by Haviland Smith
A retired intelligence professional gives his candid assessment of what would constitute “success” in Afghanistan and the chances for reaching this goal.-The Editor
Two successive U.S. administrations have said we must “win” in Afghanistan. David Kilcullen, one of the world’s leading counterinsurgency experts and preeminent advisor to the US government, says that we must meet certain markers if we are to “succeed” in Afghanistan: We must face the realities of historical and contemporary Afghanistan. There must be agreement between Afghans and Americans on our goals. We must eliminate the Taliban sanctuary in Pakistan. There must be a solid, long-term US commitment including a flexible timeline.
Defining the issue
However, before those markers can even be discussed, the Obama administration must define the words “success” and “win.” As the leading free enterprise democracy in the world, we habitually insist that any enterprise in which we are inclined to invest be prepared to show us that it is making progress that will profit us. That is no less true for the Afghan war than it is for Microsoft, yet our goals have never been clearly defined by either the Bush or Obama administrations.
As a result, there is no way for anyone in this country to measure progress in this war. Without that ability, we will predictably become more easily disenchanted with our Afghan war than we would if we knew fairly precisely what it was that America is fighting for.
Having once defined our goals or what constitutes success, Kilcullen’s four markers come into play before we can declare any progress, let alone success. Our willingness and ability to deal with them will be crucial to the result.
Afghanistan’s historical and present realities
Afghanistan is a geographically inhospitable, tribal country whose people are corruptible, indomitable, bellicose and armed to the teeth. The tribal Afghans have never had or wanted a strong central government. They have often been invaded by foreign armies and as a result are strongly xenophobic. Throughout the centuries they have successfully resisted all attempts at foreign invasion and occupation.
The governing ideals for the Pashtun people are embodied in their “Pashtunwali” or “Pashtun way” which sets forth a complete code for life. It emphasizes self-respect, independence, justice, hospitality, love, forgiveness, revenge and tolerance toward all people. The main principles of Pashtunwali include freedom and independence, justice and forgiveness, honesty and keeping promises, ethnic unity and equality, support and trust within the Pashtun family and love for and defense of the Pashtun nation and culture.
In short, the “Pashtun way” is designed to motivate its followers to support their way of life and resist by force of arms all attempts by anyone, particularly foreigners, to change it either by force or subterfuge. It is clearly the product of a people who have pretty much always been under the gun from foreign cultures and who have evolved their own very efficient way of dealing with such incursions.
The Pashtunwali is the guiding word, subscribed to wholeheartedly by Pashtuns around the world. That should give us some notion of how welcome our armies are in Afghanistan, regardless of the purity of our motives.
That is Afghan history and if we are wise we will acknowledge it as such.
Trust in Afghanistan
We must get to the point where the American administration and people believe that the Afghan political establishment and people share with us a common definition of “success,” whatever that proves to be. We are, after all, fighting this war for the people of Afghanistan, not for ourselves.
In the process of formulating our definition of “success”, we need to keep in mind that there is little in Afghanistan that argues in favor of any readiness on their part to accept democracy as we know it.
In order to proceed and persist, we have to be able to trust that we are on the same page as the Afghan population, accepting the fact, as Afghans do, that the election that put Karzai in power was massively fraudulent. We must understand that that fact does not make Karzai or his government widely popular in Afghanistan.
In order to be “successful” in Afghanistan, we have to share a vision with the Afghan people. Without that, it will never work.
The Taliban Sanctuary in Pakistan
As long as there is a sanctuary for the Afghan Taliban in Pakistan, we will never “win.” The Pashtun people, who basically comprise the Taliban in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, straddle the border between the two nations. In that fact lies one of our most difficult problems. If we are to “win” over the Taliban in Afghanistan, we will have to deny them sanctuary in Pakistan.
The Pakistan military establishment has long supported the Taliban, seeing it as a potential counterbalance or lever in its conflict with India, its only true enemy on the face of the earth. They are reluctant to commit resources to the fight against the Taliban in Pakistan because of its perceived role in any future battle with India. Further, the more we involve ourselves directly in the struggle within Pakistan with drones and special operations, the more support we loose within Pakistan. It is a true Hobson’s Choice.
Commitment of American Resources
Our commitment to Afghanistan is very expensive in human life and resources, yet, since the surge of our troops in Afghanistan, we have clearly not realized any breakthroughs in reaching our “goals” there.
When we invaded Iraq in 2003, the Army Chief of Staff told us that we would need half a million troops to successfully occupy that country. The post-invasion period in Iraq showed clearly that he had a point. We are now dealing with our Afghan problems with just over 100,000 troops.
A look at a topographical map of Afghanistan will tell even the dullest among us that Afghanistan is a far more geographically complicated and challenging country than Iraq and that if we are to “win” there, we will probably need more troops than we needed in Iraq. In fact, Afghanistan, with its valleys, mountains and lack of infrastructure is a military nightmare.
Finally, if we decide to try to “win” in Afghanistan, we will have to back off the 2011 withdrawal deadline given by President Obama and be prepared to extend our involvement there, perhaps by additional decades. The most optimistic estimates from General Petraeus now range around a military commitment of at least seven years.
America will have to back that commitment at the ballot box. Given our inability as a nation to commit to anything much farther out than the next election, we will clearly have to be convinced that such a commitment is in our national interest.
That will not be an easy task to accomplish.
It is impossible to find real experts on counterinsurgency who believe we can “win” without meeting the above requirements.
Can we really expect Americans to get behind an effort that has so many internal contradictions? Can we trust Karzai? Would we settle for anything less than democracy in Afghanistan? Would we accept stability, irrespective of the Afghan form of government?
Pro-war voices in our country are those profiting politically, emotionally, militarily or economically from our involvement in the Afghan counterinsurgency program. It is hard to find academics and other experts and truly well informed people on Afghanistan realities who believe that we can meet all of the requirements for “victory” in Afghanistan.
Even the most optimistic supporters of the war acknowledge that the Afghan Army and Police, two elements absolutely critical to our “success,” are a major problem. After eight years of prodding, support and training, they are still not fit to do the job for which they have been trained. Returning troops from Afghanistan roll their eyes when asked about such Afghan readiness.
And can we expect the Afghan people to get behind an illegitimately elected Karzai government? Will the Pashtun Taliban support a Pashtun President (Karzai) whose government is complicit in killing his own people (the Pashtun Taliban)? How does that fit with Pashtunwali?
Do our military leaders, intelligent and schooled experts in the history and practice of warfare, really believe that they can somehow change historical and current Afghan realities and successfully invade that country and change its governance and culture? That is repeating the same act, yet again, while hoping the outcome will change. Isn’t that the clinical definition of insanity?
And then, Americans were sold both Iraq and the second invasion of Afghanistan as part of the “war on terror.” Iraq had nothing to do with terrorism prior to our invasion. Al Qaida exited Afghanistan during our first invasion and has not since returned in significant numbers.
Additionally, given our exceedingly difficult economic circumstances, is it objectively important to continue to pour our treasure into the Middle East when that treasure may well be the only practical answer to our problems at home? Are our real problems ever going to come first?
That, in turn asks whether or not we are prepared to “stay the course” in Afghanistan, or for that matter, in Iraq which now appears to be in ethnic and sectarian gridlock.
The now-abandoned military draft ushered in our professional, all-volunteer military establishment, thereby removing from voters the most effective way they had to object to the conduct of specific wars. We removed the check and balance of the vote as it was wielded during the Viet Nam War. That makes it relatively simpler for any given administration to wage war unfettered, particularly if it is dealing with a supine Congress, as was the case of Iraq in 2003.
Finally, there is the question of US national interests. Terrorism is a problem for us. It is in our national interest to deal with it. However, terrorism has nothing to do with Afghanistan. There are few if any terrorists there. If we want to go after terrorism right now, Yemen would offer far greater rewards. Can we afford another such adventure? Because if we undertake it, the people we seek to “beat” will simply move to another venue. That is the nature of mobile, unfettered terrorism. Such is not the case for the well equipped and armed military.
But do we want to try to “wipe out” terrorism with our military power? Can we even hope for that to succeed? Every time we have confronted Middle East terrorism with our military power, we have watched it morph into insurgency. Insurgencies are far more difficult to defeat than terrorism. It can be argued that for that reason, we need to carefully review our counterterrorism strategy, perhaps considering less reliance on our military resources.
Unfortunately, with the advent of the new, professional military, we have politicized that establishment as never before. Whatever his reasons, if President Obama chooses to continue in Afghanistan, he can probably do so without fearing Congressional intervention.
What he cannot escape are Afghan historical, cultural, tribal and political realities. Even though he and his advisors may be inclined to dismiss them, they are there to be dealt with. It seems highly unlikely that, given all our own economic and political realities, he will be able to continue our Afghan military involvement sufficiently long to achieve any sort of “successful” conclusion.
Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief. A graduate of Dartmouth, he served in the Army Security Agency, undertook Russian regional studies at London University, and then joined the CIA. He served in Prague, Berlin, Langley, Beirut, Tehran, and Washington. During those 25 years, he worked primarily in Soviet and East European operations. He was also chief of the counterterrorism staff and executive assistant to Deputy Director of Central Intelligence Frank Carlucci. Since his retirement in 1980, he has lived in Vermont.