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Afghanistan: What Could Work

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Magnum Photos
An Afghan woman at a Shiite cemetery in Kabul, 2001; photograph by Abbas from In Whose Name? The Islamic World After 9/11, a collection of his recent images from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and other countries, just published by Thames and Hudson

Cool poker-players, we are tempted to believe, only raise or fold: they only increase their bet or leave the game. Calling, making the minimum bet to stay, suggests that you can’t calculate the odds or face losing the pot, and that the other players are intimidating you. Calling is for children. Real men and women don’t want to call in Afghanistan: they want to dramatically increase troops and expenditure, defeat the Taliban, and leave. Or they just want to leave. Both sides—the disciples of the surge and the apostles of withdrawal—therefore found some satisfaction in one passage in President Obama’s speech at West Point on December 1:

I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 US troops to Afghanistan. After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home.

But the rest left them uneasy. This was not, as they might have imagined, because he was lurching between two contradictory doctrines of increase and withdrawal, but because the rest of his speech argued for a radically different strategy—a call strategy—which is about neither surge nor exit but about a much-reduced and longer-term presence in the country. The President did not make this explicit. But this will almost certainly be the long-term strategy of the US and its allies. And he has with remarkable courage and scrupulousness articulated the premises that lead to this conclusion. First, however, it is necessary to summarize the history of our involvement and the conventional policies that have long favored surge and exit.

A legion of arguments almost drove Obama away from this new moderate position over the last ten weeks of discussion. There was our general fear in Afghanistan and Pakistan of the modern demons, which policy experts dub “insurgency, terrorism, civil war, human rights–abusing warlords, narcotics, weapons of mass destruction, and global jihad” and the spawn of “safe havens, rogue, fragile, and failed states.” There was our developing sense, over the last eight years, that the status quo was unacceptable.

From 2001, sections of the international community attempted to assist the Afghan government in the construction of a state. The British Department for International Development put 80 percent of its funds into direct budgetary support for the Afghan government and NGOs implemented health, education, and rural development projects as contractors for the Afghan government. Such efforts were described by NATO as a “comprehensive approach to security, governance and economic development” in which the UN, an apparently benevolent Karzai government, NATO, and the NGOs would all play their part—largely in concert because there was no perceived conflict between their aims and values.

Challenges from warlords, druglords, lack of funds, and lack of government authority were to be met through cen- tralization, disarmament of opposition groups, crop eradication, coordination, and closer partnership. It was assumed that it would be possible within a reasonable time (some documents claimed within seven years) to build a stable centralized state, largely independent of foreign support, arranged around the rule of law and a technocratic administration, with a vibrant economy based on lawful commerce and trade. Few expected the Taliban to reemerge. Comparisons were drawn with the development of Korea or Singapore.

Eight years later this seems a tragic fantasy. Frustrated by lack of progress, the US and its allies have oscillated giddily between contradictory policies. The British government that once championed more generous budgetary support for the Kabul government now portrays it as corrupt, semi-criminal, ineffective, and illegitimate. “Warlords” such as Gul Agha Shirzai, who we once demonized, are now tolerated or even praised, and are almost certain to be given good positions in the new Karzai government. We armed militias in 2001, disarmed them through a demobilization program in 2003, and rearmed them again in 2006 as community defense forces. We allowed local autonomy in 2001, pushed for a strong central government in 2003, and returned to decentralization in 2006. First we tolerated opium crops; then we proposed to eradicate them through aerial spraying; now we expect to live with opium production for decades.

Meanwhile, the Karzai government and the nations involved in Afghanistan have fallen into a cruel and dysfunctional arranged marriage that seems too often to lack common values, common projects, trust, and even patience. Each undermines the other’s legitimacy. NATO is blamed for being associated with a corrupt and illegitimate administration; the Karzai government is blamed by Afghans for bombarding civilians and for accepting the support of foreign infidels. And each has sought to shift blame to the other side.

Many of these tensions were illustrated in the first week of November: five British soldiers were killed by the Afghan policeman they were training; nine Afghan policemen, trying to come to the rescue of lost American servicemen, were killed by a coalition bomb; five UN election observers were killed by the Taliban in their Kabul guesthouse, causing the UN to begin to withdraw its staff. A PBS journalist interviewed President Karzai:

Margaret Warner: “The UN did reluctantly withdraw about two thirds of its foreign staff…. What impact is that likely to have?”

Hamid Karzai: No impact. No impact.

Margaret Warner: So you don’t care if they return?

Hamid Karzai: They may or may not return. Afghanistan won’t notice it. We wish them well wherever they are.

Even an optimist would now describe Afghanistan as a poor, dangerous country, struggling to survive in the face of jihadist ideology, insecurity, and poor governance. It is now hoped that good development in Afghanistan might allow it over decades to draw level with Pakistan. The Taliban have a growing presence even outside their traditional heartland in the south and east of Afghanistan and they mount attacks on previously safe areas and communities. Civil war is now seen as very likely. Comparisons are drawn with Somalia.

Through all these bewildering years, a subtle and refined edifice of justification for troop increases has emerged, in which arguments are categorized by type and family and reinforced with analogies and precedents, in a structure in which each claim supports another. The tone, history, and arguments in this liturgy are not only the product of soldiers, spies, explorers, journalists, administrators, writers, aid workers, professors, think-tank directors, and politicians. They have been developed by the great alliances of NATO and the UN and have drawn on World Bank economists, veterans of Iraq and the frontier, linguists with decades of experience in rural Afghanistan, and even, occasionally, Afghans. The creed, hammered out in the great international councils of Washington, Bonn, and Paris, runs as follows:

Afghanistan is an existential threat. It is the epicenter of international terrorism and the epitome of a failed state. We must fight in Afghanistan for six reasons: (1) to protect the United States and the rest of NATO from terrorist attack; (2) to protect Pakistan and the region; (3) to protect the credibility of the United States and NATO; (4) to protect the Afghan people; (5) to defeat the Taliban; and (6)to create an effective, legitimate, stable state.

Our enemies include corruption, drugs, poverty, and insecurity and we will address them through governance and capacity- building, alternative livelihoods, a regional solution, a comprehensive approach, and an exit strategy. The surge worked in Iraq. We have a moral obligation to the Afghan people. By abandoning them in 1989, we created the conditions that led to September 11. We must, therefore, implement counter-insurgency operations across the spectrum.

Just as Buddha’s fourth noble truth can be divided into an eightfold path, so each justification, need, ethical claim, doctrine, precedent, and analogy of this modern metaphysics can be further subdivided. Thus the article of faith that our operations in Afghanistan are crucial to the stability of Pakistan can conventionally be defended by reference to the need for a two-sided pincer movement against the Taliban on the border; worries about safe havens, failed states, and global jihad; the support for drone attacks in Pakistan conveyed in one opinion poll on the frontier and by one Pakistani general; the appearance of the Taliban “only sixty miles from Islamabad.” And the possibility that mad mullahs will seize the nukes.

Each argument echoes much deeper assumptions about the world: a belief in the moral imperative of humanitarian intervention, backed by our failures in Rwanda and our success in the Balkans; a maximal vision in which no one good (“security,” for example) can be achieved without the achievement of every other good (such as “development” or “the rule of law”); a rhetorical tradition in which all goods are seen as consistent and mutually reinforcing; and an Enlightenment faith that there is nothing intrinsically intractable about Afghan culture and society and that all men can be perfected (to a Western ideal) through the application of reason and the laws of social science.

But perhaps more importantly there are our more recent theories about the global order. There is the credit we take for the success of postwar Germany, democracy in Eastern Europe post-1989, and economic growth in South and East Asia. There are our apparent mistakes with Mossadeq in Iran in the 1950s; fighting in Vietnam in the 1960s, Latin America in the 1980s, and Somalia in the 1990s; the September 11 attacks; North Korea today; and the different lessons we have chosen to take about working against the popular will, supporting dictators, leaving, or failing to act. All of this experience is reflected in our division of the world into friendly, puppet, rogue, fragile, and failed states and our anxieties about instability, insurgency, terrorism, or weapons of mass destruction.

All these fears, frustrations, and doctrines contributed to the relentless logic that drove Obama to state, last year, “We must win in Afghanistan”; and to claim that Bush failed in Afghanistan because he did not invest enough resources. Even Obama’s latest speech began with the story of how Afghanistan fell and September 11 occurred because “the attention of America and our friends had turned elsewhere,” and the speech reminded us of “a nuclear-armed Pakistan,…NATO’s credibility,…failed states.”

Such arguments explain why he sent an extra 17,000 troops last March, insisting that “there is an uncompromising core of the Taliban. They must be met with force, and they must be defeated,” and he committed the US to “promote a more capable and accountable Afghan government” and “advance security, opportunity and justice.” This is also why he announced a more maximalist counterinsurgency strategy in the March White Paper and appointed a new commanding general, Stanley McChrystal, to implement it.

By agreeing to a counterinsurgency strategy, Obama implicitly committed to all the doctrine contained in a two-hundred-page field manual, derived from the analysis of seventy-three previous insurgencies. “Full-spectrum counter-insurgency,” or COIN, the President was informed in the manual, “is all-encompassing.” It is expressed in aphorisms such as “the center of gravity is the population” and “we are not being out-fought but out-governed”; and mottoes like “Clear, Hold, Build.” It includes economic development, infantry tactics, political negotiation, building capacity for governance, and eliminating “high-value” targets using predator drones. The soldiers, according to the COIN doctrine, need to have considerable cultural sensitivity, knowledge, and good fortune. They must work in close and constructive concert with a credible local government. They need to be able to control the borders and protect communities during the lengthy process of reconstruction.

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