How to Win in Afghanistan

“But we must never forget: This [war in Afghanistan] is not a war of choice. This is a war of necessity. Those who attacked America on 9/11 are plotting to do so again. If left unchecked, the Taliban insurgency will mean an even larger safe haven from which al Qaeda would plot to kill more Americans. So this is not only a war worth fighting. This is fundamental to the defense of our people”

US President Barack Obama, August 17, 2009 


WASHINGTON – So, president Obama proclaimed at the same time the will to fight and moral superiority by declaring that the fight in Afghanistan is not a matter of predilection; but the “only” choice for the United States, forced on America by historic necessity . Literally, according to this narrative, this war has been imposed on us, always reluctant warriors, by an implacable enemy bent on destroying the US. More broadly, Afghanistan is the “Good War”, as opposed to the invasion of Iraq, the “Bad War” nonsensically waged by George Bush, the president called at times “delusional” by many of his political opponents.The Good War


So, Bush did the bad stuff. We are going to do the good stuff, the righteous stuff which is about the real enemy: the jihadists ensconced in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan.So, let’s make it clear to the world –says the President– that our motives are unimpeachable. We “have to fight” the Taliban and al-Qaeda, because they are plotting more nefarious acts against America from those mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan. 


Crucial for US national security


 Based on how the President framed the issue, it also clear that this conflict is only marginally about the suffering of the war ravaged people in the region. This is about America’s national security.  While we may feel something for the plight of peoples subject to the brutality of the Taliban, quite frankly, if this were just an internal problem among tribes, with no real or potential international repercussions, such as another 9/11 plot, we would say a few pious things, exhort the parties to cease violence and then carry on with ordinary business.


But the President has declared that there is a thread that links Osama bin Laden, his followers, the Taliban and other assorted followers to an ongoing plot against America. And since the plotters have taken residence in that part of the world, we have to engage in this “war of necessity” until we shall dismantled the whole enterprise, so that it can longer cause us any harm.


War of Necessity?


Now, why would the President make such a huge, upfront commitment without anything whatsoever prompting him is unclear. Is it because, as some have suggested, that by declaring Afghanistan a “war of necessity” America automatically gains and gets to keep the moral high ground? So that the President can say to the American public and to the world: “What can I say, we did not want to do this. But, quite clearly it is a war of necessity. We had no choice?” This may be nice, if it were plausible and even remotely credible –let alone true. This one, as most other wars, is a war of choice. While it is true that al-Qaeda does represent an ongoing threat to America’s security and interests worldwide, a huge military commitment in Afghanistan is by no means the only possible option.


Why say this at all?


Again, why did the President make such a sweeping, upfront commitment is difficult to understand. And frankly, it is even more difficult to understand in the light of more recent developments in October and November that reveal a potential case of “cold feet” about this “war of necessity”. The US Government has been engaged in a reassessment process, so lengthy now to indicate possible vacillation and some degree of ambivalence.


After the clear “call to arms”, there has been an inordinately long period of evaluation aimed at determining the most appropriate course of action, while a diverse menu of strategies and war plans, along with media leaks as to who is in favor of this and against that, have been presented. All in all this created the impression that the issue is not just about “how” to run the operation; but –far worse–  confusion as to the real strategic objective.


Why we cannot win


Let’s cut to the chase: the war in Afghanistan cannot be won within the most likely political constraints that will tie down any US administration. And this is different from stating that this war is not winnable as a matter of principle. It is not winnable because the President does not have a free hand. He does not have unlimited time and resources to conduct the fight.


Just like Rome, America does not have unlimited resources


This war cannot be won for the same reasons why the late Roman Emperors could not indefinitely fight and hold back the Barbarians that were making more and more incursions into the Empire. Rome was exhausted. Up to a point it retained the advantage of disciplined, first class soldiers and superior technology, (by the standards of the time). What it did not have was infinite resources and the staying power of continuing the fight for ever, no matter what. And so, eventually the Barbarians burst through and destroyed a once mighty civilization.


Impossible to rebuild Afghanistan within a limited time 


Now, where is the analogy, as the Taliban are not in Canada, trying to invade America? The analogy is in the lack of resources and lack of staying power. A serious counterinsurgency in Afghanistan would require flooding the country with troops and calculating that it might take at least 10 or 15 years, perhaps longer, not just to fight the Taliban but to build a society with all its institutions, laws, legitimacy and a sustainable economy so that the Afghans would have a country to fight for and the instruments to do so. And the simple fact is that America has neither the stomach for such a lengthy and costly enterprise nor the money to finance it. Period. To think otherwise is engaging in dangerous fantasies.


Impossible to bring about “reform”


To envisage a shorter time line for the accomplishment of the administration goals is fanciful. As it is fanciful to admonish newly reelected, (by default), President Hamid Karzai  to get his act together, stop corruption and sweet deals with the War Lords. This is like imagining a talk with Gang Leaders in Los Angeles, telling them that if they shape up, then we may pardon them and offer them an appropriate place in society. Try that, and see what enthusiastic response you get.


Governance constraints will stay


And this is not to imply that President Karzai is a gangster. He is not. He is the closest thing to the best leader that a primitive, tribal, extremely poor, under resourced society can offer. But he is what he is: and that is not particularly good. By the same token, the idea that, before we could make a final decision on an Afghan policy we had to wait for the elections results would imply that the results of elections conducted in such a place with that low level of literacy, of voter knowledge and sophistication would really make a difference.


OK. Let’s be real. These days, who governs in Kabul makes a small difference. Sure, there can be different degrees of incompetence and corruption. But the underlying reality is of a horribly poor and mostly primitive medieval society, with a thin veneer of educated people and a mostly illiterate population with almost no economic prospects.


Afghanistan cannot be transformed within a reasonable time


And we want to “fix” this country as a way to win the war against the Taliban? As I said, given unlimited resources, stomach for human losses and a large amount of money, it may be doable. But we know that none of these preconditions exist. And let me stress that the last pre-condition  –money—is and will be a more and more pressing issue, given America’s fiscal predicament. America is deeply in debt. If we are serious about reducing it, we shall need to overhaul welfare spending, most likely reducing benefits to millions.


Difficult to justify the war in America


And we think that we can cut funds to seniors and at the same time justify billions for a war that, 9/11 notwithstanding, is really remote from the daily preoccupations of ordinary people? Impossible. And beyond this huge obstacle, let us keep in mind that, even if the war were fully funded, the impatient American public will want to see results and the troops back home by Christmas, as they always do.


Long, protracted efforts, with each individual casualty announced every day in the newscasts are not popular, even if the President tried to inoculate himself from criticism by declaring this “a war of necessity”. He may have said it. What others actually believe will be an entirely different matter.


So, let us agree that whatever the president and his national security team may have in mind, assuming that it is predicated on more troops and a protracted commitment, will not work.


What is the alternative?


So, what can work? Something that starts with the recognition that the power centers in Afghanistan are in the local communities, with the War Lords and other tribal leaders who have authority with the local people. Forget about Kabul. Try and get some deals with the War Lords and other local leaders. Give them tools, money, resources to make their people at least somewhat better off and find ways to reconcile differences among them in order to minimize the danger of civil war. If the deal for the average villager is a choice between a powerful Taliban versus the discredited authority of a distant Kabul, the Taliban have an inherent advantage, because they “are there”; whereas the central government is distant, mostly incompetent and corrupt.


Realistic targets


With this we give up any delusion to try and build a modern, democratic Afghanistan with a reasonably well function central government within a few years. And this is not out of cynicism; but out of realism. Afghanistan may eventually become a modern state. But this is an extremely ambitious objective, given the actual conditions on the ground, the lack of education, of resources and economic prospects.


The 2001 approach worked


As for the possible success of a “minimalist” approach, let us not forget that the 2001 campaign against the Taliban was successfully engineered and conducted following a very similar strategy manned by only a handful of skilled CIA operatives, a sprinkle of Special Forces and –most of all—suitcases full of cash liberally distributed in order to gain the friendship of otherwise reluctant partners. True, there were targeted US bombings of Taliban positions and large amounts of equipment also dropped from the air.


But fundamentally this was a low profile, extremely low cost operation that did the job. The CIA had nurtured friendships in Afghanistan well before 9/11. It had gained credibility with relevant Afghan counterparts and it convinced people to fight. This strategy created a coalition, fragile as it was, that routed the Taliban. This was a stunning success. (It is unfortunate that the image of the CIA has been subsequently tarnished when it became the scapegoat for the horrible Iraq WMD intelligence debacle. The operation in Afghanistan was brilliant).


Nation building on the cheap does not work


But then, after the defeat of the Taliban, we got involved in our own silly ideas of nation building –with no “real” money. So, we wanted to do big infrastructure projects, reconstruction, schools for girls, at the same time creating a viable central government. And all this was done poorly, halfheartedly, relying on incompetent consultants and with very little money.


I remember, in the months preceding the war in Iraq, Afghan officials coming to Washington, pleading, almost begging not to be abandoned. And we did abandon them, for all practical purposes. Of course, the main reason was that the Bush administration thought most superficially that Afghanistan was fixed, that it could subcontracted to the NATO Alliance and other assorted friends, while America was gearing up to the serious stuff: the take over of Iraq.


Afghanistan was forgotten


And we know the rest. The half baked Afghanistan operation was put aside, and it slowly started simmering and stewing. Over time, the growing mix of confusion and bad governance gave a new opening to the Taliban. Relying also on sanctuary in Pakistan, the Taliban had the opportunity to regroup and to exploit a reasonably fertile recruiting ground, given the many poor and disaffected Afghans who felt no loyalty for a new government that delivered almost nothing to them. So the CIA strategy of making friends and staying with them was abandoned.


Nation building, once more?


And now, at the end of 2009, after the abysmal failure of the nation building strategy in a country that is most inhospitable to the whole idea, we want to try this all over? It simply will not work. Not, as I said before, because it is inherently impossible, but because neither this President –nor any other US President for that matter– can retain the necessary political support to carry it out. Besides, let me repeat it: we are broke. Fighting a messy counterinsurgency that will costs billions is a luxury that nowadays we cannot afford –even if we put “war of necessity” on the invoice to the American public.



In the end: we can accomplish our goals


And so, if we cannot do the Big Plan, what we can we do in order to accomplish our primary objective of denying sanctuary to the Taliban? The goal of the Obama administration is to defang and rout the Taliban and al-Qaeda. This is a very good idea. The issue is what means can we pick to reach or at least to get closer to this worthwhile strategic objective. In 2001 the CIA found a low profile, relatively low cost strategy that proved to be quite successful.


I am not sure that we can pick the same old plan from the shelf and redo it all over. Too many things have happened since 2001. But it may be possible to re-engage the tribal leaders, to give them assistance, real tools, money and resources so that they will be motivated to defend their own people from the Taliban. We want to deny sanctuary to the Taliban in Afghanistan, so that it cannot be used as a launching pad for other operations against US interests. The tribal leaders can accomplish this objective, if they are sufficiently motivated. The plan of creating a viable, credible and popularly supported Afghan army and police force, themselves predicate on building up a credible and functioning central government, while theoretically possible, is far more difficult.


More modest goals  


So are we giving up on nation building and true democracy in Afghanistan? Yes, we are. At least for the time being. And not because we do not care. It is because it is too difficult and too onerous. Because it would take too long and because we cannot afford it. Is this cynical realism? It is realism alright. But not cynical.


And again, what is the alternative? The alternative is a dream of radical reform that would require a US open ended commitment that cannot be sustained. Reforming countries, rebuilding societies, all this sounds wonderful and surely there are plenty of dedicated people willing to throw themselves into the enterprise. But good will alone will not do it. In a context as complicated and as primitive as Afghanistan, we have to scale down our reformist ambitions.  If indeed the primary goal is to deny sanctuary and thus the ability to reorganize to the Taliban, there may other ways, as the successful 2001 campaign demonstrated.


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