Page 1 of 2 Plan B for Afghanistan
By Brian M Downing
It is becoming increasingly clear that US and North Atlantic Treaty
Organization (NATO) efforts to develop a stable political system and growing
economy in Afghanistan are failing. The government of President Hamid Karzai
has little support in or out of the country. The Taliban have recovered from
their sudden ouster in late 2001 and now control or have a strong presence in
much of the Pashtun regions of the south and east.
One option would be for the US and its allies to withdraw from the Pashtun
regions and concentrate on political and economic development in the northern
areas, where the insurgency is weak and anti-Taliban sentiment is strong.
Retrenchment in the north
would confer considerable flexibility and advantages.
At present, the Taliban are deeply embedded in many if not most parts of the
Pashtun regions in the south and east. Through parley or threat, they have won
local support and brought levies of local men into their forces.
Western forces are unable to garner intelligence from locals or get them to
serve effectively in militias; they are being attrited by roadside bombs; and
they are operating in smaller and smaller enclaves in the south and east.
Seeking to reverse this state of affairs will be painstakingly slow and will
take many years and many hundreds of US casualties per year.
The recent firing of General McChrystal as the top US commander in Afghanistan,
though apparently unrelated to the conduct of the war, has emboldened insurgent
groups. They see his departure as stemming from their successes over the years,
especially in countering counter-insurgency (COIN) operations. Insurgents can
look back on the past few years and feel justifiable confidence.
General David Petraeus has taken command and this has led to optimism that he
can repeat his successes in Iraq where tribal parleys won over Sunni Arab
insurgents. But too much adulation may have been heaped on the general by a
public that knows little about Iraq or counter-insurgency, and perhaps too much
is expected of him.
And a general does not go twice into the same insurgency. A principal reason
for the Sunni Arab volte face lay in their hopeless strategic position -
at once fighting qualitatively superior coalition forces and quantitatively
superior Shi'ite militias. Sunni Arabs saved themselves by allying with the US
and turning on al-Qaeda forces, which in any event had become arrogant
Furthermore, foreign powers helped quell the insurgency. Saudi diplomats and
intelligence personnel prevailed on the tribes of al-Anbar province (especially
the Dulayim who straddle the Iraq-Saudi border) to ally with the US. Similarly,
Iran used its considerable influence with the Shi'ite militias and political
parties to end the fighting.
For similar help from abroad, Petraeus will have to contend with the Taliban's
chief supporter - Pakistan. Earlier in 2010, Pakistan's Inter-Services
Intelligence (ISI) arrested several important Taliban figures - a move thought
to have been the result of US pressure on Pakistan to force the Taliban into
negotiations. Though Pakistan's intentions remain unclear, the arrests of the
Taliban figures, who were thought to be in talks with the Karzai government,
might be an ISI effort to block Taliban negotiations with Karzai so as to
ensure that Pakistani intelligence shapes any settlement.
Unlikelihood of a complete withdrawal
The war is seasonal. Many insurgent fighters return to their homes in the
autumn to help with crops and herds, then return in the late spring. This leads
to variations in casualties, which in turn affects support in the US public and
that of NATO partners.
The return of part-time fighters to their insurgent bands and the initiation of
US/NATO operations in the south will lead to higher casualties - and greater
debate. Support is waning in European countries, where mythic notions of war
perished amid two world wars and where more recently politicians and generals
have become unhappy with unfolding of events. Several countries with sizeable
commitments will likely begin to leave within a year, triggering more intense
debate in the countries that remain.
Distractions abound in the US public, but higher casualties and the attention
brought on by the US commander's awkward comments on his civilian authorities.
Opposition to the war may become statistically stronger yet remain politically
weak. Casualties are not borne by the public at large, rather chiefly by
working-class and rural Americans with greater respect for the military and war
service than found in the rest of America - large portions of which are
silently thankful that family members have nothing to do with military service.
Republican opposition to the war is muted. It was a Republican president in
George W Bush after all who opted to occupy Afghanistan, and President Barack
Obama has followed military counsel in the last year. Still, in the event of
withdrawal or defeat, Republicans are prepared to pounce on their political
opponents for "losing Afghanistan". Democrats in the public, convinced they
elected a non-warlike president, are increasingly restive.
Most of the public - as noted, untouched by the war - are given to oscillation
and indecision. A Vietnam-era poll might be recalled here. In May of 1969, with
opposition to the war over 60%, only 9% of the public favored withdrawal if it
meant that South Vietnam would fall, as it surely would (and as it surely did).
They wanted neither war nor defeat, neither casualties nor withdrawal without
Formidable currents against withdrawal permeate American political culture.
There is a belief that withdrawal or defeat in Afghanistan will lead to renewed
al-Qaeda sanctuaries and another wave of terrorism in the US. This is unlikely,
as an al-Qaeda return to Afghanistan would offer nothing it doesn't have in
Pakistan and it is clear that al-Qaeda can never operate openly anywhere. Any
major base or center, regardless of the host country's disposition, will be
destroyed. If they build one, the drones will come.
Global presence is a basic part of America's self-image and will not be
relinquished easily. A military presence in some 84 countries around the world
came as a surprise to Americans born before World War II; it became a
fundamental part of the national identity to those born after the intoxicating
victory of 1945. The American identity of prosperity and virtue became infused
with global power and mission. The September 11, 2001, attacks charged the
nation with defending itself through campaigns across the world. Relinquishing
this mission, and the national identity behind it, will be difficult,
especially now that terrorism is returning to America.
Recently, the Department of Defense released a geological study that reported a
wealth of mineralogical deposits throughout Afghanistan. Among these deposits
are considerable amounts of rare earths, which are critical to many hi-tech
instruments with military and civilian applications. They are also critical to
many "green" technologies, such energy-producing windmills. There is also
promising oil and gas wealth in Kunduz province in the north.
Withdrawal to the north
The war as it is being fought shows little promise. The Kabul government has no
meaningful support. Support in the US and elsewhere is on the wane, yet no
consensus on withdrawal is likely. Another way to fight the war is needed or
the US faces a lengthy, inconclusive war lasting a decade or more with a likely
An alternative lies in recognizing and seizing on the geographical realities of
the insurgency and withdrawing from the south and east - large portions of
which have been left to insurgents already - and consolidating in the north and
west. A diagonal line - based on centuries-old ethnic distributions, not drawn
by an arbitrary outsider - could provide the basis for a more promising
The Taliban insurgency is based almost exclusively around the Pashtun tribes in
the south and east. Outside those areas, in the north and west, there are
almost no Pashtuns - and almost no insurgency - save for a pocket of Pashtun in
the north-central area near the border with Tajikistan.
The north and west are inhabited chiefly by Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and a
miscellany of other peoples who compose 45% to 50% of the Afghan population.
Having suffered under Taliban rule and in cases endured massacres at their
hands, they vehemently oppose the Taliban. It will be remembered that it was
the Tajiks and Uzbeks who composed the bulk of the Northern Alliance, which
held onto their redoubt throughout the Taliban period (1996-2001) and which
with US help drive the Taliban into Pakistan in 2001.
The northern peoples have maintained their own military formations which pose a
serious deterrent to a Pashtun incursion into lands in which they have no
indigenous support. These militaries are well-disciplined and well-armed - the
legacies of Ahmad Shah Massoud's and Abdul Dostum's forces that fought the
Russians in the 1980s and the Taliban. This is a welcome contrast to the Afghan
National Army, which has demonstrated little fighting spirit.
The people of the north and west, though divided on many matters, have a common
heritage in opposing foreign invaders and overreaching rulers in Kabul as well.
They have fought the Taliban and remained suspicious of the inept efforts of
Karzai to form a polity, though they are granted symbolic positions as vice
presidents in his government. The Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara peoples could form a
more viable and effective government than the one ensconced in Kabul today.