Exclusive: The Obama administration is weighing options to leave 6,000 to 20,000 troops in Afghanistan after 2014. But the prospect for even modest success is undercut by the country’s ethnic divisions and Pashtun hostility to foreign occupiers, says Bruce P. Cameron.
By Bruce P. Cameron
Regarding the Afghan War, the American people are being deceived; they believe they are fighting a political faction of the Afghan people, but … there is no “Afghan people.” There is no Afghan language.
There is just an amalgam of ethnic groups in a deeply divided land that has been fought over by big powers for centuries.
The Tajiks, the Uzbeks, the Hazaris and the Turkmen make up about 50 percent of the country’s population, with the Pashtun, concentrated in the south and east, accounting for about 42 percent. It is this Pashtun population, dominated by the Taliban, that represents the chief resistance to the U.S.-led war effort.
The Pashtun people speak Pashto and live by a code that promotes their unity, especially when confronted by an invader, which often has been the case in the history of this landlocked land that sits along a strategic pathway of mountain passes that connect the West and the East. The Pashtun code, Pashtunwali, promotes defensive ferociousness in battle and incredible hospitality at home.
The modern term “Afghanistan” dates from the late 19th Century when two British cartographers drew the so-called Durand Line, which had the effect of dividing the Pakistani Pashtuns from the Afghan Pashtuns, with about two-thirds of the Pashtun population falling within what is now Pakistan.
That division created an inherently unstable political situation, with the Afghan Pashtun benefiting from their cultural ties to the Pakistani Pashtun, especially during the anti-Soviet war on the 1980s when the CIA was funneling hundreds of millions of dollars in aid through Pakistan to Afghan rebels fighting the communist government in Kabul and its Soviet backers. The Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, delivered nearly all the aid to Pashtun fighters, including many who were Islamic fundamentalists.
After the collapse of the communist government in 1992, a coalition of Afghan warlords took control of Kabul, under the leadership of Ahmad Shah Massoud, an Islamist but not a fanatic. A member of the Tajik minority, he was not favored by Pakistan. Infighting among the warlords also continued, while, the ISI trained a new force of Pashtun fighters recruited from refugee camps inside Pakistan, a group which became known as the Taliban.
Promising to restore order, the Taliban seized power in 1996, driving Massoud and other non-Pashtun warlords to the north and imposing a rigid form of Islam in Kabul and across much of the country. The Taliban also hosted Saudi Islamic extremist Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda terrorist organization, giving them safe haven from which to plot attacks against the West. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Why Afghanistan Really Fell Apart.”]
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001, President George W. Bush ordered an invasion of Afghanistan to oust the Taliban and deny al-Qaeda its Afghan sanctuary. Though the invasion succeeded in removing the Taliban from power and driving most of al-Qaeda out of the country, Bush soon shifted his attention to an invasion of Iraq, leaving the U.S.-led occupation of Afghanistan to make do with limited resources and enabling a Taliban comeback in the Pashtun region.
That was the predicament that President Barack Obama inherited in 2009, a growing Taliban threat to the security of the U.S.-backed government in Kabul. Though Obama expressed interest in seeking a gradual exit strategy, he left in place key Bush holdovers, such as Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Gen. David Petraeus, who maneuvered Obama into accepting their plan for an escalation of the war and a new concentration on counterinsurgency.
In effect, the strategy amounted to an unrealistic plan in which a foreign military would make “good citizens” out of the Pashtun. I understand the motivation, since an individual Pashtun – or even a group or a village – can demonstrate Pashtun generosity and kindness. However, their cultural resistance to outside domination is such that it justifies truly awful human rights violations.
Although Pashtunwali as a governing lifestyle exists mainly in rural areas, its precepts are learned by almost every Pashtun, both the generous and cruel impulses. When there are so-called “green-on-blue” attacks in which Afghan government soldiers kill their U.S. or European military advisers, it’s a safe bet that the perpetrators are Pashtun. Yet, when military or political officials publicly talk about “inside threats,” they never mention the ethnic dimension.
I heard one U.S. senator ask the commanding general of all NATO forces in Afghanistan about the ethnic tensions within the Afghan National Army. He replied to the question, but did so without ever mentioning “ethnic,” “Pashtun” or “Tajik.”
So, it’s obvious that the United States has a mess in Afghanistan that was not improved by the Gates-Petraeus-originated “surge” of U.S. combat forces. The counterinsurgency strategy has been largely a failure amid continuing loss of life.
It seems timely to get out – which is the direction that President Obama is now favoring, especially after the removal from office of both Gates and Petraeus. But I think there are still ways to leave behind a more stable Afghanistan.
In recruitment of officers for the Afghan National Army, the U.S. target numbers have been between 40 to 45 percent Pashtun and 30 to 35 percent Tajik. Yet, I fear that in trying to achieve some ethnic parity in the ANA, the United States could instead achieve military dominance by a combined force of Pashtun in the ANA and the Pashtun in the Taliban.
Why would they come together? Simply put, the power of Pashtunwali and ethnicity. In my view, a more sensible U.S. strategy would be to accept a division of Afghanistan along the existing ethnic boundaries, with a separate state in the Afghan north made up of Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks and Turkmen – and a withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces from the Pashtun strongholds in the east and south.
The Taliban increasingly controls the east and the south anyway, despite several years of escalated activity by the U.S.-led International Security Assistance Forces. But separation could accomplish two major goals: 1) the proposed northern state would have defensible borders and 2) it could facilitate the end of the reign of terror against non-Pashtuns by Pashtuns.
It also is fair to say that President Obama – by letting himself be manipulated by Bush holdovers in 2009 – is responsible for the failed counterinsurgency strategy that has achieved little at great expense in blood and treasure. After all, he is commander-in-chief.
Obama’s three-pronged goal was to defeat al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and neutralize its key leadership in Pakistan; create a functioning bureaucracy in Kabul and the Afghan countryside; and end Pakistan’s pernicious and lethal influence in Afghanistan. He succeeded in the first goal, most notably with the killing of Osama bin Laden in May 2011, but failed miserably in the second and third.
His stated goal now is to have all combat troops out of Afghanistan by 2014. However, he intends to extend the presence of non-combat personnel, civilian contractors and some Special Forces until 2024. Yet, the size of that force is unknown, and the mission is unclear beyond what is called “counter-terror.”[The New York Times reported on Thursday that Gen. John R. Allen, senior U.S. commander in Afghanistan, has suggested three options for troop levels, ranging from 6,000 to 20,000, after 2014. Allen says the smaller the force the greater the likelihood of failure, the Times wrote, citing unnamed defense officials.]
To avert a possible bloodbath against some Pashtun who have been resisting the Taliban in Pashtun enclaves in the east and south, U.S. airpower and reaction teams of Special Operations may be needed to protect those anti-Taliban Pashtun or they could be relocated to the north if the threat from the Taliban is too formidable.
While similarities exist between what I’m suggesting and Obama’s plan – after all both foresee a continued U.S. military role beyond 2014 – my emphasis would be on creating a state that would be a safe haven for the northern tribesmen and protect some southern enclaves against Taliban attacks. I think we owe both the American people and the Afghan people something tangible for their 11 years of sacrifice and dying.
Yet, to salvage something, there needs to be a separation of the non-Pashtun tribes from the Pashtun with the reasons clearly explained to the American people. After this separation has allowed passions to cool down, the United States could approach the Pashtun again with the goal of achieving a relationship of mutual respect.
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 one of four people who caused the collapse of South Vietnam, one of the authors of the Central American Peace Plan, and currently the author of a partial withdrawal from Afghanistan. He wrote My Life in the Time of the Contras.