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Archive for August, 2009

[Originally published in The Herald of Randolph.]

America invaded Afghanistan in 2001 because, facilitated by the Taliban, much of the planning and training for 9/11 was carried out there. We have just recently stepped up our troop levels and counterinsurgency operations in order to “defeat” the Taliban (once again) and turn the country over to its current leaders (Hamid Karzai and Co.).

We need to ask some critical questions about our Afghan adventure: What are our goals there? What should our goals be? Must we “defeat” the Taliban to reach those goals? What is the likelihood that we can succeed? Finally, how much additional treasure are Americans prepared to commit there? How great is our patience for this war?

Afghanistan is now Obama’s war. His spokespersons have described our goals in Afghanistan as designed to root out al Qaida and the Taliban forces, prevent their return, support self-governance, and ensure security, stability and reconstruction.

The president has been quoted as having said, “Our critical goal should be to make sure that the Taliban and al Qaida are routed and that they cannot project threats against us from that region. And to do that I think we need more troops.”

Our one truly legitimate national interest in Afghanistan is to guarantee that Afghanistan does not once again become a sanctuary and training ground for Al Qaida or any other group that seeks to do us harm. There should really be no talk of bringing democracy or the rule or law to Afghanistan—only stability without the presence of Al Qaida or other such organizations.

President Obama and our military leadership have acknowledged that we will not be able to accomplish these goals through military means alone.

The Afghan situation is further complicated by what Afghans and other Middle Easterners think really motivates the US. With very little past military involvement in the region, suddenly Americans are seen invading Afghanistan and Iraq. The only conclusion Islam can draw is that America is the new crusader. This is simply because the most memorable and formative thing that has come at them from Europe and points west has been the Crusades of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

There is no difference is to a Muslim between being brought Christianity in the first crusades and Democracy in the current crusade. The prevalent opinion in Islam is that we Americans are the new crusaders.

In order to accomplish our legitimate interests of stability without terrorism, we must understand some of the basic realities of Afghan history. Traditionally, power in Afghanistan has rested in the many tribal chieftains who, in effect, have long run the fragmented country via their own tribal areas. Central authority and power have almost always been illusory.

The real question here is why we think we are going to succeed when no other country ever has. Anyone who reads history knows that the odds against success are unlimited. There are a lot of reasons for that history: inhospitable terrain, tribalism, xenophobia, corruptibility, indomitabililty, bellicosity, etc.

All those foreign invasions of Afghanistan over the centuries failed because they were undertaken for the benefit of the invaders, not the Afghans. Ours is no different.

The real question here is whether or not we need to “defeat” the Taliban to accomplish our goals and, further, whether or not we can do that even if we want to. The military struggle against an insurgency which blends into the civilian population, will only bring more Taliban recruits and support.

Effective non-military counterterrorist operations tend to eliminate terrorist organizations, on average, in about 10 years. Counterinsurgencies seldom win because the insurgents hold most of the cards.

Secretary of Defense Gates says that defeating the Taliban insurgency will be a “long-term prospect”. Any US-run and financed counterinsurgency will be viable only as long as American voters support it. That support will require visible, sustainable progress of the type we are unlikely to see.

There are tribes in Afghanistan that have no natural affinity for the Taliban or Al Qaida. We identified and worked with many of them during our 2001 invasion. Given the history of the country, it is likely that there will never be national consensus for central governance. That gives us the opportunity to work with those tribes that will predictably not support the Taliban, and will support our goal of eliminating Al Qaida.

This is anything but a far-fetched goal. Al Qaida has managed to alienate moderate Muslims all over Islam. In fact, they have a knack for doing so. If we are successful, the Taliban will moderate their stance on Terrorism, bringing the added advantage of lessening their negative impact in Pakistan.

Absent identifiable success, American public support, weary after six years of questionable military involvement in the region, will wane. All the Taliban has to do is successfully avoid final defeat, which any well-organized and well-run insurgency easily can do.

We need to eliminate Al Qaida without continuing to try to militarily destroy the Taliban. That only brings more Taliban recruits against the foreign invader, which is how we are viewed. As long as that is true, we will unite more Afghans against us and our goals.

Like Bush, all this president will have accomplished with military action is to kick the Afghan can further down the road for a future administration, without solving anything. What kind of legacy is that?

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in Eastern and Western Europe, the Middle East, and as chief of the counterterrorism staff. A longtime resident of Brookfield, he now lives in Williston.

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