leaders remember the bombing and realize that it would be repeated should they assist Al Qaeda establish camps and bases in their country.

Republicans Demand Escalation of the Afghanistan War

With the remarkable exception of George Will, Republicans back the former Special Forces commander. They stand to gain no matter what Obama does in Afghanistan. If more troops are sent, and there is still failure of stalemate, they still win big time. Few will remember that John McCain and others beat the drums for more troops and a long war.

A common argument is that any backing away from an all-out effort will give Al Qaeda new energy and attract more recruits to their standard. In truth, American policy in Iraq and our tactics in Afghanistan, which harmed many civilians, were responsible for recruiting people for the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Sami Yousafzai’s interviews of Taliban people in the current Newsweek demonstrates how Bush Administration tactics alienated many and strengthened the Taliban. It is unlikely that the salutary change in course under General McCrystal can reverse the damage. Moreover, his turn toward the exercise of soft power -- economic and social development-- is all to the good, but this policy will require more time than we have. It can be recalled that it took John Paul Vann many years to work economic and social miracles in the Mekong Delta.

We frequently hear that anything less than a ramped up war in Afghanistan will damage U.S. credibility abroad. There may be some truth to this. Certainly other nations will not doubt that we have the ability to go anywhere and bring about massive destruction when we do not get our way. The real question should be “Does our national interest require expenditure of a great deal of blood and treasure in Afghanistan? “

A similarly weak argument is that we must prevent Afghanistan from becoming a failed state so that Al Qaeda will not use it as a base of operations. This wrongly assumes that there are no other failed states Al Qaeda can use as a base. Moreover, the terrorist organization appears to be unhampered in its operations in Pakistan. As General Jones has admitted, there is no reason why the Taliban would want to leave. He claims there are less than 100 Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

Republicans could argue that the long term morale of our armed forces could be adversely effected if we did not escalate and then “win” in Afghanistan. The Vietnam War was devastating, and it took a long time for our military to restore its spirits. Right now, the military seems to be thinking in terms of “winning” and “loosing.” Its leadership should be educating our forces to think in terms of accomplishing limited goals.

Republican columnist Michael Gerson eschews the most simplistic arguments and admits the complexity of the situation in Afghanistan. Still, he senses that Obama is in a no-win situation. Gerson redefines the civilian-military relationship a bit by insisting that suggesting that tradition demands that Obama select his best general and get out of the way. He even mentions Harry S. Truman in this respect, though the use of that precedent can be debated. In the end, Abraham Lincoln accepted U.S. Grant’s meatgrinder approach, but he had been involved in many military decisions throughout the war. Another way to look at this is to recall that Lincoln bucked the popular George Mc Clellan and that Truman sacked th4e very popular Douglas Mc Arthur.

One can only wonder if any of the critics are concerned that the US be in a position to construct the long-desired twin pipelines down through Afghanistan to carry Caspian gas and oil to Pakistan and , by ship , to India. This was the object of a great deal of diplomacy before 9/11, and the Bush administration even resorted to the threat of bombings. The pipelines are in our national interest but it is doubtful if soldiers should lose their lives to get them.

Another Surge?

Those who insist that Obama bow to Petraeus and McCrystal is that they think that copying the surge strategy in Afghanistan will work. The surge worked best in the urban areas of Iraq, and there are few urban areas in Afghanistan. The surge also worked in Iraq because the United States literally bought off its enemies, paying large amounts to tribal leaders and monthly stipends to their armed retainers. Only Bob Woodward has openly discussed another reason why the surge worked. Special Forces in Iraq, under McCrystal, carried out something like the Vietnam War’s Operation Phoenix and eliminated thousands of the insurgent cadre.

Repeating some version of Phoenix in Afghanistan does not require a huge increase in American forces there. Over seven years, we have spent $38 billion in Afghanistan, with few discernable positive results. Perhaps more of the money sent there should be used to buy off warlords and put their troops on retainer. Its worth a try.

Should We Bet on Karzai?

We still come down to whether a large new commitment in human lives, money, and American prestige should be made in Afghanistan. Many Afghans believe that the present regime is hopelessly corrupt. The recent rigged election of August 20 is one indication of how weak the Karzai regime is. The UN found that one third of the votes cast for Karzai were fraudulent. The resultant acrimony has been so great that it is unrealistic to believe that Afghans can be unified around Karzai—no matter how many troops we send there. Karzai has not bothered to denounce those who rigged the election on his behalf. His reliance upon war lords and human rights abusers is not likely to win new grassroots supporters. Of course, policy makers recall that in Vietnam the elimination of the corrupt Ngo Dinh Diem resulted in even worse leaders.

The idea that we can, using soft power, somehow win over large numbers of Karzai opponents to support him is fanciful. The counter insurgency strategy has been based upon the idea that we could eventually build a large and effective Afghan army and matching police force. The Afghan army stands at 94,000 and has had a little success in the north. It will take two years to increase it to 134,000. That is still far short of the 300 or 400 thousand that are needed. Who can remember that there were 91,000 when George W. Bush began to rebuild the army. A rational person would look at these figures and conclude that Bush either the Republican administration had done poorly or it was unrealistic to expect rapid growth of that force. Our problems began when the Bushies somehow bungled the effort to nab Osama and then pulled out our most effective people so they could begin their adventure in Iraq. Any way you look at US policy there under Bush, it is impossible to conclude that anything was accomplished. Obama inherited a ticking time bomb but don’t look to any Republican politician or publicist to mention this. The truth is that it could be too late to do much there.

There is also the lesson of Vietnam, where we did build a large, well-equipped ARVIN force that was ineffective and heavily infiltrated by the enemy. There were also many “potted plants,” units that existed on paper but not in reality.

Unless Karzai abandons brutality and corrupt practices overnight and becomes a Boy Scout, the prospects of bringing much stability to Afghanistan are slim. The man is a Pashtun and that should have helped him with the nation’s largest ethnic group. Instead, the Taliban, also largely Pashtun, have been able to play on Pashtun nationalism to enlist support.

Effectively ending with Taliban jihadism may be beyond our ability. The Afghan Taliban practices jihad but only locally. They are only a threat to the United States unless they could again provide Al Qaeda with a base of operations. However, there is no reason for Al Qaeda to leave the Waziristan area of Pakistan, where they have the run of things and even have located families there. Though the Taliban previously sheltered Al Qaeda, many Taliban are not warm friends of the Arab-led terrorists, and it is possible that clever intelligence people could drive a wedge between them. It should also be remembered that many who call themselves Taliban in Afghanistan are simply insurgents capitalizing on that name. Many of them can be bought off.

The Pakis Will Play a Double Game

Pakistan will continue playing a double game—doing enough to get aid while keeping the Afghan Taliban alive. The best we can do is induce them to do more for us. Our primary goal there is to foster enough stability in Pakistan to keep the jihadists from getting their hands on the nation’s nuclear assets. That is no small job.

The Pakistani Army, though secular, long ago resorted to sponsoring Islamic jihadism as a means of countering Indian power. They built jihadist movements to threaten India in destabilizing Kashmir. In time, a jihadist opposition emerged in Pakistan itself, and the army officer corps now must deal with the fact that religious fanaticism has infected more than a few junior officers. Because Pakistan needs to have a strong influence in Afghanistan, Pakistani intelligence, the ISI, with the help of the United States, in the late 1970s and eighties, nurtured jihadism in Afghanistan. Many in Pakistan’s ISI—once closely tied to the CIA-- are not inclined to do anything to injure the Afghanistan Taliban, and they believe that United States will not be in Afghanistan indefinitely.

The only vital interest we have in the region is preventing the destabilization of Pakistan.
In part, that is because they have nuclear weapons. We would not want those weapons or that technology to fall into the hands of terrorists. There is little we can do directly to improve the situation in Pakistan. Until a month ago, we were spending 33 times as much in Afghanistan as in Pakistan. We have recently tripled what we spend in Pakistan, but more must be done. How we do it is ticklish. The Pakistan military loudly objected to the wording of our recent aid bill because it set performance standards for receiving installments of aid. Recently, five Taliban fighters entered the military headquarters in Rawalpindi, killed some soldiers, and held 22 people as hostages. Until recently, the Taliban controlled the Swat Valley, an important district.

Unless Pakistan can be induced to stop its help of the Afghan Taliban, a US counter insurgency program will require far more troops that McCrystal is now requesting. Afghans in the south and east already see the US as an occupying power, and the presence of more troops is certain to deepen that impression in those places and possibly spread it to the rest of the country. The Mc Crystal strategy would be an occupation, and foreign occupations of that country since the time of Alexander the Great have been failures. Simply put, occupations breed angr, and long occupations breed still more anger and violence.

In retrospect, it appears that most of the billions poured into Afghanistan were a poor investment. One leading member of Karzai’s coalition said he will withdraw if more American troops are committed. This man is an American ally but thinks that more troops would mobilize more people against the government.

Too much was filtered through foreign contractors. The money would have been better spent buying off the Pakistan generals and ISI and bringing greater political stability to Pakistan. Fortunately, Congress has just tripled its appropriation for Pakistan; but the amount is still relatively small.


The Obama Administration wisely ended its war against the farmers growing poppies. It might be worthwhile to buy and destroy the Afghan opium crop. Using last year’s data, that might cost as much as $3.4 billion. This would not stop the Taliban from collecting taxes on it, but destruction of the whole crop would prevent the Taliban from moving large quantities of opium to the international market. That would cut their income by a third.

The situation in Afghanistan is very complex and unpromising. There are variables that the American public does not perceive. Do they know that many Afghans speak Persian and that they are strongly influenced by Iran? The latter could make things even worse for us but it has no reason now to want an unstable Afghanistan. Our dealings with Iran can impact upon what goes on in Afghanistan. By appearing to be more reasonable than Bush, President Obama has obtained some important concessions from Iran and may be able to do more. If Israel were to move against Iran, we could expect Iran to use its influence against us among its Afghan clients.

Richard Holbrooke has given us an idea of how bad the situation in Afghanistan is: “Its worse than the Nam!” It is very important that the American people understand what is involved here because a decision to make a long term commitment to pacification and nation-building will require years of commitment, massive amounts of money, and far more troops than we are now contemplating. Even with all that, there will be no guarantee that we can succeed in building a stable nation there. That is why House Minority Leader John Boehner is so angry that President Obama wants to take time making this decision. John Mc Cain has been busy claiming there is no difference between the Taliban and Al Qaeda in an effort to stampede Obama into waging a full scale war. If thoughtful independents come to understand much of what is involved, they might support Obama in redefining the mission there. Information is, as usual, the enemy of Republican policy here. The more people understand, the less damage Afghanistan will inflict on Obama’s political future.


A Plug for Sherm’s Book
Sherm spent seven years writing an analytical chronicle of what the Republicans have been up to since the 1970s. It discusses elements in the Republican coalition, their ideologies, strategies, informational and financial resources, and election shenanigans. Abuses of power by the Reagan and G. W. Bush administration and the Republican Congresses are detailed. The New Republican Coalition : Its Rise and Impact, The Seventies to Present (Publish America) can be acquired by calling 301-695-1707. On line, go to It can also be obtained through the on-line operations of Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Do not consider purchasing it if you are looking for something that mirrors the mainstream media!