Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Escalation in Afghanistan

Barack Obama won the Presidency with the promise of change. What kind of change?

It now appears that one change will consist of sending another 20 to 30 thousand US troops to Afghanistan, more or less doubling the number of Americans fighting in that country.

What should we think about that?

Afghanistan is a country the size of Texas with a population of 32 million. Literacy is at 28 %, average life expectancy 42 years. It is very different from any country we know. Infrastructure--roads, electric power supply, drinkable water, reliable communications and transport hardly exist. The different parts of the country are not well knit together. Afghanistan is one country in name only. Different parts of the country are inhabited by different peoples who each speak their own languages. Each have strong loyalties to their own and deep distrust of the members of the other peoples.

There is a central government in the capital, Kabul, that controls the capital itself, more or less. But it does not control the rest of the country. There police and military power is in the hands of warlords--strongmen with their own armies that control a bit of territory and are frequently battling other strongmen. In addition there is the Taliban, a fundamentalist Islamic force. The Taliban were organized originally by the ISI ( The Pakistani Internal Security Services) with the support of the US who groomed the Taliban the fight the Russians when they occupied Afghanistan in the 1970s and 80s.

Once the Russians left, the US lost interest in Afghanistan and left the Taliban to take over the country.

Why are we fighting in Afghanistan?

The official story is that after 9/11 the US government demanded that the Afghan government--then in the hands of the Taliban--hand over Osama Bin Laden. When they refused we invaded to catch Osama and punish the Taliban. We seemed to have succeeded in the second goal because the Taliban collapsed after a brief war fought by US planes and Afghan warlord ground troops. But today the Taliban are daily growing in strength. They are said to be active in 72% of the country.

The truth is more complex. The US government was pretty ready to attack Afghanistan even before 9/11, hoping to weaken Al Quaeda by expelling them from their sanctuary there. Nor is it true that the Taliban refused to hand over Osama bin Laden. They did refuse to hand him to the US, but were willing to hand him over for trial to a third country. But our government rejected that offer.

We did not catch Osama. He is, people say, in Pakistan . So why fight in Afghanistan? That question is difficult to answer. Maybe it does not have an answer except that, having once started the war, we need to fight to victory. But we know where that kind of thinking leads. It added several years to the war in Vietnam and we lost it anyway. It is clear that the insistence on victory has needlessly cost a lot of lives--American as well as many more Iraqi ones--without bringing us any closer to victory in Iraq.

What are we fighting for?

There are different answers to this question:

1. We are trying to support the democratic government of Hamid Karzai. But the government consists largely of different warlords whose dedication to democracy may be doubted. The people of Afghanistan do not believe that their government is democratic. More importantly, American-style electoral democracy is not a part of Afghan culture. It is doubtful that it can be imposed by a foreign army.

2. Stability in the region. Afghanistan was reasonably stable under the Taliban ( as Iraq was under Saddam Hussein). Our efforts have been effective in destabilizing the region. A prime example: Today Afghanistan supplies 90% of the world’s opium supply. The opium trade had been suppressed pretty effectively by the Taliban. Opium is Afghanistan’s only export. It has corrupted everyone including many government leaders.

3. Suppress Al Quaeda and the Taliban. The Afghan war does not seem to have succeeded in do that. For all anyone knows Al Quaeda has moved on to Pakistan and our efforts should be directed towards strengthening the fragile democracy there.

Is there a military solution?

Our military efforts routed the Taliban in 2002--only temporarily, it seems now--and installed our government under Hamid Karzai. But our military efforts were unable to establish a government that is able to govern. These military efforts were unable to unify the country, or even to make the country secure enough for rebuilding what decades of invasion and civil war have destroyed and to bring the country’s infrastructure, let alone its educational system, into modern times.

The critics of the US military effort--and there are many of those--point out that the goal of unifying the country, or establishing a government that actually governs, is not a task that any military establishment can accomplish. Heavily armed soldiers, helicopter gunships and bombers do not serve to establish governments that their citizens respect and, more importantly, obey. Soldiers and planes to not serve to unify a country in practice divided into many separate fiefdoms, each with their own military leader and private army.

As a part of the military solution, the US command is now arming private warlords to fight the Taliban. We have done this before, for instance, when we armed Osama bin Laden in his struggle against the Russian occupation. That experiment ended very badly. But the lesson that arming private militias in Afghanistan often has disastrous effects, seems lost on our military leaders.

The aims of US actions in Afghanistan, say these critics, are political--unifying the country, establishing an effective government. Military means cannot reach those goals.

What should Obama do?

A larger view of the region points to the involvement of Pakistan in the Afghan troubles and reminds us that, on the one hand, the conflict with India is a central aspect of all Pakistani actions and that, on the other hand, Afghanistan’s neighbor on the opposite side, Iran, must also not be forgotten. The resolution of the problems of Afghanistan, some experts believe, requires an effort at regional diplomacy to try to help lower the India-Pakistan tensions, and to address Iranian interests, on the one hand, and to give generous but carefully supervised economic ( not military) aid to Pakistan and Afghanistan. The role of the US military as well as of NATO is of lesser importance than the diplomatic efforts. Those would consist centrally of negotiations between the Afghan government of Hamid Karzai and the Taliban, on one side, and between India and Pakistan on the other. They might also involve negotiations between the US and Iran

The only reasonable policy is to develop a plan for leaving Afghanistan as soon as possible in order to replace the current, failed military strategies with attempts at many-sided negotiations.