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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Reality Check in Afghanistan

We’re losing the war in Afghanistan.


This is hardly surprising, since one of the unfortunate legacies of the Bush administration was that we never adequately defined what would constitute a victory in our various military ventures initiated under his watch. Add to that a seemingly deliberate ignorance of the historical background of Afghanistan that earned it the nickname “Graveyard of Empires.”

Bush roundly criticized the Clinton administration for engaging in fruitless nation building. Then in his very first military venture, set us up to be nation building on a scale never before attempted.

Afghanistan chewed up the British army in the 19th century, and the Russian army in the 20th century. The country can be subdued, but the resources required to do so have never been justified by any power that’s attempted it, leaving the forces that are tasked with the job under manned. If a peaceful, prosperous Afghanistan had something to offer, the story might be different, but the country simply brings very little to the world market to make it worthwhile expending the resources that would be necessary to subdue its unruly culture. It’s an investment that no one has ever found a way to pay dividends.

Dexter Filkins’ story in the New York TimesStanley McChrystal’s Long War highlights many of the problems faced by US forces in Afghanistan today. We have lost the initiative, and the conflict has degenerated into a prolonged war of attrition, in which the cream of the American (and allied) youth are fed into a meat grinder with no perceivable benefit resulting from their sacrifice. General McChrystal’s solution is to regain the initiative by adding 40,000 more soldiers to take the fight to the enemy.

Whether this will work is problematic. Certainly, given the political will, we can defeat the Taliban militarily on the ground – the only force capable of defeating the US military is the US congress. But does that constitute victory? What then?

The sad fact is that adult literacy in Afghanistan is a mere 25%. Literacy among children is virtually nonexistent. According to Michael Yon’s article Adopt-a-stan, half the country is under the age of 17.5 years. These two facts alone should instruct the US administration in the obvious:  Democracy will not work in Afghanistan! This country is the international equivalent of an illiterate juvenile delinquent. Self-government answerable to the people is a fantasy. Creating a consensus and managing a country to step into the 21st century requires an educated, literate, informed electorate. If you don’t have that, any government taking power will rapidly devolve into corruption and dictatorial behavior. 

A fundamental lesson of history is that you cannot impose democracy from the outside. Democracy has to take root and grow on its own within a society. The transition to a democracy has never been accomplished without a lot of bloodshed. It’s a painful, bloody process, and there’s no way to get around that which doesn’t yield less than satisfactory results.

Afghanistan’s problem isn’t a lack of security. It’s not a lack of schools. It’s not the Taliban. It’s not poverty. These are all symptoms. Afghanistan’s problem is Islam. Since it’s politically unacceptable to acknowledge the elephant in the room, defeating any of the symptoms is just a stopgap measure, and when left to itself, those same symptoms will recur, because the root cause has not been addressed.

Can Afghanistan be fixed? Yes. In an ideal scenario, the best thing for Afghanistan in the long run would be to get rid of the current government – it’s a farce of a democracy anyway – and make it a UN protectorate – or perhaps a US protectorate under UN auspices to avoid the corruption that seems to accompany UN efforts. Let’s face it, Afghanistan as a country is defined more by the countries around it than by any national identity anyway. The Protectorate would be charged with pacification and administration with the goal of eventually building the infrastructure and social foundation adequate to allow sustainable self-government. This approach worked well for the Philippines – at least it was working well until World War Two derailed much of the economic and social progress that the Philippines had made towards being a workable self-governing country. The Philippines of 1900 bears a great deal of social and economic similarity to Afghanistan today. Lessons are to be learned from that.

This would be done with the understanding that Afghanistan would again become an independent country once certain milestones are accomplished, including, but not necessarily limited to:
  • Electrification of 90% of the country. 
  • 90% literacy rate among adults 16 and older.
  • Closure of all Madrassas, a requirement to attend government schools that all teach to a certain standard. Teaching religion in schools would be outlawed.
  • Modern highways between all urban centers.
  • Civil infrastructure comparable to western nations in per capita hospital beds, firefighting, police, etc.
  • Self-sustaining food production (and a corresponding end to the opium trade).
  • The established operation of an independent news media (Newspapers, TV, radio and internet)
Such a protectorate government could enact draconian measures to secure the peace. Madrassas would be closed. Sharia law would be given a back seat to human rights and protectorate law. Inflammatory clerics could be arrested for disturbing the peace. Divisive Islamic teachings could be put aside in favor of reading, writing and arithmetic. Local governments could be mentored in how to develop the prosperity of all. This effort would take a generation, and a huge commitment on whatever poor body the responsibility fell to.

It would also be wildly unpopular to the Muslim community of nations. Prosperous democracies in formerly Islamic theocracies are a direct challenge to too many governments holding tenuous power in the Islamic league of nations.

Okay, this scenario is a pipe dream too. No country - not even America - is going to sign on to be stuck with this level of responsibility.  America and possibly Britain are the only countries which have a cultural mindset that could make this work.

So what’s the answer? Let’s get back to basics. 9/11 is why we were in Afghanistan in the first place. Al Qaida was operating an international terrorist training and operations headquarters as guests of the Afghan government. We went in and demolished the Al Qaida presence and kicked over the Afghan government as a punishment for supporting it. Al Qaida is now operating – at a much reduced capability – out of western Pakistan.
Essentially, we chased a criminal into a swamp, and somehow took on responsibility to drain the swamp and deal with the alligators. We need to stay focused on catching the criminal. This should dictate our future actions in Afghanistan. 

Is the Taliban a threat? As abhorrent as they are, the Taliban does not pose a national security threat to the USA. Europe is more concerned with the actions of the Taliban, because the streets of Europe are the main terminal for the opium that the Taliban produces. Interdicting a drug trade doesn’t require the invasion and subjugation of a nation. The Taliban are a bunch of radical, backwards zealots, and the world would be better off if they were pushing up daisies, but there’s no evidence that they do anything beyond their own sphere of influence. They simply haven’t got the resources even if they wanted to. They should be the problem of the local populations – if the locals want them gone bad enough, they can take up arms and make that happen.

Should the US prop up the current government? Remember that birthing a democracy is neither peaceful or pretty. We should stay out of it, and let events take their course. Afghan heroes and patriots need to step forward and stand on their own.

The US needs to ensure that Al Qaida is terminated. This will require that US forces in Afghanistan be redeployed to secure the eastern border region with Pakistan and interdict border traffic in support of Pakistani efforts in Waziristan. Pakistan needs to be made aware that they must secure their control over Waziristan and hand over the remnants of Al Qaida. If they demonstrate that they cannot do this, then we must cross the border and do it. If the Pakistani army cannot control Waziristan, then how can they challenge us? Yes, this will create a diplomatic row. So what? We lay the foundation, and make it clear that we’re not challenging the Pakistani government or sovereignty, and that we will leave the moment our mission is accomplished. If they would enforce the legitimate request of the USA and not harbor international terrorists, we wouldn’t be in their country. 

The war against Islam – hey, you might not think it’s a war against Islam, but the enemy does – will require a change of thinking. Our priority is protecting America. Rebuilding Afghanistan isn’t going to do much for accomplishing that priority, so why are we fighting and dying to do it? I’m not saying we should pull out, I’m saying we need to define realistic victory conditions, and then do everything necessary to meet those, and stop efforts that do not contribute to them.

Where does this leave the Afghan people? Well, sorry to say they’re pretty much screwed. But you know what? They’re going to be screwed anyway even if we lose another 10,000 soldiers there trying to bring that country into the 21st century.  The world needs to get the idea that when someone cries “Somebody do something!”, the answer may be “Do it yourself!”  We don’t have an approach that will yield a sustainable result in Afghanistan, and the international community won’t support an approach that will. We’re very good at deposing regimes. If Afghanistan generates another regime that becomes a clear and present danger to the US, we can and should take that one down, too.