What It Would Take To Win in Afghanistan

Columns / Jul. 22, 2010 1:28pm EDT

David Kilcullen, one of the world’s leading counterinsurgency experts and preeminent advisor to the US government, says that we must meet certain markers if we are to “succeed” in Afghanistan: We must face the realities of historical and contemporary Afghanistan. There must be agreement between Afghans and Americans on our goals. We must eliminate the Taliban sanctuary in Pakistan. There must be a solid, long-term US commitment including a flexible timeline.

However, before anything else, the Obama administration must define the words “success” and “win.” As the leading free enterprise democracy in the world, we habitually insist that any enterprise in which we are inclined to invest be prepared to show us that it is making progress that will profit us. That is no less true for the Afghan war than it is for Microsoft, yet our goals have never been defined by either the Bush or Obama administrations.

As a result, there is no way for anyone in this country to measure progress in this war. Without that ability, we will predictably become more easily disenchanted with our Afghan war than we would if we knew fairly precisely what it was that America is fighting for. Having once defined those goals, we must face Kilcullen’s realities as outlined above.

First, we need to face Afghanistan’s historical and current realities. Afghanistan is geographically inhospitable, tribal country whose people are corruptible, indomitable, bellicose and armed to the teeth. The tribal Afghans have never had or wanted a strong central government. They have often been invaded by foreign armies and as a result are strongly xenophobic.

The governing ideals for the majority Pashtun people are embodied in the” Pastunwali” or Pashtun Way. It is designed to motivate its followers to support their way of life and resist by force of arms all attempts by anyone, particularly foreigners, to change it either by force or subterfuge. It is clearly the product of a people who have often been under the gun from foreign cultures and who have evolved their own very efficient way of dealing with such incursions.

Second, we must get to the point where the American administration and people believe that the Afghan political establishment and people share with us a common definition of “success”, whatever that proves to be. We are, after all, fighting this war for the people of Afghanistan, not for ourselves. What do they think we want and do they share that goal? The fact that most Afghans believe that the recent “election” of Premier Karzai was massively fraudulent makes agreement on our current activities problematical at best.

Third, we must deal with the Taliban sanctuary in Pakistan. As long as that exists, we will never “win.” The Pashtun people who basically comprise the Taliban in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, straddle the border between the two nations. That is one of our most difficult problems. If we are to “win” over the Taliban in Afghanistan, we will have to deny them sanctuary in Pakistan.

Unfortunately, The Pakistan military establishment has long supported the Taliban, seeing it as a potential counterbalance in its endless conflict with India. They are reluctant to do much against the Taliban in Pakistan because of its perceived role in any future battle with India.

Finally, we must be prepared to commit American resources to Afghanistan for a protracted period. When we invaded Iraq in 2003, the US Army Chief of Staff told us that we would need half a million troops to successfully occupy that country. The post-invasion period in Iraq showed clearly that he had a point.

We are now dealing with our Afghan problems with just over 100,000 troops. A look at a topographical map of Afghanistan will tell even the dullest among us that Afghanistan is a far more geographically complicated and challenging country than Iraq and that if we are to “win” there, we will probably need many more troops than we ultimately employed in Iraq.

To deal successfully with this, we will have to back off the 2011 withdrawal deadline given by President Obama and be prepared to extend our involvement there for years. The most optimistic estimates from General Petraeus now range around a military commitment of at least seven additional years.

In conclusion, we are faced with unavoidable Afghan historical, cultural, tribal and political realities as well as waning world support and Pakistani ambivalence. Then consider our own realities of growing fatigue and discontent with the longest war in our history and severe economic and fiscal problems at home.

It seems doubtful we will be inclined to continue our Afghan military involvement sufficiently long to achieve any sort of “successful” conclusion, even if we knew what that meant.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in Eastern and Western Europe, the Middle East, and as chief of the counterterrorism staff. A longtime resident of Brookfield, he now lives in Williston.


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