President Obama is currently pondering the most difficult decision of his young administration: our country’s future direction in Afghanistan. His choice has often been portrayed in the media as binary: should he pursue the counterinsurgency strategy (COIN) proposed by General McChrystal, or should he follow the counter-terrorist strategy advocated by Vice-President Biden?
Media reports indicate that Obama is unsatisfied with the choices he has, and he should be. Both approaches are fatally flawed. Before I say why that is the case, and what a better strategy might be, let’s review why we’re in Afghanistan at all.
What are our interests in Afghanistan? If the Taliban returns to power, it would likely provide a haven for Al Qaeda to launch terrorist attacks against us. There is a legitimate controversy as to how important safe harbor is for an organization like Al Qaeda, with many pointing out that in the past attacks have usually originated in European cities, and that Al Qaeda is now functioning under a ‘cloud’ model that obviates central command. This is true, but it is undeniable that allowing them to reconstitute a sheltered and functioning command and control would be an operational and propaganda victory for them.
If this were the only risk, it would not be sufficient reason for us to stay. The more serious risk we run is that a Taliban victory in Afghanistan might provide moral encouragement, financial assistance and tactical support to an insurgency in Pakistan. Pakistan has a large and capable military, but it is badly infiltrated, and the Pakistani population is the most radicalized in the region. Given that Pakistan has around 50 nuclear weapons, a radical fundamentalist regime next door is simply an unacceptable risk. The claim that is sometimes made about the Iranian leadership – that they are so fanatical they are willing to take risks that threaten their existence – is probably not true about them, but has proved true of the Taliban. In 2001, they threw away power and risked their lives rather than give up their Al Qaeda cohorts; that is a symptom of fanatical – and undeterrable – ideological commitment.
Preventing a Taliban victory, however, is a daunting task. In his recent resignation letter, U.S. Diplomat Matthew Hoh spelled out the difficulties. One doesn’t have to agree with his prescriptions to admire how well he frames the challenge:
If the history of Afghanistan is one great stage play, the United States is no more than a supporting actor, among several previously, in a tragedy that not only pits tribes, valleys, clans, villages and families against one another, but, from at least the end of King Zahir Shah's reign, has violently and savagely pitted the urban, secular, educated and modern of Afghanistan against the rural, religious, illiterate and traditional. It is this latter group that composes and supports the Pashtun insurgency. The Pashtun insurgency, which is composed of multiple, seemingly infinite, local groups, is fed by what is perceived by the Pashtun people as a continued and sustained assault, going back centuries, on Pashtun land, culture, traditions and religion by internal and external enemies. The U.S. and NATO presence and operations in Pashtun valleys and villages, as well as Afghan army and police unites that are led and composed of non-Pashtun soldiers and police, provide an occupation force against which the insurgency is justified. In both RC East and South, I have observed that the bulk of the insurgency fights not for the white banner of the Taliban, but rather against the presence of foreign soldiers and taxes imposed by an unrepresentative government in Kabul.
So when General McChrystal, in his August 30 assessment, writes:
ISAF’s [International Security Assistance Force’s] center of gravity is the will and ability to provide for the needs of the population “by, with, and through” the Afghan government. A foreign army alone cannot beat an insurgency; the insurgency in Afghanistan requires an Afghan solution.
He is giving away the very Achilles heel of the operation. The Afghan forces are as much invaders to the Pashtun tribes as the Americans are. The tribes see them as a force they’ve been fighting for decades: a Kabul-centered government that takes much, imposes much, and gives back nothing. Even if Kabul were squeaky-clean instead corrupt, and duly-elected instead of illegitimate, it would still not command the allegiance of the Pashtun tribes that have resisted their rule for decades. The Pashtun do not like the Taliban either, and they resent their interference – but at least the Taliban is Pashtun. Hoh rightly calls this sentiment ‘Valley-ism.’ The Pashtuns value affiliations of family, tribe, and proximity far more than they feel the bonds of nationality. That at this stage, we do not understand the nature of the challenge ahead of us is uncomfortably reminiscent of Vietnam, where we mistook nationalism for ideological fervor.
Conversely, the problem with an counter-terrorist strategy is not that it is impractical, but that it doesn’t address our interests adequately. Aerial strikes on terrorist targets would make our presence unpopular to the local population, and might hasten a fall of the government. The U.S. might be able to prevent the building of training camps in Afghanistan, but that is all we would prevent. An ideological movement threatening our vital ally, Pakistan, would remain unchecked.
We need to take a step back and ask ourselves: Is the end state we are envisioning – a stable and democratic Afghan government with control over all its land – necessary for the achievements of our goals? The answer is no. We are trying to give Afghanistan something it has never had before, something we do not need in order to defeat the Taliban.
Our recent experience in Iraq might hold some lessons for us. The key to the dramatic turnaround in that country was not the small increase in troops called “the surge,” or the change in strategy to COIN (which since it depends on a change of attitude in the population, would certainly have taken far longer to show such dramatic results.) The reversal was due to the Anbar Awakening: smart U.S. officers on the ground recognized a rift between Al Qaeda and the Sunni insurgency and intelligently exploited it. They backed and coordinated with Sunni brigades called “Sons of Iraq” that employed disaffected former insurgents. This is a strategy that bubbled from the ground up, and it caught everyone by surprise. We didn’t need to defeat our enemies; we could, in effect, hire them.
Perhaps something similar is possible in Afghanistan. Major Jim Gant, a decorated Special Forces officer, was stationed with seven other U.S. troops in a small Pashtun village near the Pakistani border. He writes about it in this paper, and corroborates much of what Hoh wrote:
Afghan tribes always have and always will resist any type of foreign intervention in their affairs. This includes a central government located in Kabul, which to them is a million miles away from their problems, a million miles away from their security.
But Gant goes on to describe how he developed close relations with the village chieftain, whom he affectionately called "Sitting Bull." He was audacious enough to arm and supply the village's fighters, probably breaking many rules but winning their trust and allegiance and gaining access to valuable intelligence. It is this approach - a tribal engagement strategy - that he advocates for the country as a whole. He calls the fighters Arbakai, a tribal militia that would protect their neighbors from Taliban intimidation. These could be the Afghani equivalent of the “Sons of Iraq,” grass-roots warriors defending their own tribal interests, with the U.S. as their ally – not imposing a central government on them, but giving them what they want: security, their tribal traditions, and the right to be let alone.
I will go farther than Gant does. Instead of envisioning an end state where Kabul dominates all of Afghanistan, we should be striving for Kabul + Largely Autonomous Tribe Lands. The Karzai government would control the heavily populated areas in the east of the country, and as best they could the border areas with Pakistan. They would have nominal sovereignty over their country, as previous Afghani governments have. The Pashtuns would be empowered to defend themselves from the Taliban, but they would largely be free of Kabul too. Provincial government structures would have to be developed in order to resolve inter-tribal conflicts and law-and-order issues, but largely, governance would come from nearby.
Obviously, bringing about this end state is an extraordinarily difficult task. We would need a lot of men like Gant: smart, highly trained, with a ravenous cross-cultural appetite and a keen emotional intelligence. These people would have to develop close relationships on the ground and would need to attain a granular view of local politics. It would be a war won not so much by force as by micro-diplomacy. Despite the complexity of the task, this might be the only way to achieve our objectives. It is foolish to fight a war that requires winning the allegiance of an inherently conservative people while also attempting to re-engineer their society. As Gant writes:
We will be totally unable to protect the “civilians” in the rural areas of Afghanistan until we partner with the tribes for the long haul. Their tribal systems have been there for centuries and will be there for many more. Why should we fight against not only what they have been accustomed to for centuries, but what works for them? They will not change their tribal ways. And why should they?