Surging toward Failure in Afghanistan

March 20, 2009 • Commentary
This article appeared in the Guardian on March 20, 2009.

President Barack Obama is soon expected to make a final decision on whether to approve a civilian “surge” of hundreds of additional US officials for the war in Afghanistan. This new strategy, which would narrowly focus on development, rule‐​of‐​law issues and combating the narcotics trade, comes less than a week after Said Jawad, Afghanistan’s ambassador to the United States, accused western forces of “total negligence” in building the Afghan police force and judicial system and of providing “meager resources” in helping his government deliver basic services to its people.

The United States and its Nato allies do not have the responsibility, the qualifications or the capital to be Afghanistan’s caretaker. But what the coalition does need, yet unfortunately still lacks, is a clearly stated objective of what they hope to achieve in Afghanistan.

Bringing stability is an obvious goal in the short term. But the long‐​term prospect of defeating the Taliban and rebuilding the country is an issue that needs to be addressed, yet is seldom raised.

Only months after the initial invasion of Afghanistan, the Northern Alliance and a very small number of US special forces achieved their original goal. The Taliban was ousted from power and al‐​Qaida lost its sanctuary. Nevertheless, the Bonn Agreement of December 2001 — which called for a commission to reconstitute the country’s judicial system in accordance with its 1964 constitution — put Washington on a perilous course of building infrastructure, establishing a rule of law and engaging in counternarcotics.

These more ambitious and less achievable goals diverted attention from ensuring the Taliban would not come back to power, and provided the group the opportunity to stage their comeback. Since 2007 and steadily through 2008, improvised explosive devices, suicide bombs and roadside ambushes have increased across the country, particularly in the Pashtun‐​dominated east and south. In Logar province — a Taliban and Haqqani network stronghold just south of the capital, Kabul — militants have created a parallel judiciary.

Ambassador Jawad’s larger point of promises made long ago that today remain unfulfilled is correct. Yet the complex nature of the region and its people — many of whom have a stronger allegiance to proximate tribes and warlords than to far‐​away leaders in Kabul — make assisting this destitute and war‐​ravaged country next to impossible. Indeed, rather than re‐​building, the United States and Nato would be building much of the country, such as erecting infrastructure, tailoring a judicial system to make it compatible with local customs and undertaking such a monumental enterprise in a country awash with weapons, notoriously suspicious of outsiders, and largely absent of central authority. These were conditions not fully considered under the previous administration.

Afghanistan under the tutelage of the Taliban was the clearest case of a foreign threat emanating from a categorical failed state. Its leaders provided shelter to the al‐​Qaida organisation directly responsible for the 9/11 attack. What is less clear is why waging a war against today’s Taliban advances US national security and whether pouring in billions of taxpayer dollars for years to come, given the global financial crisis, is what’s best for the citizens of the US and Nato countries. There’s a reason why Afghanistan has been described as the “graveyard of empires”.

Throughout its long and turbulent history, the country has looked more like a tribal confederacy than a cohesive nation‐​state. Nine‐​tenths of Afghanistan’s population lives outside of cities and towns. The situation is exacerbated by low literacy levels and poor‐​to‐​nonexistent infrastructure.

At least on foreign policy, President Obama sees himself as a pragmatist, as someone prepared to listen to ideas from anybody and willing to consider anything he thinks might work. Therefore, rather than “surge” into this volatile region, the president should consider the strategic and political significance of Afghanistan’s surrounding neighbours and engage in regional efforts to broker dialogue among Saudi Arabia, Iran, India, Pakistan and the members of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation, such as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and, most important, Russia.

Throughout the 1990s, Iran, Russia, India, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan supported Afghanistan’s Tajik‐​dominated Northern Alliance against the pro‐​Wahhabist Pashtun‐​dominated Taliban backed by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. These dynamics have changed. For example, Saudi Arabia broke ties with the Taliban shortly after 9/11. However, many of these countries still have lingering historical rivalries that are influencing Afghanistan’s present trajectory. US intelligence officials suspect Pakistan and India are engaged in a deadly proxy struggle playing out in Afghanistan.

In the weeks leading up to this April’s Nato summit meeting, the Obama administration must make some tough choices in potential direct talks with the Taliban. Is Nato ready to let them share power if they agree not to shelter al‐​Qaida? What if some elements want to keep their fringe beliefs and draconian practices?

Bringing stability to Afghanistan, especially on the local and provincial levels, is an obvious goal in the short term. But from a wider strategic and economic perspective, no tangible gains will outweigh the risky and costly strategy of a prolonged military presence in this dangerous part of the world. The US and Nato cannot afford to view Afghanistan within a vacuum. Its leaders must do their best to improve conflicting regional alliances. Most importantly, the coalition should accept that eliminating threats to its interests should not be conflated with fixing state failure.

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