Thursday, September 24. 2009
Ahmed Rashid: The Afghanistan Impasse. I just read two books on Afghanistan, and was pleased to see this, nominally a review of two more books that I had only dimly been aware of and conveniently found in the library. Turns out it has little to do with Nicholas Schmidle's To Live or to Perish Forever: Two Tumultuous Years in Pakistan (Henry Holt) and Gretchen Peters's Seeds of Terror: How Heroin Is Bankrolling the Taliban and al Qaeda (Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's). I'll thumb through those books later and let you know what I find. Rashid is the venerable Pakistani journalist whose Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia is the standard source on the rise of the Taliban, and whose 2008 book, Descent Into Chaos: The US and the Failure of Nation Building in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia is the best available book on what happened to the region since the US got took an interest in late 2001. (See my book page for extensive quotes.) He is, in short, both a guy who knows what he's talking about. However, he seems to have gotten too wound up in his subject, which is turning him from a fine journalist to a muddled pundit. Consider the following two paragraphs:
Pretty much everyone agrees that the security situation has deteriorated progressively ever since winter 2001/2002 -- the time period when Rory Stewart was able to walk across much of the country (see The Places in Between [book page]. This has happened in almost perfect correlation with the increase of US and NATO troops, the "training" of "Afghan forces," and the spending (or wasting) of vast sums of development money. The two may not be causally linked, but it's clear that involvement of the sort that the US has engaged in for eight years now has had little benefit either to Afghanistan or to the US and now seems to be returning less and less value. I'm convinced that the problem is endemic both to Afghanistan and to the US, and that the combination simply doesn't work. As polls indicate, a majority of Americans (and a supermajority of Democrats) have come to the same conclusion, even if they're unlikely to phrase it my way. (Most are less tempted to blame the Americans than the Afghans.) We're a nation that prides itself on good business sense, and quite frankly any business that reviews returns like these will quickly move to cut their losses. There may be some room for debating how to do that, but it should be clear that our best efforts have failed and that some sort of reduction is clearly in order.
Rashid, however, has bought into the occupation to such an extent that his second paragraph is full of doom alarms meant to cower us. Although the Taliban can do damage in Afghanistan, there is no reason to think they could take over Kabul without significant foreign support, which is very unlikely. Similar predictions were made when the Soviets withdrew, but the rump government held its positions against US- and Pakistani-funded mujahideen for three years, until the Soviet Union collapsed and ended all aid. The notion that Pakistan would fall to the Taliban is even more far fetched. Pakistan may tolerate the Taliban in the small and marginal (to it) FATA, but Pakistan's military easily routed the Taliban in the Swat Valley. No one thinks the Taliban has any prospects beyond the Pashtun belt, which as Pakistan goes is thin and marginal.
One thing that's happened in the last year is that the honeymoon between Pakistan and the Taliban is finally over. It's hard to see either side putting that relationship back together again. Pakistan has a problem with India, but the solution there is diplomatic. That is something the US can and should work on. Afghanistan has a lot of problems, and no easy solutions. Most of all they need to develop a viable state and a viable economy. I doubt that either has ever happened under foreign occupation. They certainly haven't happened while there was a major insurrection against foreign occupation. The US and NATO need to reduce their footprint and chokehold considerably, preferably completely. Aid needs to be managed better -- now it's mostly soaked up in graft, doing virtually no one any good. There are plenty of smarter ways to do this, but the one thing we know will be disastrous would be to keep pumping troops in until we grind the Afghans into submission. We don't have the troops, time, or money, and the human toll on the ground would be devastating.
Rashid's threats turn out to be the same threats that Gen. McChrystal made in his leaked report about what would happen if he didn't get his extra 40,000 troops. Such threats play on the ignorance of politicians, who can easily imagine them being turned into told-you-so's if they don't cover their ass and go along. In other words, they're bully bluffs. The real question to ask McChrystal is what difference 40,000 troops would make. The obvious answer is that they'll provide the Taliban with more targets, so more American troops will get killed and maimed; and they'll kill a few more Taliban and a lot more ordinary Afghans, as well as turn more of the latter into Taliban. In other words, they will perpetuate the violence, which is really the last thing we should want.
Rashid writes a bit about the elections. One thing I have to say about this is that it would have been good for Karzai to have lost -- not because he's corrupt or inept or whatever, but because it would have shown Afghans that it is possible to change leaders without using bullets. That would have been a good lesson to learn. It would even give the Taliban reason to run for office rather than try to shoot their way in.
Tom Engelhardt: Measuring Success in Afghanistan. Checking the numbers, plus a thought on why "their Afghans" are so effective fighting and "our Afghans" aren't:
The way to level the field between "our Afghans" and "their Afghans" is to bring the US troops home. Then all each will have to fight for is their own freedom from control by other Afghans -- where the Taliban have a pretty nasty track record, as do the warlords in different ways. They can pick their poison, or compromise. But now the choice is between fighting for or against us, which isn't a choice that favors us.
Tom Engelhardt: How to Trap a President in a Losing War: On the McChrystal memo. Sees Petraeus behind it, "the most political general to come down the pike since, in 1951 in the midst of the Korean War, General Douglas MacArthur said his goodbyes to Congress after being cashiered by President Truman for insubordination -- for, in effect, wanting to run his own war and the foreign policy that went with it." Also makes frequent reference to "the Surgettes": the pundits who, having got lucky in Iraq, now see surges as the answers to each and every military failure. The Surge worked in Iraq because it was preceded by a series of deals that were the real cause for the reduction in violence. (By the way, the drop was masked for nearly a by the additional violence the extra troops brought with them. The reduction only became evident when the troops were throttled to keep the whole strategem from failing.) For lots of reasons the same strategy cannot work in Afghanistan.
Helene Cooper: GOP Support May Be Vital to Obama on Afghan War. A good reason to think about whether he really wants to fight to keep the Afghan war going. One big reason why Clinton lost his health care reform program in 1993-94 was that he pushed NAFTA out ahead of it. He passed NAFTA, but only with Republican support, while crippling the union efforts he needed for health care. Why didn't he make NAFTA contingent on getting health care passed? Why not make Afghanistan contingent on health care reform now? It's not like the Republicans are cutting him any slack for being out front with in their war -- and really, all wars benefit the Republicans because they burn tax money and distract from reform at home. Not that the political calculus is what you want to base your Afghanistan policy on. But it's safe to say the Republicans do just that, and if they see a way to burn Obama they'll do it.
I read two books on Afghanistan last week, collecting extensive notes on them.
Gregory Feifer's The Great Gamble covers the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan from 1979-89, with a bit on the Najibullah regime that remained in power until 1992. It's drawn mostly from the personal stories of Soviet soldiers, with a fairly brief summary of the high-level politics in the Kremlin. The decision to "invade" seems to have been made almost accidentally, like the Politburo was trying to follow procedures for 1956 Hungary and 1967 Czechoslovakia but couldn't remember the details and were too embarrassed to look them up or test whether they were relevant to Afghanistan. They weren't. The Soviets had installed communist regimes in Hungary and Czechoslovakia and owned them lock, stock and barrel. Moreover, they were lined up behind an Iron Curtain where NATO threatened the Soviet Union on one side, but where the Soviet Union was free to act on the other. The communist government in Afghanistan was the result of a local coup -- and was riven by factions (Khalq and Parcham) actively involved in killing each other off. The Kabul government had very little control over the countryside -- in fact, less and less every day. The only thing the Soviets actually decided was to dive in and kill off the Parcham leader, Hafizullah Amin (who had recently killed off the Khalq leader, Mohammed Taraki). The troops were sent in to back up the assassination, having already failed once so ineptly that Amin was unawares. Soviet invasion instantly undermined the Kabul government, rather than fortifying it, leaving the invaders with an utter mess. From there on, well, you know the drill: stay the course, we can't afford to lose, giving up would invite disaster, blah blah blah. The Soviet Union had declined miserably by the 1980s, such that the soldiers were ill-equipped and ill-supported. They provisioned themselves by looting, and defended themselves by indiscriminate slaughter. The US, China, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia poured billions of dollars in weapons to prop up mujahideen warlords, who barely made a dent against the Soviet war machine, but did incredible damage to Afghanistan. The Soviet Union lost fewer than 15,000 soldiers in the war (although the injuries and trauma were far greater). More than a million Afghans died, and seven million were displaced. In other words, the Americans (primarily the Reagan administration) cheerfully sacrificed 70 Afghans for every Soviet they killed. They utterly destroyed the Afghan state and economy, and they prevented a whole generation of Afghans from learning and developing normal skills, while training a generation of murderers and thieves. The result was civil war that continues to this day, exemplified by the Taliban rule in the late 1990s, one of the most barbarous and incompetent regimes since WWII. Nor were the scars restricted to Afghanistan. Returning Soviet soldiers turned into violent criminals, which practically became the norm in Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. Mujahideen warlords Reagan praised as like our founding fathers took jihad on the road, leading to scores of terrorist atrocities from Bali to the World Trade Center in New York. And after 2001, the Americans returned to wreak even more havoc in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, becoming not only the world's superpower but its most dangerous rogue nation.
For more on Feifer's book, see the book page.
Jones is a RAND Corp. political scientist, based in Washington DC. His resume includes visiting Afghanistan "over a dozen times since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks." His book promises to be the first comprehensive history of the first 7 years of the US occupation of Afghanistan. It's fairly spotty in that regard: neither a military history nor a political history; despite a few first-person stories, not what you'd call journalism either. He throws in a few pages on Alexander and Tamerlane and Babur and Rudyard Kipling, but he doesn't offer much depth. He does offer some sociological concepts, and sketches out a comparative set of insurgency studies. And he winds up with a few prescriptions that never once call into question the premises of the problem. In a nutshell, this is what passes for analytical thinking in DC these days. Lord help us.
For more on Jones' book, see the book page.
At the end of Jones' book, he makes a set of recommendations for turning the war around. He argues that at least some Americans have always understood Afghanistan (ambassadors Zalmay Khalilzad and Ronald Neumann are his examples) and that the problems were caused by political leaders who didn't listen to good advise (no names, but I know a Bush when I smell one). Then he blames the insurgency on "too little outside support for the Afghan government and too much support for insurgents." That led me to comment:
He then proposed to fix this by building up a non-corrupt government, working more with local institutions than with national ones, and persuading Pakistan to shut down the safe havens the Taliban are using in Pakistani territory. For comments on those, follow the link above.