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Barack Obama's presidency

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A Three-Step Afghan Strategy

By Bruce P. Cameron
November 18, 2009

Editor’s Note: Given the three decades of American mistakes and misjudgments in Afghanistan, foreign policy expert Bruce P. Cameron says the Obama administration must face reality and accept a more limited role for U.S. troops.

The following brief article lays out Cameron’s three-part strategy for better focusing American military forces in Afghanistan and more quickly bringing U.S. troops home:

No Afghan policy based on securing enemy territory and developing state institutions and a non-narcotics-based economy can be successful in all of Afghanistan without at least 250,000 – and probably 500,000 – soldiers.

With an ethnic-friendly strategy, however, the Obama administration can soon start bringing U.S. soldiers home. Here are three elements of that strategy:

--Redeploy American soldiers to the areas in the friendly north and west where the Tajik, Turkmen and Uzbeks are most numerous and to the west where the dominant group is the Dari (a kind of Farsi) speaking Shi’a.

From this truncated Afghan state, U.S. soldiers can continue to pursue a policy “to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in…Afghanistan.” The United States can continue to insure that al Qaeda does not set up shop in Afghanistan south.

--U.S. soldiers should leave the areas in the south and east dominated by the Pashtuns. President George H.W. Bush spurned a negotiated settlement sought by Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev before and after the Soviets left Afghanistan in 1989. That decision effectively guaranteed an eventual victory by Islamic fundamentalists based in the Pashtun community, i.e. the Taliban.

The key misjudments dated back almost a decade earlier. Throughout the 1980s, the CIA lavishly supported the Afghan mujahedeen war against the Soviet occupiers, but relied on Pakistani intelligence, the ISI, to deliver most of that assistance. The ISI, in turn, conspired with Saudi intelligence and fundamentalist mujahedeen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar to wipe out the non-fundamentalist Pashtun leadership.

So, while the goal of pouring hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid through the ISI to the mujahedeen was to drive out the Soviets and defeat the communist government in Kabul, the United States also laid the foundation for the Taliban to win. [For details, see’s “Why Afghanistan Really Fell Apart.”]

Then, after the 9/11 attacks and the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, President George W. Bush dithered regarding Afghanistan, turning victory into a slow-developing defeat, which the Obama administration must now face.

During these two periods of desultory U.S. interest -- the 1980s and the last eight years -- the Afghan people suffered worsening poverty and greater hardships. So, arguably, the U.S. government owes the Afghans something, but it owes American soldiers more. Their lives can be spared by withdrawing them from the hostile Pashtun areas in the east and south and then pursuing a counterterrorism strategy with an occasional military thrust into Pashtun territory as needed.

--Step Three: Develop the bejesus out of the new truncated state.

The major reason to be fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan is to prevent them from regaining state authority and giving al Qaeda sanctuary from which it can plan and carry out terrorist operations.

However, since 2001, the Taliban under Mullah Omar have distanced themselves from al Qaeda for many reasons. Not the least is a growing confidence in their ability to carry out all facets of military operations on their own and the belief that their association with al Qaeda prevented the Taliban from winning total control of Afghanistan in 1996.

Another important reason to adopt a pullback strategy is that the Afghan national army is predominantly Tajik and faces extraordinary difficulties in becoming a truly national army that would enlist the loyalty of the Pashtuns.

On the other hand, the existing army would be a good start for the army of a truncated Afghan state based in non-Pashtun territory.

EXIT SRATEGY: The United States can begin a phased withdrawal as soon as one of two things occurs: the new truncated Afghan state is well established, or the U.S., directly or through surrogates, destroys al Qaeda. That depends on our Pakistan strategy, however, because al Qaeda is now in Pakistan.

[For more on Cameron’s views, see’s “A Middle Way on Afghanistan” and “Pakistan’s Double Game.”]

Bruce P. Cameron has served as a Washington lobbyist for various governments over the past several decades, including Nicaragua, Mozambique, Portugal and East Timor. He is the author of My Life in the Time of the Contras.

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