Afghanistan: Why We Can't Win There
Gen. Stanley McChrystal has asked the Obama administration for an additional 40,000 troops to win the war in Afghanistan. Unless you have lived or traveled extensively in Afghanistan, it is hard to understand why this is an impossible task.
Once, right after 9/11, a friend of mine, knowing I had worked and lived in Afghanistan, called me to ask how long it would take to capture Osama bin Laden. Without thinking, I immediately answered "Four years to never."
"But how can that be?" my friend insisted. "We are the most powerful country in the world, and we will get him in six months!"
"You haven't been to Afghanistan," was all I could answer.
One of the things I knew was that according to the Afghan code of Pushtunwali, their honor-to-the-death code, the Afghans would never give up bin Laden because he was a guest in their country.
In addition, Osama bin Laden is a Sunni Muslim from the homeland of Islam, Saudi Arabia.
What importance were American concerns next to these imperatives?
In short, I knew that Afghans saw the world very, very differently from Americans, and would act on their deeply held beliefs regardless of our interests.
In addition, I knew that Afghanistan consists of innumerable hamlets hiding within a mountainous terrain that, for all intents and purposes, is impenetrable to outsiders who are distrusted and easily spotted.
As Matthew Hoh, the former Marine and Foreign Service officer who recently resigned in protest of our war in Afghanistan, has pointed out, we are caught up in Afghanistan in a 35-year-old civil war that has nothing to do with us.
Afghans have their own agendas, which are inevitably local, and exist only at the town and village level. Their loyalties - indeed their sense of manhood and honor - are based on promoting the well-being of their families, their clan, their tribe and their Islamic sect. This is why there is so much corruption, at every level. Their obligation is to take what their family needs, when they have a chance - a chance that may not come again. What this means is that there is almost no concern for the things we are there for: winning the war on terror; nation-building; promoting democracy; building a nation-wide economy; preventing the growth and distribution of heroin, etc.
It cannot be stated strongly enough: OUR GOALS ARE NOT THEIR GOALS. So we should not be surprised when Afghans give lip service to our goals while pursuing their own.
The importance of local goals explains the difference between the Taliban and al-Qaida. The Taliban have only one goal, and that is to create an Islamic state in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Al-Qaida, on the other hand, has international goals, such as defeating the enemies of Islam and redeeming Islamic honor on a worldwide basis.
Therefore, our goal in Afghanistan should be to control and/or drive out al-Qaida, something that we already have accomplished. It is estimated that there are fewer than 100 al-Qaida operatives still in Afghanistan.
However, there is no way for us to get rid of the Taliban. The majority of Afghans don't like the Taliban, and we should let them pursue their civil war on their own. We cannot control the virtually endless number of young men whose services can be bought by the Taliban - young men who can cross into Afghanistan from Pakistan at almost any point along the long border - unless we are willing to commit hundreds of thousands of soldiers for the next 10 or 20 years. These Taliban recruits live there and have nowhere else to go. We have neither the will nor the resources to control their movements and actions.
Dollars alone prevent us from succeeding: the 40,000 troops McChrystal has asked for come to well over $40 billion per year. Even if we Americans had the will to endlessly send our sons and daughters to fight in Afghanistan (which we don't), we don't have the money. And we couldn't win in any case; the best we could hope for is an endless stalemate.
The paradox is that the more American troops we send, the more resistance we will create. Neither the British (three tries) nor the Russians (a 10-year war) has succeeded in controlling Afghanistan, and after eight years there, we are failing too.
The Afghans will battle the Taliban better without us, for once our footprint is smaller there will be no suspicion that we are just another, anti-Muslim, occupying foreign power, and the Afghan people will have to take on the Taliban on their own. Then the 35-year civil war can end, probably with the country divided into fiefdoms along ethnic and religious lines.
The counter-insurgency strategy McChrystal advocates will never work. There is no way we can provide long-term security to tens of thousands of villages throughout the country. Even if security is the main Afghan preoccupation, they know the Taliban are a far surer path to that end than American soldiers whom they know will eventually leave. At present, the Afghan government can barely keep Kabul safe, and has little influence in the countryside, which is under the control of numerous warlords or the Taliban, none of whom are eager to have their power taken away by American or NATO forces.
What should we do now?
- Reject McChrystal's request for 40,000 troops;
- Use existing troops to keep the al-Qaida presence to a minimum;
- Supply a minimum number of trainers to help train the Afghan army and police;
- Slowly decrease our military footprint;
- Provide small amounts of foreign aid where we are sure it will be used wisely;
- Make clear to the Afghans that our military presence there will end sooner rather than later.