What do we want in Afghanistan?

HTT_Iraq_Pic "The Obama administration is conducting a high-level strategic review of the war in Afghanistan and says it will unveil the results before NATO holds a 60th anniversary summit in early April.

Petraeus, who also serves as commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, said part of the review will determine whether successes from the so-called "surge" in U.S. troops in that country could be applied to Afghanistan. As in Iraq, he said, a central task in Afghanistan will be to bolster the legitimacy of the central government in Kabul, which has little sway outside the capital. He also said U.S. and NATO forces need to pay more attention to political and cultural factors as they attempt to build alliances with local tribal leaders, an approach that has worked in Iraq.

To do so, he said, military commanders and their units would need to integrate themselves as much as possible in local villages instead of operating from isolated bases, mimicking another tactic tried in Iraq.

"You can't commute to work in the conduct of counterinsurgency operations," he said. Such an approach, he added, "requires, of course, many cups of tea." "  WaPo


It must be the Afghans who need Afghanistan, or do they?

The various Pushtun, Uzbek, Hazara, Tajik, Turkman, Persian (in the west), Baluch and Arab (southwest) peoples of the state of Afghanistan have little in common other than an adherence to a wide variety of forms of Islam.  Their main languages are mutually incomprehensible and even within the main ethno-linguistic groups like the Pushtun they are deeply divided into confederations, political factions and among local leaders.  The state of Afghanistan is a 19th Century creation of the Russian and Indian (British) empires as a convenient way of creating a buffer zone between them.  Serendipitously, that buffer zone contained many fractious and ungovernable peoples who were far too much trouble for permanent occupation and "la mission civilizatrice."  The name, "Afghanistan" was rather arbitrarily adopted from the name of one of the larger Pushtun factions whose Khan had pretensions to royalty and who had a fair amount of power in the area of Kabul.

This is a country?  This is certainly not a nation, not in the sense that any self respecting political scientist would recognize the term.  There really is not such a thing as the Afghan People.  One thing that all these kinds of "Afghans" have in common is a deep seated xenophobia, especially against non-Muslims.

President Obama's policy and strategy review seems to have as a "given" that the US and NATO should "make something" of Afghanistan, that we should fully commit ourselves to a program of building an Afghan Nation.

Why should we do that?  As an act of "Christian Charity?" 

There has never been such a thing as the kind of Afghanistan that President Obama and the newly converted COIN generals envision.  It is not a question of re-building anything.  It is a question of building something that has never existed.  Why should we do that?  Will the "Afghans" love us for it, and should we care about that?

We went into Afghanistan to deprive the takfiri jihadis of a base.  That was a counter-terrorism operation.  What is assumed to be the future of American policy in Afghanistan is something that is far more than a counter-terrorism operation. 

 The devious nature of Central Asian politics is well known.  Why not return to the norms of local politics.

How much do the Taliban want per particular Al-Qa'ida head that we covet?  Has anyone asked them?  Al-Qa'ida has caused the Taliban a lot of trouble.  Perhaps they would be amenable to a practical but invisible arrangement?

I have drunk a lot of tea in a variety of interesting dwellings and listened endlessly to grandmothers and uncles tell of injustices past and imaginary lineages that Homer might have constructed.  It is deeply satisfying to drink their tea and have them tell strangers that you are one of them.  Unfortunately, you are not one of them, and can never be one of them.   The spiritual endorphins of the COIN process are deeply seductive.   We must be sure that we have not seduced ourselves before we commit to an open ended responsibility for these people so far away.  The president should ask himself how many more American soldiers the imagined Afghanistan would be worth.

Pakistan is a different, more complex and dangerous place.  We will discuss that in due course.  We need Afghanistan because of Pakistan and because of Pushtun tribes in FATA?  Come now!  Let us put the donkey in front of the cart and not the other way around.  pl

This entry was posted in Current Affairs. Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to What do we want in Afghanistan?

  1. matt says:

    Thank you colonel for that clear-eyed statement of the problem at hand for the US….its the kind of straightforward, reality based description that a hundred New York Times articles seem to miss somehow… It seems as if the only remotely satisfacory policy moving forward would most likely be the sort of ‘policy’ that a politician would feel extremely uncomfortable saying out loud, never mind saying it on TV! Still way outside the bounds of acceptable public discourse – unfortunately.

  2. ISL says:

    Curious that one never hears policy towards Afghanistan couched in description of how it is not repeating the Soviet experience. no implication that we are acting the same-just its as if the Soviet experience has no relevance.

  3. R Whitman says:

    I fully agree with your analysis of the problem although my knowledge of Afganistan is limited to reading Michner’s novel “Caravans” many years ago. After we buy or rent the Taliban and get them to give up the Al-Qa’ida people, what do we want them to do, if anything?

  4. J says:

    History has been none too kind to those (i.e. Brits, Russians, etc.) who ‘thought’ they could ramrod the Pushtuns.

  5. hotrod says:

    “Self respecting political scientist”? Sir, I thought you rejected the concept. 🙂
    I’m not sure that it’s a given that President Obama and team are trying to make Afghanistan into something it’s not suited for – reference SECDEF’s comment re a Central Asian Valhalla of a few days ago. Furthermore, even if
    GEN Petreus’s (who I hold in high regard) comment was more than interview fluff, “legitimacy” doesn’t necessarily mean the exact same thing as a powerful and\or intrusive govenment on high in Kabul.
    I’m no scholar on Afghanistan (haven’t been yet), but if “legitimacy” means that the population considers you to be rightfully exercising power, then that MIGHT be acheivable, though it probably requires a very light touch from the central government. I’m told that Afghanistan has has had such things in the past – particularly the monarchy of the pre-Communist period, and that it could exercise power – e.g. limited policing. Might not be acheivable post-Taliban, given the violence and atomized social structures, but I’m not sure it’s a slam dunk that there’s not a course of action there that’s at least possible.
    In any case, there are a fair number of signs that the powers that be are heading in a different direction. Most notably the proposed local security forces that will be stood up with international assistance (but which may not be popular with the central government).
    COL Lang’s point re American goals in Afghanistan is well taken, but as LtCol Dave Kilcullen (Petreus’s previous COIN guy) points out – it may not be possible to run counter-terrororist operations in a way that is acceptable to the locals but still effective. An ODA (the basic element of US Army Special Forces) could shift from drinking tea to clearing houses fairly quickly – but what happens when the insurgency goes Maoist and you’re dealing with battalion equivalents that can still blend (at least somewhat) back into the populace? At that point you may need companies\battalions\brigades, and it’s not likely that Afghans will tolerate line units rolling out, striking some target (with all the collateral damage that implies) and rolling back to the mega-FOB in Kandahar or Bagram – with no connection to their community.
    I’m personally open to the idea of striking a deal with “some” elements of the Taliban (and “Taliban” is probably too blanket of a term for the various flavors on the ground), but it’s not clear that it’s doable. Mullah Omar extended Pashtunwali (and the Taliban is a very vicious Pashtun nationalist\imperialist movement) through AQ’s attacks through the ’90s, and fell back on it post-9/11, even when it threatened their power. Could they get past it now? Maybe. But I wouldn’t get my hopes up that I wouldn’t just get tossed the random guy from the bazzar in exchange for the bounty – it’s happened before.

  6. Ormolov says:

    I was hired to write a Hollywood movie about Afghanistan a few years ago. The producer is an underground legend there. Mike Hoover is Clint Eastwood’s close friend (and stunt double in ‘The Eiger Sanction’). He was Dan Rather’s camera man in Vietnam. He produced the Antarctica IMAX film and buried one of the crew in the ice. He trekked across Tibet and climbed Mt. Everest. And he was the only Wstern journalist (he says) in Afghanistan for seven years during the mujahideen conflict. He is blood brothers with the Afghan defense minister, Gen. Wardak, and he knows Mullah Omar quite well.
    At first he had no use for the Taliban until he met them. He only thought of them as a front for the ISI and up to no good. But when he met some of the student leaders he was reminded that every movement has its good and bad, its moderates and extremes. He learned that they still listened to sense and were fundamentally pragmatic. He says Afghanistan was never so well ruled. When I protested over the treatment of women he said that yes, although they had denied women in Kabul a formal education the rest of the country had been made safe for the poor women who don’t seek to go to university, but only hope to make it through their youth without being raped or killed to satisfy someone’s honor.
    When 9/11 occurred he was outraged by the State Dept.’s handling of the situation. Although they said they spoke to the Taliban and asked for Bin Laden, he said it was more like a police raid, with us overturning the furniture and demanding his head, with threats of obliteration if they didn’t cooperate.
    The theme of Hoover’s story is an explanation of pashtunwali. Completely foreign to us. It means that if a man brings you gifts and sits with you for tea he is your guest and cannot under any circumstances be harmed while in your protection. Now if another man comes to you and says that your guest (in this case Bin Laden) has committed a crime or is a murderer then the accuser must show proof. The Taliban asked the State Dept. for proof. The diplomats did NOT give the Taliban convincing proof but ramped up their threats.
    A curious aspect of pashtunwali: if someone demands you retract protection for your guest and refuses to give you evidence for your guest’s crime, then you gain honor in Afghan society by protecting your guest EVEN IF YOUR GUEST IS GUILTY. The more dire the threats leveled against you the greater the honor you receive. So when the Taliban were told to give up Bin Laden or face annihilation their stock soared.
    In our movie, we had an Army Ranger wounded by AQ and left for dead. He was taken in by the Kuchi (almost untouchables, they fulfill the same role in Afghan society as Roma) and healed. He falls in love with the healer and learns to see things the other way, etc.
    We were going like gangbusters till we learned that Redford, Cruise, and Streep were working on a very similar film called ‘Lions For Lambs.’ Same story but written by someone who added nothing to our understanding of Afghanistan. Our project has been shelved (esp. since Lions/Lambs made no money). Hoover still goes to meetings, still tries to get someone to listen to him. He is, after all, one of our great experts on Afghanistan. All to no avail.
    What is the answer in Afghanistan? Begin talks with elements of the Taliban who aren’t fanatics. Draw down our military presence to almost nothing. Start a Peace Corps mission like no other. And when they invite us to tea, thank them and bring little gifts.

  7. James McKenzie-Smith says:

    Dear Sir,
    I would like to recommend a book to the crowd here. It is of some small relevance to the discussion at hand, and, while it is a novel without being particularly great literature, it is worth a look.
    The novel in question is ‘Direct Action’, by Johnny “Two Combs” Howard, an ex-22 SAS man, published in 2000. In it, the USA, with British assistance, tries to take out OBL in Afghanistan after a plot by AQ is discovered in the USA. Rather than a complete campaign to overthrow the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, the fictional plan presented was a joint air and special operations forces attack on OBL’s suspected position, revealed by HUMINT. The Taliban in the novel were merely informed that the operation was going down as it was under way, and were asked to stay out of the way. For the most part, they did, as the novel made it clear that the Taliban were not entirely delighted with their foreign AQ guests.
    What was interesting was its timing – the book hit the shelves one year before 911 – and also the idea that the Taliban were an admittedly unpleasant local concern of the Afghans at worst, and also somewhat uneasy hosts of AQ. The limited nature of the attempted takedown compared to reality is also noteworthy.
    OBL escapes in the novel, so it does not shy away from the possibility that such an approach might fail to be completely successful. However, it made me think about possible reponses to future AQ camps being developed elsewhere, or for that matter, in Afghanistan should the US withdraw. Given that it has taken the best part of a decade to get where we are in Afghanistan, and given the vast resources that are tied up in such actions, does it make more sense to engage in the sorts of actions envisaged by Howard, based on the gathering of HUMINT as emphasized by the Colonel on this website? Might this become the only possible response should AQ set up camps in several different countries at once, or if they set up new training complexes when US forces are already spread very thin?
    For that matter, are the days of large AQ training camps gone? Even if the US withdraws completely from Iraq and Afghanistan tomorrow, then will it follow that AQ will try to set up camps in either location, on the same scale as before? Maybe in future, the training will be almost like a correspondence course in comparision with the terrorist universities that existed nine years ago, due to the prospect of US attacks on large-scale terrorist installations.
    As the Colonel asks, why would the US need to remain in Afghanistan under such circumstances? Attacks could be launched after reliable intelligence regarding new AQ facilities, or in retaliation for an attack if need be. The nation hosting AQ (or whoever) could be warned to stand aside, possibly punished by attacks on military forces if it is seen as necessary, without any need for years-long occupation and ham-fisted efforts at regime change. If AQ downsizes its training with added security and more dispersed and secretive facilities, it might find it easier to hide from US attacks, but its operational tempo will certainly be reduced. Who knows, provided that there is no perceived Western overreaction to any spectaculars that AQ does manage to pull off, the war on terror might even peter out in the long term.
    Best regards,
    James McKenzie-Smith

  8. Patrick Lang says:

    in re “the random guy,” genius lies in the details. pl

  9. Jose says:

    Ormolov, I agree your strategy will probably work, but Obama needs political CYA for withdrawing from Iraq.
    The key success in Iraq was the turning of the Sunni tribes against AQI, so I’m curious how “they” plan to do it in Afghanistan.
    Will tribes turn against their own?
    Remember, the Pashtuns will be there long after we leave and they can still remember what happened in 1989.
    Ten years latter, we should remember what happens zealous tribes turn against invaders imposing a government contrary to Islam and local traditions.
    Honor often contradicts CYA…

  10. Mad Dogs says:

    For some clues perhaps to the Obama Administration’s views vis a vis Afghanistan, I invite SST discussants to partake of this production by the now Obama Administration National Security Advisor, former Marine General James L. Jones:
    Afghanistan Study Group Report – Revitalizing Our Efforts Rethinking Our Strategies
    H/T to kspena on another blog for the heads-up on this document!

  11. FB Ali says:

    You have hit the nail very forcefully on the head with your closing comment : Pakistan is the big elephant in the room, not Afghanistan. To stop Pakistan from sliding into dysfunction and turmoil, you need to END the war in Afghanistan, not prolong it. It is crazy to try and stabilize Afghanistan when, in the process, you risk losing Pakistan. There isn’t much time left.
    To get a feel for what is happening there, read these pieces. The first is by a professor in one of Pakistan’s premier universities on the current state of society there :
    The second is the 2009 assessment on Pakistan by the South Asia Terrorism Portal :
    I hope someone in the administration or Holbrooke’s staff read these and similar articles.

  12. Keith says:

    If you are going to sit down with the Taliban in Afghanistan, is that not a good time to come to bring in the “Punjabi elite” of Pakistan and come to some sort of unified Pashtun accommodation?
    The other thing I wonder is if the basic assumption is that Afghanistan can’t work because the Pashtun will never accept sharing a country with Uzbeks, Hazari and Tajiks, why is it any different when it comes to sharing a country with Punjabis? If we assume that we can’t prevent the arbitrary 19th Century construct of Afghanistan from disintegrating, should we assume the same for the arbitrary 20th century construct of Pakistan and do our best to plan for the most orderly disintegration possible?

  13. curious says:

    yeah, the situation in Pakistan is chronic. It needs a very strong leader that can do the right thing instead of keep feeding religious populism and wild nationalism.
    That country is in perpetual brinkmanship. It was cute when the population was 50-80million. But now it’s 170m+…
    all cluster in high density urban area/slum. High unemployment, poverty, near 2 major war zones … yikes. It’s an explosion waiting to happen.
    Peace with india, resolving border issue would be a very important first step. (it will reduce military need. so they can focus on economic growth, development and fixing FATA.)
    Pakistan demographic chart. (it’s unbelievable.)

  14. Clifford Kiracofe says:

    “What is assumed to be the future of American policy in Afghanistan is something that is far more than a counter-terrorism operation.”
    This is indeed the problem IMO. CT (properly done) is a valid mission, social engineering Afghanistan into the 21st century is quite another, and a dangerous fantasy. As Pat has indicated, the CT mission can and should be undertaken with “guile.”
    I came away from my visit to India this Christmas with the view that the stability and security of Pakistan is a significant factor in the minds of INDIAN military, diplomatic, and intelligence circles.
    Why? These forward thinking circles, for example, desire a stable neighbor next door with whom mutually beneficial economic integration in a regional context can take place.
    Circles I spoke with do NOT want to see a destabilized Pakistan exporting more jihadism to India thus destabilizing India. They want to see the US reassure Pakistan (ie the military establishment) that regional cooperation is possible and desirable.
    A limited security zone composed of Kabul and the Valley is regarded as a reasonable goal but not via a US military occupation as in Iraq. US troops must leave forthwith. Outside this security zone, pacifying the locals through military force is regarded as counterproductive and delusional.
    As I have said before, cooperation with regional players is essential: India, Iran, Russia, China.
    Counternarcotics, for example, is one concrete issue area which can be developed with Iran as a confidence building measure linked to a broader agenda. I have mentioned transportation issues before.
    PL and Brigadier FB Ali make the key point that PAKISTAN is the issue not Afghanistan.
    But let me again state that one overriding security issue for the US is at our doorstep: Mexico, the “Pakistan” on our own border. US security planners need to come back down to earth from the opium clouds in the mountains of Afghanistan to the simple fact of the Rio Grande.

  15. jonst says:

    When I saw Petreus doing the coin flip at the Super Bowl the first thing that came to my mind was: This guy is running for President.
    If this is true, or, even, thought to be true by those on the Obama political team, it will effect their Afghan policy. For the worse…I suspect.

  16. Ego and hubris still rule in Washington, D.C. The DEMS think like the Republicans that they are in control. Of Iraq? Of Afghanistan? Of Pakistan? No way. If we are still a democracy, the pulse of the electorate will determine the outcome in all three arenas. We may no longer be a democracy (Republic technically) so the voices of the people may not matter. But I would watch the size of pitch fork sales in the country closely? It is not Russian or Iran that I worry about but the tolerance of the EU and NATO to pretend that social disruption on their perimeter is of no consequence to their future. CAFE SOCIETY rules in the EU. Perhaps when the EURO collapses the leadership will awake that they are not isolated from the rest of the world. If Russian and Iran look like the same significant players 10 years down the road will be very surprised. But then guess by then the US will have learned some very very hard lessons about its role in the world.

  17. fnord says:

    sir: Good points, especially when seen from a US centric point of view. I would argue that the only possible solution is a goal of *stabilizing* Afghanistan, and that this needs to be an international effort much more than it is today. The chinese and the russians should be possible to lure into a growth industry of PRTs, wich create small industrial areas so as to generate revenues for the local populace, etc. The best Petraeus quote of all: Money is ammunition.
    Even in these times of crisis, the splurging of a cool 100 billion in investment built by a UN force of engineers protected by Chinese forces would be a acceptable use of revenue. This would mean that the US could draw back to being a ultimate policeforce, and the UN doing the main work. This again would require a rebuffing of the UN wich will take two-three years. By stabilizing the main aprt of the country properly, there is a chance to be able to finish the job properly instead of withdrawing half assed. This would of course require leaders who think like engineers and not like 5-year olds at a birthday party with unlimited gifts.

  18. opit says:

    I don’t know how I have managed to relatively ignore your blog so much : especially when you get comments threads like this one.
    As to movies and coverage of the Afghan situation, you might note http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charlie_Wilson%27s_War
    Also : I am not a particular fan of media coverage at the best of times.What makes your coverage here – I know, you aren’t CBS – interesting is the recognition of the innate dichotomy of the situation.
    Of course, Europe or ‘the West’ defined the borders of this greater geographical area, so that to speak of where Pakistan starts and Afghanistan ends for the native nomadic tribes reflects a mentality of farmers having ‘title’ : where the world has not always run that way, especially in the hinterlands of marginal survival.
    The Partition of India should be a morality tale for meddlers.
    Why not say it is ? As a design to be emulated and improved ! The history of the U.S. is one of removing ‘Inconvenient People’ for untrammeled access for business. One of the last acts of the Bush administration was to allow mining on native Indian sacred ancestral lands. Wouldn’t it be all of a piece to ascribe similar planning for Asia – especially after public notice of such has been plainly given ?
    I keep harking back to the Iraq wargame http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB207/index.htm
    as a model of the style which will be followed in gaining control of strategic energy resources: a PNAC oil monopolist’s wet dream.

  19. fnord says:

    aprt was a typo, but is also a acronym: Action Point Resource Targeting. Wich I havent seen much of in a concerted way in Afghanistan these last 7 years. The failure of Europe to make good on the policeforce is a disgrace.

  20. FredS says:

    Jonst, you surely don’t foresee a Palin-Patreus ticket?
    Karzai is a crook? It took how many years to figure that out? From the Wapo article: “Petraeus called for “a surge in civilian capacity”” I think it is rather hard to have a surge in capacity, or integrity, when there is little at the top.
    It is only week three, so I’m willing to give Obama a little time, but certainly not the years that were given Bush-Cheney administration. At least Helen Thomas asked a pointed question to Obama (Monday’s press conference); especially after that idiotic one about baseball and steroids.

  21. Ormolov says:

    This just in:
    WASHINGTON (AFP) — A nationwide survey of Afghans out Monday shows plummeting support for US and NATO/ISAF forces in Afghanistan, and a rise in the number who believe attacks on those troops are acceptable.
    The poll of 1,500 people in Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, conducted by three Western broadcast networks — ABC News, the BBC and Germany’s ARD — also shows lower support for President Hamid Karzai and the Afghan central government.
    Forty percent of Afghans surveyed say their country is heading in the right direction, down 77 percent from 2005, according to the poll.
    Afghan opinion of the United States has nosedived: 47 percent had a favorable opinion, down from 83 percent in 2005. US favorability plunged 18 percent in 2008 alone, according to the survey.
    “For the first time slightly more Afghans now see the United States unfavorably than favorably,” ABC News said.
    The biggest complaint: civilian deaths resulting from US and NATO air strikes, which 77 percent say is unacceptable because the risk to civilians outweighs the strikes’ value in fighting insurgents.
    Forty-one percent blame Western forces for poor targeting, while 28 percent blame the insurgents for hiding among civilians.
    More worrisome, 25 percent say that attacks on US troops or soldiers with the ISAF — the NATO-led multinational force in Afghanistan — can be justified, up from 13 percent in 2006.

  22. curious says:

    Hey this could be good for afghanistan…
    India is sending huge amount of manpower. Obviously, like Iran, they are concern about the explosion of FATA that will bring down both afghanistan and Pakistan. (Plus, no doubt they want to out flank Pakistan too.)
    but really, Pakistan and India really need to sign some kind of peace treaty, or else this move will be seen as pakistani army as pure hostility instead of India hedging bet.
    (from a long thread at indian defense forum)
    On the face of it, the 215 km Delaram-Zaranj highway, which was inaugurated on Thursday, is no more than a drop in the ocean if seen in the context of the gargantuan task of rebuilding war-ravaged Afghanistan which continues to bleed on account of Taliban and Al Qaeda outrages. But the importance of this highway cannot be minimised, not least because it has been built by Indian engineers and workers against heavy odds and despite jihadi depredations encouraged by Pakistan. Apart from six Indians, including four ITBP personnel, who died while the highway was being built, as many as 129 Afghans were killed for either working on the project or supporting it. The Delaram-Zaranj highway will provide landlocked Afghanistan access to Iran as well as Iranian ports, thus opening up an alternative route for the passage of goods which, till now, had to be routed through Pakistan. The absolute control over transit routes gave Islamabad a huge strategic advantage, which it exploited to the hilt to coerce Kabul into toeing its line. Had President Hamid Karzai not been so adamant about keeping the Taliban at bay, he would have given in to Pakistani arm-twisting. To his credit, he chose to bide his time and with the new highway becoming functional, he can tell Pakistan to go take a walk. Iran, never too comfortable about Pakistan’s efforts to regain ‘strategic depth’ with the help of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, can now be expected to play an active role in fobbing off Osama bin Laden’s mullah brigade, at least in the north. And, once the highway becomes fully operational, donor countries will not have to route their aid material through Pakistani ports, which by itself will come as a big dampener. India, for instance, has long sought transit access to Afghanistan via Pakistan, but expectedly has been denied permission. New Delhi won’t have to petition Islamabad any more, provided, of course, Iran plays fair and square. It is, therefore, not surprising that Pakistan should have exerted itself to scuttle the Delaram-Zaranj highway by unleashing the full fury of the Taliban on the Rs 600-crore project.

Comments are closed.