Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Afghanistan: Our Graveyard

If one believes our president, sending in more than 30,000 extra troops to Afghanistan is vital to our national security interests.

The main goals that President Obama has set forth, what ones he has stated anyway, include the following. One, to further isolate and militarily defeat al-Qaeda and by extension Osama bin Laden and his associates. Two, rollback the gains of the Taliban throughout Afghanistan over the past two years and achieve some type of military victory. Three, create a stable Afghan government that can govern itself and not necessitate the military presence of the U.S.

Putting aside the morality of this war, and the justness of our being in Afghanistan (which is debatable in itself), none of these goals are reasonably obtainable, with 30,000, 40,000, or 100,000 more troops. By the estimations of our own military intelligence, al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan are not cooperative forces, and in the circumstance of al-Qaeda mostly reduced to the border areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan (with bin Laden most likely on the Pakistani side). How do we propose to use those extra soldiers to find what our satellite, face recognition programming, and human intelligence cannot find? It is a vast area, much of it mountainous, and is going to require an extensive sweep, which will take many more troops than the ones being deployed. And even assuming we can successfully kill off the leadership of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, what of the rest of the insurgency inside of Afghanistan itself? Over three-fifths of the country is at any one time a war zone. This is a dual military mission (searching and destroying in detail the remaining leadership structure of al-Qaeda and fighting the Taliban). It is going to require a military invasion of ethnic Pashtun areas (the primary stronghold of the Taliban) that is far beyond the resources we currently have or will in the near future. There is no one in our government, in the military or the current administration, willing to recognize this reality or publicly concede it, at least that I know of (minus one public retirement), and if that is the case then we have a real problem not just in projection of power but even comprehending the mission and assessing our ability to reach the goals of that mission.

What is also not spoken about very often, at least in Afghanistan, is the common tactic of paying off the opposition. We did it in the Anbar province of Iraq during the 2007-2008 surge with varying degrees of success. By all accounts, we are doing this again in Afghanistan, in which our own contractors are using tax dollars to buy off insurgents. Out of all the strategies, this might be the best one, particularly since many of the insurgents are not as ideologically motivated as their group leaders. Nevertheless, people do not accept money payments for loyalty as a one-time deal. Typically, like all payroll employees, they will want multiple paychecks, and nothing stops that employee from deserting you, which has happened in Afghanistan. Somehow, I do not think we have enough money to purchase the entire insurgency in Afghanistan, and even if we did still guarantee that most of them would accept it, since it would mean accepting a foreign occupation of their country, something which no amount of money will seem amenable to the locals (who have a history of violently resisting invading armies that exceeds most every other civilization on earth).

With regards to the Afghan government itself, it would probably be useful to consider that this is a country of dozens of ethnic groups, historically governed at the local level (along familial and ethnic lines), and whatever central government it has retained is at best a figurehead representation of Afghanistan's nationhood. Even in the days of the monarchy, before the revolution and subsequent invasion by the Soviet Union, the king was relegated to his palace in Kabul. The borders of this country have always been porous, explaining in part the divergent ethnic groups from neighboring countries, and its government unable or unwilling to prevent foreign intrigue of its internal political dynamics.

For reference, while reading the second volume of William Shirer's autobiography (back when Shirer was a newspaper reporter for the Chicago Tribune), he covered the ascension of Zahir Shah to the Afghan throne in 1933 (the same Shah who would come back from exile after the fall of the Taliban, passing away in 2007). The Shah became the king as a teenager after the assassination of his father, who was himself a known agent of the British government. Reading
Shirer's account of how the Russians and British competed for loyal factions inside of Afghanistan, openly courting different families, for what was supposed to be the most powerful position in the country, it became painstakingly obvious that even in the 1930s few people took seriously the Afghan government's ability to actually govern itself.

If one observes President Karzai today, his rule is no less kleptocratic, autocratic, weak, and completely dependent on foreigners to maintain any fig leaf of legitimacy than the Shah's. His security detail is provided by the US because he cannot depend on his own people to protect him (knowing he would be assassinated). The government is almost completely dependent on US tax dollars, military, and subsidies, and its police and military remain highly corrupt and open to external influences (be it money, the Taliban, or inter-ethnoreligious loyalty disputes). And then there is the quandary of its political legitimacy with the last presidential elections, which by all accounts were fraudulent. It is not a surprise to see why Karzai's main opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, would drop out of the recount race to become president.

Last but not least in all of this debate, which we as Americans should be discussing, what will be the impact of this new heightening of the war in Afghanistan? Again, if history is any indicator, it is going to be an unmitigated disaster for the country. It is already littered with millions of landmines. Its main export is opium and primary imports are arms, terrorists, and foreign troops. That is hardly a recipe for a sustainable economy and society. And in the end, that is the greatest tragedy of President Obama's troop surge. It is the people of Afghanistan who will be paying the ultimate sacrifice in bombed out villages, countrysides, drone-attacked civilians, and all that will be piled on top of the misery this country has endured for the past three decades.

If we were honest with ourselves, we would admit that there is no achievable victory to be had in Afghanistan. Even on the off chance the US military was to militarily wipe out the entire leadership of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, it would not turn Afghanistan into the next democratic paradise. This is the insidious nature of terrorism. You cannot defeat an idea by force of arms alone, no matter how many of its advocates you kill. The most successful ideas win because they provide and distribute the goods at the least cost and maximum satisfaction to a population, which naturally is influenced by how they perceive that idea and belief system. To defeat Islamic fundamentalism is going to require something much greater than a cruise missile. It requires an alternative way of life for the affected populations of that polity. Whether those of us in the West like to admit it, we do not have all the answers for this part of the world. We cannot force people to live and think the way we do, simply because we think it is better. That is the lesson of Afghanistan. It is one the Macedonians, Romans, Mongols, British, and Russians learned all too well. We are about to repeat that cycle.

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