Dark Days Ahead in Afghan War

When President Obama took office, he retained George W. Bush’s military high command and then let himself be trapped into an expanded counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan. But the strategy isn’t working and the current prospect is for an eventual Taliban resurgence, writes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Perhaps it is not surprising how little mention the counterinsurgency in Afghanistan has received in this year’s election campaign, as reflected in Mitt Romney not even noting it in his acceptance speech at the Republican convention.

The challenger is not resting his campaign on foreign policy, and he evidently does not have in mind a policy on Afghanistan that would be an alternative to that of President Obama. Nonetheless, there still is a war going on there, in which Americans are still dying (about 2,000 to date). Whoever is elected president will face the leadership task of getting the American people to come to terms with an ugly reality in Afghanistan.

U.S. Army Staff Sgt. James Bates provides security during a patrol in Farah City in Afghanistan's Farah province, Sept. 22, 2012. (U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Benjamin Addison)

A good aid in preparing for that task is a new paper by Gilles Dorronsoro of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Dorronsoro’s bad news is encapsulated in his judgment, “The coalition can no longer defeat the Taliban, which will remain a political and military power in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future.” He believes the current Afghan regime “will most probably collapse in a few years,” with the Taliban poised to assume power over most if not all of Afghanistan.

Many will no doubt take exception to Dorronsoro’s pessimism, but the course of events in Afghanistan has mostly borne out comparably gloomy statements he has made in previous years about the situation there.

For the United States and NATO to try to stave off this scenario would entail an expansion and extension of the current military expedition way beyond what political leaders are suggesting and what the public would accept.

Part of the ugly reality is thus the prospect of the return to power in Afghanistan of a group whose policies and practices are not just foreign but abhorrent to Americans. But Americans need to be reminded of what the expedition in Afghanistan was supposed to be about to begin with, and that it still ought to be about: preventing the establishment of a base of operations for elements, such as major transnational terrorist groups, that would pose security threats to the United States.

Doing so means dealing with the powers that be in that part of the world. One of those powers is likely to be the Afghan Taliban. As Dorronsoro puts it, the “United States will not be able to pursue its longer-term interests in and around Afghanistan if it is not willing to deal with the Taliban. … Only the Taliban can potentially control the Afghan border and expel transnational jihadists from Afghanistan. ”

Following this good advice will require getting away from the mistaken tendency to view the Afghan Taliban as if they were themselves a transnational terrorist group, which they are not, notwithstanding their previous alliance with Osama bin Laden.

They are a radical fundamentalist group focused on political power and the social order in Afghanistan, which by itself does not constitute a threat to vital U.S. interests. Failure to realize that may have the counterproductive effect of turning the Taliban into something they are not now but we mistakenly think they are.

This election we have been having has been a diversion from confronting the realities in the country where we are currently waging a war. We might as well resume looking at that place and thinking about what we need to do to pursue our core objective and the basic reason we are there. It will not be pretty, and we need to get used to that.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post  at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

7 comments for “Dark Days Ahead in Afghan War

  1. Frances in California
    September 28, 2012 at 18:29

    Pipelines, terrorist bases, democracy . . . Afghanistan remains the Graveyard of Empires and we will be buried there regardless.

  2. rlaing
    September 26, 2012 at 12:49

    I’m inclined to agree with incontinent. The invasion of Afghanistan was about pipelines, not this silly piffle about bases for terrorists. Seriously, the 9/11 attacks were planned in Hamburg and West Virginia–nothing to do with Afghanistan, except that the Taliban were hosting OBL Laden in exchange for money from the Saudis. He was an aspirational figure for the 9/11 attackers, and is not known to have had any operational or planning role.

    Anyway, why would any person with any sense believe that you can’t plan terrorist attacks without Afghanistan?

  3. F. G. Sanford
    September 26, 2012 at 08:46

    Every generation of war-fighters needs a doctrine upon which to build a career. It’s best if you are the guy that dreams it up, but implementation is almost as good. The latest edification is “counterinsurgency”. We have counterinsurgency “experts” who have ridden this magic carpet clear to the stars. Other vehicles include Psyops, which has been changed to some bland acronym like MIOS to make it sound less Orwellian, drone warfare, “partnering”, the “surge”, etc. But in truth, the one thing left out of all this nonsense is a strategy. “Counterinsurgency” never proposes a situational analysis followed by a plan of action and an end goal. In other words, “victory” is never defined. It’s a perfect guise, because there are no criteria for success or failure. The one question it never asks is, “Who are the insurgents?”

    The answer to this mystery demands a rhetorical question. For instance, “Who are the Mafia?” Or how about, “Who were the Viet Cong?” The fundamental error in the “counterinsurgency” mindset is the idea that the “insurgents” belong to some interloper tribe. Walk down any crowded street in Southern Italy, and you might pass a dozen Mafiosi. Or, you might not pass any. But, you’ll never know. They don’t dress like Redcoats, space aliens or painted Indians. It was the same with the Viet Cong. All they had to do was hide their rifle and go back to the rice paddy, where they became just another peasant. Our strategy there became wholesale murder of military age males, carpet bombing, deforestation with carcinogens, and the destruction of entire villages with napalm. But we still lost. Now, drone warfare disposes of “collateral damage” by defining military age males as “potential militants”. Sound familiar? The language of failure continues to evolve as we obfuscate reality. Fratricide became “fracking”, which became “friendly fire”, which became “green on blue” which is really just an “inside job”. We don’t know who the enemy is. But they do. The Mafia wouldn’t survive fifteen minutes if it weren’t for the flaws in the culture that coddles, cradles and enables it. It’s their problem. If and when the Italians get good and sick of it, they can solve it. In my opinion, the same is true of the Afghans and the Taliban. If we wanted the oil, it would have been a lot cheaper to pay them off.

    In the end, what defeated the Soviet Union was Levis jeans, color televisions, Beatles records, transistor radios, Marlboros, Jack Daniels, household appliances, Coca Cola, corruption and the black market economy. (Trust me, it wasn’t the Pope.) “Strategic deterrence” was a miserable failure. “Living well is the best revenge”. Funny: we’ve out-sourced the manufacture of some of that stuff to Viet Nam, and today, their literacy rate is higher than ours. Military Operations are traditionally followed by an “After Action Report” (AAR). This documents and tabulates everything that happened so as to avoid repeating mistakes and to improve future performance. In the old days, it included a “Lessons Learned” section. Did we lose the AAR for Viet Nam? I think a careful review would lead to some obvious conclusions. Like the Italians and the Mafia, we could stop this if we wanted to. But I’m not holding my breath. And the Mafia doesn’t look worried. We keep confusing effort with results. If there was merit to the plan, shouldn’t there be progress? After eleven years, we are no longer living well. The revenge belongs to them.

  4. incontinent reader
    September 26, 2012 at 01:03

    Wali, with all due respect, to date, no proof has been offered that the Taliban were involved in 9/11. Instead, GW Bush had resolved to attack the Taliban and “bomb them into the ‘stone age’ ” prior to 9/11, because they were unwilling to agree to the terms set by Unocal to develop the TAPI pipeline, and 9/11 became the convenient excuse for Bush to invade Afghanistan. Furthermore, the Taliban would not allow the extradition of Osama bin Laden without some proof that he was involved in 9/11, and that was something the FBI and CIA could not, and would not, certify at the time.

    • Aaron
      September 26, 2012 at 08:23

      Besides there was never any clear, direct and explicit UNSC resolution to invade Afghanistan in the first place, but only an open condemnation of the regime regarding 9/11 and links to Al Qaeda.

      It was all a NATO initiative, despite the fact that others like Russia, China, and Iran all agreed that the Taliban needed to be toppled.

      Now after more than ten years, China and Russia don’t like the idea that NATO bases are likely to be permanent because, as you say, it spoils their pipeline long term plans in that region.

  5. Wali Hashimi
    September 26, 2012 at 00:17

    This editorial is written not according to the realities of Afghanistan but just has used the unpopularity of war in Afghanistan to make sense among American people who have not inept insight in this matter. As an Afghan, I strongly disagree with this statement that Taliban are not a terrorist group and no threat for the US security. This is absolutely meaningless since we have experienced 9/11 attack which was planned under Taliban regime. At that time the idea was exactly the same that Taliban were a traditional radical group which was a wrong idea.
    I hope the writers of such editorials needs to think twice before they confuse American and world public!

    • bob
      September 26, 2012 at 03:59

      ummm… I wonder, did you parachute into afganistan with the first US assult teams in 2001? I am sure you lived outside the country before 2000 and therefore not aware that as a fundermentalist group, the taliban will not give up. Paul Pillars assessment i follow. Washinton can not succeed without engaging the taliban

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