Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who commanded special operations forces in Iraq and this month became the commander of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, said he wants to avoid more civilian deaths.
Concern over civilian casualties makes sense in counterinsurgency, since the local population is the strategic center of gravity. I'll concede that the infusion of 21,000 more troops — which Obama approved within his first 100 days in office — may lead to a reduction in violence in the medium-term. But the elephant in the Pentagon is that the intractable cross-border insurgency will likely outlive the presence of international troops. Honestly, Afghanistan is not a winnable war by any stretch of the imagination.
Certainly in Logar province, where the Taliban have set up a parallel judiciary, I can understand why McChrystal wants to step into voids not filled by the central government. But time and again, Afghans across the political spectrum — including President Hamid Karzai, Finance Minister Anwarulhaq Ahadisaid, Afghan security personnel, and even Afghanistan's ambassador to Washington — blame the United States for allowing corruption in the Afghan government and repeatedly deny responsibility for their government's own incompetence. Preventing militants from collecting taxes, enforcing order, and providing basic services means more than simply building up "indigenous capacity" — rather, we, the United States of America, according to those who advocate an indefinite military presence, must spend money we don't have to be Afghanistan's perpetual crutch.
McChrystal says he hopes to see an improvement on the ground in another 18 to 24 months. I hope Congress and the president hold him to his word, because if it were up to the military, we would remain in Central Asia for another 12 to 15 years. To win Afghan hearts and minds, America not only has to compete with the Taliban's shadow government, but also with an amalgamation of mullahs and warlords who have usurped the power of indigenous tribal chiefs in the country's restive southern and eastern provinces, particularly in Kandahar, the heart of "Taliban country." Such a strategy is the epitome of social engineering.
Afghanistan's 33 million people hail from more than 20 diverse cultures, including Uzbek, Tajik, Baloch, Turkman, Pashai, Nuristani, and others. Many of these ethnic groups have different tribal policies. Most Afghans are Sunni, but some, like the Hazara, are Shia. But the Taliban insurgency that we — not the Afghans — are combating, is dominated by the "rulers of the country," its largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns. In actuality, "Pashtun" refers to the more than 50 tribes within the Pashtun people, (including Ghilzai, Durrani, Wazirs, Afridis, and dozens more) concentrated in southern and eastern Afghanistan and along the border in northwest Pakistan. Each Pashtun tribe is divided into various sub-tribes or clans (there are estimated to be 30 clans in the Mehsud tribe alone). Each clan is then divided into sections that split into extended families.
The United States has begun devoting more resources to learning the nuance of various tribes to better understand what groups can be "peeled off" from militants. But better understanding would not necessarily yield the outcomes we want. Afghanistan's cultural make-up is incredibly complex. And it appears the United States and NATO are backing one side of a civil war.
Durrani Pashtuns [Popalzai, Barakzai (Mohammadzai), Sadozai, Alikazai, and other clans] have been Afghanistan's traditional political elite. Many Ghilzai Pashtuns in the country's east (Hotak, Tokhi, Nasr, and Taraki), unlike their Durrani counterparts, tend to be rural, less educated, and were the main foot soldiers of the Taliban. The Afghan government (which we back) alienates some historically marginalized Durrani clans, such as those in the Panjpai Valley and some in Kandahar province (Alizai, Ahmadzai, Noorzai, and Ishaqzai), just as much as some Ghilzai clans in the east, which today only have token representation in the Afghan government.
This war is an unfathomable mess. Afghanistan could fall apart once we withdraw, whether we do so tomorrow or 20 years afterward. We should cut our losses now.