By William Beecher
It is time to rip the cobwebs from our eyes and recognize that our current strategy in Afghanistan is failing miserably.
It is time to recognize that to continue on our present course will not only squander scores of additional lives of our courageous young men and tens of billions of dollars but also lead almost inevitably to a bloody civil war in Afghanistan after the U.S. and NATO troops pull out in 2014.
In the 11th year of war, it is long past due to revamp the model of Afghanistan ruled from Kabul to a more traditional, decentralized, tribal-oriented system that has characterized the country’s experience for centuries.
And it is time to bring other interested nations, which have a stake in the evolution to a more stable Afghanistan, to the planning table.
This is not a partisan matter.
Barack Obama, when he was running for president, declared that the war in Iraq was wrong but that the war in Afghanistan right. Consistent with his assertion, when he came into office he doubled down on U.S. troop levels, twice surging additional forces into the fray.
Mitt Romney, the likely Republican challenger for the White House, contends Obama was wrong to put a deadline on our combat presence because that only encourages the Taliban to wait us out before vigorously pressing to reassert control.
But neither man is calling for us to transform the mission and our role in it.
In supporting the current war strategy, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney recently told reporters: “[The president] does not want American troops to be in Afghanistan any longer than they need to be to complete the mission. It’s a clear policy with very clear goals. And it is a policy that is very clear-eyed about what our objectives are, and what can be achieved in Afghanistan.”
Why are we there? What national interest compelled us to war?
Clearly, we’re there because al-Qaida planned, mounted, and carried out the horrendous attacks of 9/11 on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. And had valiant passengers not downed a fourth hijacked airliner, that plane was destined to crash into either the White House or the Congress.
And when Mullah Mohammed Omar, the leader of the Taliban, refused our entreaties to turn over Osama Bin Laden and his henchmen to the U.S., President George H.W. Bush decided to employ the CIA and Special Operations forces, together with the tribes of the Northern Alliance, to drive not only al-Qaida but also the Taliban out of the country and into Pakistan. The premise was that we didn’t want to see al-Qaida allowed to train and scheme once again from Afghan territory.
However, since then al-Qaida has established significant bases in Pakistan, Yemen, and Sudan. So that rationale makes a lot less sense today.
When and why did the short-term mission become transformed into one of nation building? And why, once again, did we ignore the history, the customs, and the culture of another nation in crafting our strategy?
Initially, we installed Hamid Karzai as Afghan president. We hoped he would be the focus of a strong central government, appealing to members of the four major tribes—the Pashtun, the Tajiks, the Uzbeks, and the Hazaras—to help combat the generally unpopular and feared Taliban forces and keep them from reasserting control. But the Karzai government is rife with corruption and nepotism and its minions around the country have garnered little public support.
Afghanistan has traditionally never had a strong central government and wasinstead being run by the militias of regional governors and warlords. Most of the Taliban’s forces come from Afghanistan's largest tribe, the Pashtun which has also has a strong presence across the border in Pakistan. The other three made up the so-called Northern Alliance, which in the fall of 2001 played the dominant role in routing the Taliban.
In preparation for the departure of Western troops, we ought to help the tribes re-establish local defensive militias to protect their people from a resurgent Taliban. In Iraq, we belatedly convinced the Sunnis in Anbar province that they would be better off rejecting and defending against the al-Qaida in Iraq organization—a move that helped turn the tide in that war.
And we ought to actively explore with Pakistan, Iran, China, Russia, and India—all countries with significant interests in how Afghanistan evolves—how they might contribute.
Pakistan, which we accuse of playing a double game, believes it has a strategic interest in Afghanistan on its western border, which is not only friendly but also hostile to its traditional enemy, India. It originally organized, trained, and armed the Taliban largely from Pashtun, students in its religious schools or madrassas. The word “Taliban” means “students” in Pashto.
Russia is especially concerned about the stream of heroin and opium from Afghanistan north. There are estimated to be upwards of 2.5 million heroin addicts in Russia, with an annual death toll among addicts estimated at about 30,000. China has invested $3 billion in a copper mine in Afghanistan. Iran sees the Taliban as a threat and in the past has supported the Hazaras in Herat province on its border. India is concerned about suspected militant training camps in Afghanistan for fighters destined for Kashmir.
Why not gather these countries, who have significant interests in the future of Afghanistan, to see how they might play a constructive role in a peaceful future? When they see that the entire concept for Afghanistan's future is changing, and that they are invited to help shape that future while serving their national self-interests, it stands to reason they would at least want to seriously explore the possibilities. The result conceivably could be an Afghanistan made up of regional power centers protecting and providing for the needs of their people. The government in Kabul could deal with foreign policy and other functions useful for the decentralized system.
Might this not promise a better outcome than seems destined today?
William Beecher is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former Washington correspondent for The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times. His blog can be accessed at www.wmbeecher.com.
(Photo courtesy of United States Marine Corps Official Page)