Time to Get Real in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama just made a surprise visit to the US troops in Afghanistan and thanked them for keeping America safe, or words to this effect. Now, this statement, premised on the assumption that there is a direct, clear connection between Afghanistan security and US national security, so much so that we have dispatched and keep there a large expeditionary force, along with a complex foreign aid apparatus, costing hundreds of billions of dollars a year, 9 years into this inconclusive fight, defies credibility.

Afghanistan is important; but so is half the world

Afghanistan is of course important for US national security. But so important to justify this incredible, prolonged effort? If Afghanistan is important because an unstable Afghanistan –as the President says– may become once again the host of hostile anti-American terror groups, from the same perspective half the world is equally important. Indeed, there are many weak or semi-destabilized countries in which enemies or potential enemies of the US may find safe haven, plotting from these bases more terror attacks against the US and its interests.

So, the “Afghanistan issue” at the end of 2010 has to be gauged within a broader  context of a plurality of threats and consequent need for a wise allocation of finite (and, going forward, dwindling) US resources to counter several terrorism threats. Therefore it is appropriate to ask as to whether our declared counter terror goal in Afghanistan, (deny safe haven there to radical Islamists) is or is not consistent with the way we are trying to accomplish it. At issue here is not the basic “sanctuary denial” goal but what should be an appropriate level and modality of effort, in this particular country, to achieve it, given the Afghanistan context and our results to date.

This is not 2001

Let’s go back a minute. The connection between Afghanistan, the Taliban, al Qaeda and the train of events that led to 9/11 was and is pretty obvious. So, back in the fall of 2001, the notion of appropriate retribution against the Kabul Taliban government that had aided the plotters of 9/11 by providing a base of operation to the al Qaeda organizers of the attacks against New York and Washington made perfect sense. “If you do us harm and we know where you are, we Americans are going to come after you and all those who helped you”.

Mission rationale for today?

But if this was the rationale for military intervention back in the fall of 2001, does it still apply today? Well, it does; but only in a very generic, theoretical way, as there are no longer any significant al Qaeda bases in Afghanistan. In other words, there is no immediate terror threat directed against the US stemming from Afghanistan. the consensus is that al Qaeda is in Pakistan, on the other side of the borders, while it has tentacles in several other countries, outside the region.

That said, the official policy rationale for occupation and fighting goes like this. If, today, in 2010, we leave and allow Afghanistan to fall apart, then the resurgent Taliban, now sheltered in Pakistan, will take over again. And, sooner or later, in the wake of this upheaval, al Qaeda will come back into the country and Afghanistan will become once more the staging ground for new terror activities against the US. Hence the need to fight for the consolidation of a plausible, democratic government in Afghanistan that will prevent a come back of a fundamentalist regime and its friends.

Declared policy

So, the US-led NATO mission has become this. We fight the Taliban and hold the ground, while we train the Afghan national forces (army and police) so that eventually they will be able to lead the fight on their own. Once we are satisfied that they can do this, we shall progressively stand down. As they become more self-sufficient, we shall be able to diminish our presence and our profile in the country. As of now, NATO declared that it intends to give major fighting responsibilities to the Afghan forces by 2014.

Again, let’s make this clear. All in all, a continuing US military/political/economic commitment to Afghanistan is not without cause. The objective of keeping Afghanistan from becoming once again a sanctuary for assorted Islamic radicals has merit.

However, having established this, the real issue becomes one of appropriate methods and commensurate allocation of scarce US resources, keeping in mind at the same time that ensuring that Afghanistan stays off limits for al Qaeda is not even half the battle against radicalism.


Al Qaeda can be anywhere

 Today, al Qaeda, (and affiliated groups), is a world wide, loose confederation of fundamentalists who will and do operate in an opportunistic way wherever possible. While Afghanistan in the 1990s played an absolutely key role as a base of operations for al Qaeda, with all its camps, training facilities and so on, al Qaeda has found and will find sanctuary elsewhere, be it Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia. It may not be the same “de luxe accomodation” as Afghanistan could provide before 9/11 in terms of numbers of facilities and freedom of movement; but there is and there will be sanctuary elsewhere.

Again, let us not forget that successful, deadly plots may be engineered by only a handful of people with quite modest financial resources. To achieve these modest preconditions, al Qaeda does not need to control a country. Al Qaeda is not a regular armed force that requires garrisons, complex logistics networks and layers of organized structures. Its members can operate in a variety of environments, as long as a modicum of cover can be provided. Nowadays Afghanistan, whatever the critical role that it played for al Qaeda in the 1990s, is by no means the only country that would meet the criteria of safe haven.

Choose the best tools to accomplish US ends

So, the problem for the US is to devise the most cost effective strategy that will yield the outcome we want in Afghanistan: targeting terrorists and sanctuary denial to radicals who may want to reestablish themselves into Afghanistan using this wretched country as a staging ground for more terror plots. All the time keeping in mind that, beyond Afghanistan,we need to spread our finite resources to monitor other groups elsewhere so that we can dismantle their plans before they come to fruition.

US: wrong methods


My point is that, even if we stipulate that our anti-terror goals in Afghanistan are reasonable, we are going about it in absolutely the wrong way, as we have articulated a “counter terror strategy” through a “nation-building” policy, even though we may not name it so. In short, we have created an enormously big and extraordinarily expensive agenda to accomplish a relatively contained anti-terror objective.

We are fighting the Taliban, we are training the Afghan military and we are spending huge sums to help one of the poorest countries in the world climb out of abject misery, while building viable, modern institutions. In theory at least, assuming success in all these objectives, at some point we would have a more modern Afghanistan, with improved, legitimate institutions, a modern, reliable army and a much improved economy. All of this should be enough to immunize it against the virus of radicalism and violence.

Nothing wrong, in theory. But, in practice, all this is horribly expensive and time consuming, so much so that at some point we shall have to come to the realization that it is virtually impossible to achieve our goals, given the simple fact that Afghanistan is a basket case. By any measure, the country is at the very bottom of any world ranking in terms of poverty, corruption, illiteracy, life expectancy, lack of infrastructure and electrification and so on. The notion that we can reach all these objectives –in this country– within a reasonable time frame and at an acceptable cost for US tax payers is real lunacy.

The folly of a “nation building” strategy

We may be still, (for a while at least), the biggest economic and military power on earth; but Afghanistan is a medieval nightmare. Whatever resources and institutions might have existed at some point, they have been obliterated by decades of fighting and destruction. There is no real economy. there is just a vague notion of a modern, fully functioning and reliable central government. The country is divided along ethnic, tribal and linguist lines. Loyalties are difficult to understand and difficult to gain in a permanent fashion. Lastly, the combination of lack of resources, poverty, illiteracy, widespread corruption, a demographic explosion and archaic gender discrimination against women throw more powerful obstacles on the way of anybody attempting any modernization plan.

(I am not saying anything new here. However, if one had any doubts as to the seriousness of the challenges we are facing, even a cursory look at the US diplomatic traffic to and from Afghanistan, just revealed by Wikileaks, would convince them that this enterprise, as currently conceived, is doomed to failure).

Mission Impossible

Where am I going with all this? Very simple. This is “Mission Impossible”, unless we assume unlimited funding for unlimited technical assistance, unlimited military manpower, and ultimately unlimited staying power on the part of the US government with full support of the American people.

It is absolutely crazy to believe that in just a few years, (let alone by July 2011, the date President Obama arbitrarily selected to begin a phased withdrawal of US combat troops), we can achieve the objective of shoring up a credible, more or less self-sustaining, Afghan state/army/civil service/economy/education systems and then leave. No way. Not because it is impossible by definition; but because it is impossible to do this fast, given the incredible challenges presented by this poor, inhospitable country.

So, what do we do next?

And so, what do we do? Well, first of all we reduce our efforts and our profile in a manner that is more consistent with our declared basic objective of “sanctuary denial” to the terrorists. Our challenge is not the reconstruction, (in fact it is about “construction”), of Afghanistan, nor is it defeating the entire Taliban movement. Our focus should be in helping the Afghans to defeat the most radical Taliban elements and terror groups that may come back into Afghanistan in the wake of a resurgent Taliban. Our goal is not to destroy the Taliban but to make it reasonably inoffensive.

Build local support

It is already established that not all Taliban are wedded to Islamic fundamentalism. We can co-opt some of the various factions through pledges of economic help. At the same time we should work as closely as possible with other established local power structures, and that means the War Lords. We may not like all these characters that much, but our goal is not that they become acceptable democratic forces. Our goal is to have people in charge who are not going to invite anti-American terrorists. As for the Karzai government in Kabul, they are clearly open to deals with insurgents, provided that they can find a reasonable power sharing agreement. Again, this is not perfect and it would require monitoring and adjustments.

No terrorists

Our goal cannot be to build up from zero a credible Kabul government that, in turn, will earn the enthusiastic support of the Afghan people. Our goal is that, whoever is in charge, the Afghans will not plot or aid those who will plot more terror attacks.

In this fashion, our mission is re-defined down as targeting terror cells and groups that may help them. It is no longer about “fixing the country”, mostly by building up a credible central government, as the necessary precondition for being absolutely sure that no one, ever again, will use Afghanistan as a staging ground for more terror attacks such as 9/11.

Counter terror goals, counter insurgency methods

To put it simply, we basically have a stated “counter-terror” goal; but we adopted a much more complicated and much more expensive, multi-layered, and time consuming “counter-insurgency” approach to achieve it. This is where we have a true disconnect between means and ends. Sooner or later we shall have to admit this enormous blunder, radically downsize our presence and adjust to the idea that in this messy part of the world “problems” can be managed, more or less cost-effectively; but they cannot be “resolved” once and for all.

This is not Germany after WWII

And to all those who think back with sentimentality about the US as successful occupier and institution builder in Germany and Japan after WWII and believe that those unique experiences can be reproduced at will in Afghanistan or elsewhere, in this age of terrorism and asymmetric warfare: “Please stop dreaming”. This is a different world.

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