Obama's No-Win Afghan Quandary
As President Barack Obama looks toward his promised December review of the Afghan War, he faces tough options – both military and political – including whether he will risk sinking his own presidency to sustain a war long bungled by George W. Bush.
Indeed, how Obama addresses the Afghan conundrum – especially in the wake of the Democratic drubbing on Nov. 2 – could go a long way to determining whether he is a one- or two-term president.
In my view, the only way Obama can win back the Democratic base and revive his fading presidency is to shift direction in Afghanistan.
To do that, he would have to forego the aggressive counterinsurgency approach pushed by Gen. David Petraeus, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and other holdovers from Bush’s administration.
Instead, Obama could accept the Afghan reality of a Pashtun region in the south and east dominated by the Taliban, and he could focus U.S. military and economic programs on building a functional state among the non-Pashtun Afghans, including the Tajiks, the Uzbeks, the Hazaris and the Turkmen.
Those ethnic groups make up about 50 percent of the Afghan population compared to the Pashtun 42 percent.
U.S. counter-terrorism forces also could ensure that al-Qaeda, which has already moved most of its surviving operatives into Pakistan, does not reestablish itself in Afghanistan.
The United States and its NATO allies could then develop the bejesus out of the truncated Afghan state, while remaining open to peace negotiations with less extreme elements of the Taliban.
The American people would be pleased with a dramatic decrease in war casualties and the end of most combat missions. The foreign policy establishment also could find something to like if the non-Pashtun Afghans would accept a longer-term presence of 50,000 or so U.S. troops in Central Asia.
Rather than being mouse-trapped again by the Bush holdovers and their neoconservative allies – who denied Obama options other than a major escalation in 2009 – the President could demand that this retrenchment plan become the center of the policy review. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “How Bush Holdovers Trapped Obama.”]
So far, however, the Afghan War hawks again appear to be out-maneuvering the Obama administration’s few doves, the likes of Vice President Joe Biden who was routed last year when he sought a smaller troop build-up focused on counter-terror operations.
A year ago, Obama largely sided with the hawkish Bush holdovers and agreed to dispatch an additional 30,000 U.S. troops, raising the force total to about 100,000 while consoling the Democratic base with a vague promise of a troop withdrawal beginning in summer 2011.
According to recent press accounts, however, the Obama administration appears to be ditching that drawdown schedule in favor of a more distant time horizon, proposing to begin transferring security duties to Afghan government forces in 18 to 24 months with an eye to ending the U.S. combat mission in 2014.
The thought of extending one of Bush’s leftover wars until well after the end of Obama’s first term – and very possibly after a Republican replaces him in the Oval Office – is certain to rile up the Democratic base already angry that Obama’s vow of “change” and has instead delivered more “continuity.”
One of the things I never understood until I read Bob Woodward’s new book Obama’s Wars was what Obama intended with the Afghan War. His intention apparently is to erode the power of the Taliban sufficiently so that the newly trained Afghan army can defeat it or at least hold it back.
This policy is summarized in the phrase: clear, hold, rebuild and transfer.
However, even if U.S. troops are successful in transferring many responsibilities to the Afghan army, Afghanistan still faces destabilization from hundreds of thousands of Pashtun refugees in Pakistan living in politicized refugee camps and getting educated in militarized madrassas, schools that teach the Koran (only in Arabic), its commentaries and little else.
The way out of the Afghan dilemma was, oddly enough, suggested by Bush’s former deputy national security adviser Robert Blackwill, who suggested that U.S. forces vacate the Taliban’s historic strongholds in the Pashtun south and east, and then relocate to the northern, central, and western regions inhabited by non-Pashtun tribes.
Blackwill said the U.S. should “enlist” the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaris to the American side and accept the inevitability that the Taliban will control most of the Pashtun territories. Elsewhere, the U.S. military and the Tajik-controlled Afghan army would push the Taliban out of non-Pashtun areas.
The Blackwill plan is rooted in Afghan history. Since 1761, Afghanistan has survived as a loose-knit federation of ethnic groups under Kabul’s tenuous national leadership.
But the political reality today is that the 35,000 active Taliban – consisting almost entirely of Pashtuns – is the best-organized Afghan group, having long benefited from the largesse of hard-line Islamists inside the Pakistani military and intelligence services.
At this point, the Taliban has shown little interest in a genuinely broad-based power-sharing arrangement in Kabul.
Personally, I don’t favor the Blackwill approach because of his strategic rationale. Rather, my view – and I believe that of Obama’s base – is that it represents a more humanitarian approach, a way to reduce the killing of both Afghans and U.S. troops.
Obama’s current plan for Afghanistan has been just too vague while failing to address the Afghan government’s total inability to provide basic services to its people. U.S. soldiers should not be asked to risk their lives for such a screwed-up policy.
History of Miscalculations
The disastrous U.S. strategy toward Afghanistan dates back more than three decades to when President Jimmy Carter provided a small amount of military aid to anti-communist Afghans, a maneuver that helped provoke a Soviet military reaction.
Ronald Reagan, whose goal was to resist the Soviets everywhere he could find clients to fight, continued and expanded the Carter program under conditions set by Pakistani dictator Zia al Haq. The key requirement was that only Pakistani Intelligence (the ISI) would deliver the aid to Afghan mujahedeen, both arms and training.
At the time, it seemed like a small thing to Americans to accept Zia’s conditions, but the U.S. acquiescence would prove very consequential.
Because of Zia’s demands, the CIA’s access to Afghanistan was severely limited. Its task was to deliver the money and weapons to the ISI, which lavished support on Islamic extremists and denied help to more moderate mujahedeen forces.
At first, the U.S. support wasn’t that large because the CIA’s goal was to bleed the Soviet Union, not liberate Afghanistan. But the situation changed with the emergence of Rep. Charlie Wilson, a powerful Texas Democrat on the House Appropriations subcommittee on defense who bonded with Pakistani Gen. Zia.
Under Wilson’s leadership in Congress, the Afghan program soared from $5 million to $500 million with the Saudis matching the U.S. amount, pushing it to $1 billion.
Wilson didn’t care much about the political reliability of his associates in Afghanistan as long as they killed Russians, while Zia and his client forces cared a lot about making sure that Afghans who received the aid would show their appreciation to Pakistan.
Zia was also a fundamentalist Muslim as were his top generals and aides as well as the top officials of the ISI. Zia directed the bulk of the CIA and Saudi aid to the Pashtuns, most of whom were or became fundamentalist Muslims. They shared Zia’s goal of a fundamentalist Afghanistan allied with Pakistan.
Over a decade, beginning in 1982, the ISI also conspired with Saudi intelligence and their fundamentalist Pashtun allies to wipe out the moderate Pashtun leadership.
Meanwhile, in Washington, politically influential Democrats – led by Wilson, Rep. John Murtha and House Speaker Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill – insured the annual appropriation for the Afghan mujahedeen.
Funding the anti-Soviet Afghan war also was a way for more liberal Democrats to cover their flanks against soft-on-communism charges.
Though little understood in Washington, this combination of factors – especially the acceptance of Zia’s control of the supplies – guaranteed that the eventual outcome of the conflict would be an Afghan government dominated by Pashtun fundamentalists.
After the Soviets withdrew in 1989, the great myth became that the United States absentmindedly walked away, no longer concerned with the outcome in Afghanistan.
Nothing could be further from the truth. In reality, President George H.W. Bush spurned a proposal from Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev for a negotiated coalition government and instead authorized the CIA to press ahead seeking total victory.
The American weaponry was turned on the Soviet puppet government with a vengeance. However, the mujahedeen proved incapable of securing a quick victory. The communist regime in Kabul even outlasted the Soviet Union which collapsed in 1991.
During this interim period, as the bloody civil war dragged on, Charlie Wilson began losing his old political allies on Capitol Hill. Some were disgusted by the savagery of the mujahedeen as they butchered civilians after capturing towns. Others thought the Gorbachev option should have been tried out.
But Wilson kept securing substantial sums for the continued fighting because few congressmen dared face him down.
The communist government finally dissolved in April 1992. However, in its wake came a relatively moderate mujahedeen-dominated regime, leaving the more extreme Islamic fundamentalists still rampaging across the countryside.
The Pakistanis and the ISI also pressed ahead with their long-term strategy, in part because they feared that the new Afghan government in Kabul might be too friendly with rival India.
The large numbers of Afghan Pashtun refugees living in Pakistan became a resource for molding a more disciplined, fundamentalist army, which became known as the Taliban.
In 1996, the Taliban finally prevailed, using guns and military equipment supplied by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia or seized from the ISI’s previous favorite, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
Today’s Taliban are the children, grandchildren, nephews and second cousins of the Pashtuns who were trained and armed by the CIA and its surrogates. The U.S. forces now are fighting the ghosts of Gen. Zia and Charlie Wilson.
That is why George W. Bush’s administration and its successors in the Obama administration have found defeating the Taliban so difficult. Whatever Pakistan’s civilian government may say, the Taliban still has influential allies in the ISI and the Pakistani military.
So, it may finally be time for President Obama to recognize the no-win situation that he inherited from President Bush and to move in a different and less violent direction.
[For more on Bruce Cameron’s writings about Afghanistan, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Why Afghanistan Really Fell Apart” or “A Middle Way on Afghanistan.”]
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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