by Haviland Smith
President Trump’s stated goal during his August 21 speech in Arlington, Virginia was “winning in Afghanistan.” The unfortunate fact is that between US and Middle East realities, “winning in Afghanistan” is highly unlikely—probably impossible.
Part of the problem is the extraordinarily complicated nature of Afghanistan and the Middle East region that has existed for centuries, complications that have been exacerbated in recent times. In the past two centuries, England, the Soviet Union and the USA have all invaded Afghanistan, yet none of those invasions has been a “winner.”
If we start with an examination of the physical characteristics of the region itself, it will immediately become apparent that the years of colonial rule did nothing to help today’s situation. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, European colonial powers drew and redrew national boundaries in ways that were in their own interests and for their own profit, but had no connection with demographic realities. A fine example of this is the Durand line of 1893, established by the British, which created the boundary between Afghanistan and Pakistan, but divided a homogeneous Pashtun people into two groups in two countries.
The DNA of the region is based on tribalism, ethnicity and sectarianism. Those three things are the primary causes of most of the frictions that exist both within and between the countries of the region. The fragmented nature of these countries, Afghanistan most emphatically included, where primary allegiance is to some grouping below the Nation level, makes and national primacy difficult to impossible to achieve. National cohesion does not exist sufficiently within national boundaries to permit the establishment of nation-wide democratic governments, encouraging the implementation of repression as the only feasible route to stability.
The Afghan constitution lists 14 separate ethnic groups and there are probably another six that are too small to be included. Ethnic Pashtuns alone divide into roughly 400 sub-tribes. Those sub-tribes can be co-operative, competitive, or confrontational, depending on the situation.
And then we have the sectarian issue. Sunni Muslims comprise about 90% of the population of 30 million. Shia Muslims make up most of the remaining 10% with smatterings of another 6-8 religious groups. These two branches of Islam are always at odds and often in conflict.
In addition, there is the two-edged sword of the Quran, the Hadith and the Sunnah. On the positive side, those foundations of Islam provide complete instructions for living a true Islamic life. There is almost nothing that is not covered. The down side of Islam’s religious teachings is that, from a non-Muslim perspective, many of Islam’s edicts are unacceptable—like the treatment of women. In many respects and from many non-Muslim points of view, Islam has suffered from not having gone through its own Enlightenment. It has never had to reconcile religious beliefs with ongoing scientific realities.
All of this stacks up poorly against US policies in the post-WWII era. During that time we have attempted regime change to our own detriment (in Iran). We have denigrated Islam and promoted Democracy for a region that is almost totally unsuited for it. We have invaded the region with uniformed military forces and seen regional attitudes toward us change from highly favorable, to the negative attitudes that exist today.
And in the midst of all this chaos, we have discovered shale oil in the US, moved to the point where we now produce more oil than Saudi Arabia and realized quietly that the reason that got us so involved historically in the region—our need for oil—was probably no longer valid.
We are told over and over that terrorism is the main problem we face as a nation. We invaded Afghanistan to wipe out Al Qaida. The problem is that in the course of doing that with our uniformed troops and later in our military invasion of Iraq, we changed our struggle from counterterrorism to counterinsurgency.
We know from every country that has dealt with terrorism that the last thing you want to do is fight it with military might. It simply doesn’t work very well because the presence of those troops forces local residents who may not like the terrorists, to choose between them and, often, a repressive government they do not support. When the military-based counterterrorist efforts are in the form of a foreign invader like the USA, they normally choose to support, or at least not to oppose, their own folks. The result is that we are no longer fighting a small group of terrorists, we are fighting a nation. Whether or not we like it, we are involved in a counterinsurgency.
US Pentagon counterinsurgency policy requires a force commitment of 20 soldiers for every 1,000 in the local population. In Afghanistan with a population of about 30 million, that would require a force of 600,000 US troops on the ground, which clearly exceeds our capabilities and intentions. Whether we like it or not, ISIL, however much it commits terrorist acts, is not a terrorist organization. It is an insurgency trying to establish hegemony over much of Iraq and Syria. America will not beat ISIL with US forces.
The other important note here is that today’s terrorism does not require the establishment of bases outside Islam. The last, most visible terrorist operations have been planned in West European towns and cities. This kind of terrorism does not require military response. Quite the opposite, it is best handled with police, Intelligence and special operations assets, as we now see in Europe.
Our continued military presence in Islam is counterproductive and should be terminated. On the down side, our departure will unleash the hostile tribal, ethnic and sectarian forces that exist in virtually every Islamic country. The only way that conflict will end will be that peace will be imposed in existing countries by strongmen. It will be repressive and autocratic, as it was under Saddam Hussein in Iraq before our 2003 invasion, but it will be familiar to the people of the region and it will bring local stability, something that is beyond our capabilities. Out involvement should be limited to diplomatic, political and economic measures.
Most important, it is long past time that we adopted a more realistic basis for our foreign policies. Americans, including many elected officials, tend to see the world as they would like it to be rather that as it really is. That approach does not produce good policy.
Haviland Smith is a retired CIA Station Chief who served in East and West Europe and the Middle East, as Executive Assistant in the Director’s office and as Chief of the Agency’s Counterterrorism Staff.