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Archive for the ‘Afghanistan’ Category

The old saw tells us that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”.  But that really isn’t true.  A terrorist is a  terrorist and an insurgent, or freedom fighter, is an insurgent. If we are able to stick to labeling them on the basis of what they actually do, rather than what we think they represent, we will be able to keep them straight and stand a much better chance of dealing effectively with terrorism.

Insurgencies are movements designed to overthrow existing governments.  Some are popular and have pretty good prospects for success. Some are not. Generally they spring from within populations.  If they are successful, it is because they generally represent the population’s views and thus have their support.  That makes them very difficult to defeat, particularly by a foreign government.

It is extremely difficult to define “terrorism” largely because it is such an emotional subject.  The United Nations has been unable to do so. Having said that, there are certain characteristics that are helpful in identifying terrorists.  They use violence and asymmetrical warfare as their primary tools.  They are not typically organized like insurgencies, but rather resemble politically oriented covert action groups. They use their terror psychologically for maximum impact to intimidate populations rather than simply kill individuals.  Finally, they are non-state groups.

Historically, governments have been far more successful against terrorist groups than they have been against insurgencies, primarily because insurgencies tend to enjoy more support from local populations

Today’s American foreign and domestic counterterrorism policies have been built on the “Global War on Terror” or (GWOT).  The Bush Administration labeled everyone it didn’t like a “terrorist”, never taking the time to differentiate between terrorism and insurgency.  That was our first mistake. The Taliban, despite the fact that it commits terrorist acts, is essentially an insurgent organization. Yet, until recently, they were constantly referred to as terrorists, perhaps because we needed terrorists for our GWOT in an Afghanistan where there were hardly any Al Qaeda members left.  Even though Afghans generally hate Taliban policies, and with good reason, they will often chose them over us if they are forced to do so.  We are, after all, the foreigners in the fracas.

Our second mistake was in deciding to “solve” our terrorism problems with the military might that had so brilliantly served us during the preceding fifty years.  In employing a military response, we were using an asset that had been designed in the Second World War to sweep across northern Europe in an attack on Germany and then further fine-tuned during the Cold War to sweep across Germany and Poland to defeat the USSR.  How we figured that was an appropriate tool for dealing with the new terrorism is hard to understand.  The answer probably lies in the fact that the military establishment wanted a piece of the action, and all it had to offer was its sword.

Until the early May operation that dispatched Osama bin Laden, the only example we had that argued that massive military response might not be the best approach, was the initial invasion of Afghanistan on October 7, 2001.  In that operation, a handful of special operations troops accompanied by a small number of intelligence officers, kicked off a blitzkrieg that ended in very short order with the literal destruction of Al Qaida in Afghanistan and, coincidentally, the defeat of the Taliban.  Remember, this was the “GWOT”.  Afghanistan initially had nothing to do with insurgencies, only with 9/11 and the terrorists.  Even though it all went south with the subsequent invasion of Iraq, the lesson was there to be studied, absorbed and implemented.

SOME HISTORY

In 2010, the Rand Corporation reviewed the findings of its own 2008 study of 648 terrorist groups that existed around the world between 1968 and 2006.  It concluded that of those groups, 43% were absorbed quietly back into the environments in which they had been active, 40% were defeated by police and intelligence operations and 7% by military confrontation.

In Islam, as elsewhere, true terrorist groups most often are involved in activities that are dangerous to the general population.  Such groups, as in the case of Al Qaeda, often include members who are foreigners, who have goals inimical to the local population’s goals, or serve non-local causes. In the case of Al Qaeda, they often kill Muslims, a sin under the Koran. In short, they do not necessarily spring from and represent the ideas and desires of the local population.

Terrorists normally operate clandestinely in their local environments, trying to avoid identification by local populations. In fact, they often conduct operations designed to pit one portion of the population against another, simply for the purpose of creating chaos.  That was part of Al Qaeda in Iraq’s (AQI) operational approach under Abu Musab al Zarqawi. AQI provocations were designed specifically to goad Shia into attacking Sunnis or vice versa, simply to keep the pot boiling.

When terrorists are the object of an essentially clandestine response like the one we conducted in Afghanistan in early October 2001, it is they alone, not the local population that are being targeted. That fact gives operational advantages to the special ops personnel and non-military police and/or intelligence officers working against them and permits local resident neutrality or even support for the local authorities.

When terrorist operations become known to local populations and are recognized as threatening or opposed to their interests, those populations often turn against them, as was the case with AQI at the beginning of the 2007 “surge” in Iraq, when the Sunni “Awakening” began to methodically wipe them out.

In direct contrast, when terrorists are confronted with military power, particularly foreign military power, the entire equation changes.

Let’s start here by stipulating that what America seeks from local Muslims in the struggle with radical Muslim terrorism, is optimally their support or, failing that, their neutrality.

As we know from our own experiences in the Middle East, American military confrontation tends to force the local non-combatant population to make a decision about whom to support, particularly if the local population believes that our “terrorist” is his “insurgent”. Will it be the foreigner or the local?  This is the main reason that accurate labeling is so critically important and that a non-military approach is preferable in cases of terrorism. Is he a terrorist who is not seeking the same goals as the population and can be justly opposed? Or is he an insurgent who is on the same page with the population and must be supported?  If he is a terrorist he is less likely to be accepted or protected by the locals.  If he is really an insurgent, he will be one of them and they will back him against the foreigner.

If we misidentify out of carelessness, stupidity or even willfulness, as may very well have been the case in the past, we will likely employ the wrong techniques against the troublemaker, whatever he really is.

TODAY’S MIDDLE EAST DESTABILIZERS

As if all this terrorism/insurgency discussion is not enough, our problems in the Middle East are made especially difficult by the facts that exist both there and here in America.  The historical, political and cultural differences between us are numerous and important.

The Middle East is rife with ongoing conflicts.  Sometimes they are absolutely overt, sometimes they are less obvious, but they are always there and have been for millennia.  The Shia/Sunni split, the Persian/Arab competition for hegemony in the Gulf, the anomalous position of the Kurds. The hangovers of the Crusaders, Western imperialism and US Regime change operations in Syria and Iran have all added up to a region in which, today, the notion of liberal democracy is quite foreign and its bearer is viewed with extreme suspicion.  There is little history of democracy. The peoples of the region, particularly given their tribalism, ethnic and sectarian differences have no experience that would prepare them for the freedoms and responsibilities that must come with self-rule and liberal democracy.  What they do have is a Koran which gives any believing Muslim an exhaustive blueprint for life.

On the other side of the ledger, we have a United States that is ruled by its own American exceptionalism and eager to save the world by exporting its model.  Yet, we are a wildly impatient, ADHD nation, short on planning, and married to short-term political timetables. In foreign affairs, we tend to evolve policies for American domestic political reasons, eschewing the realities that exist abroad.  We talk democracy and support the most repressive rulers in Islam. For over sixty years we have failed miserably to bring peace to Israel and Palestine. We are so bereft of influence there that the sides are preceding in their own respective directions without reference to America.   Yet, our goal seems to be a desire to install “democracy” in a world that has little reason to want to accept it.  As a result, we are seen as opportunistic, narcissistic and hypocritical.

Many, if not most of these problems have solutions that would help us.   The “Arab Spring” will change the Middle East forever, as the rebellions against existing authority have completely stolen the show from Al Qaeda, rendering their dreams of a medieval caliphate virtually obsolete.  The rebellions have brought some sort of self-determination to those people who outlast the tyrants that have recently ruled them.  If we can bring ourselves to accept self-determination in place of democratization as a viable goal for them, active nation-state hostility to us will subside.

What we can do completely on our own is change our counterterrorism policy.  When we attack terrorism with our military establishment, as we have done in Iraq and Afghanistan after 2003, terrorism morphs into insurgency. That insurgency then demands our involvement in the export of democracy and nation building, all of which are matters at which we are demonstrable failures.

We are proposing to do all of this in the face of popular American disinterest in and lagging support of our adventures in the Middle East.  Reality is additionally determined by a burgeoning national debt, ongoing national economic problems, a wildly expensive military establishment built for wars we do not face and acute national taxophobia.

We need to acknowledge that our current use of military might against terrorism in acutely counterproductive. In the absence of that constant military presence, local governments will find it politically more acceptable to share Al Qaeda as an enemy than they do today.  We need to concentrate on our liaison relationships with friendly countries, our production of intelligence on all terrorism activities and our training and deployment of the kind of special operations teams that we have recently seen operating so successfully.

The effectiveness of those teams and of a program based on them, coupled with the absence of our provocative uniformed military in battle all over the region, will give us a better shot at solving our problems in the region.  At the same time, a change in counterterrorism tactics and the deployment of a greatly reduced, but uniquely competent force should permit the saving of billions of dollars and the opportunity to put our economic house in order here at home, while it raises our prospects of diminishing the future threat of terrorism.


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Preconditions for Success in Afghanistan

[Originally published on AmericanDiplomacy.Org.]

A retired intelligence professional gives his candid assessment of what would constitute “success” in Afghanistan and the chances for reaching this goal.-The Editor

Two successive U.S. administrations have said we must “win” in Afghanistan.   David Kilcullen, one of the world’s leading counterinsurgency experts and preeminent advisor to the US government, says that we must meet certain markers if we are to “succeed” in Afghanistan:  We must face the realities of historical and contemporary Afghanistan.  There must be agreement between Afghans and Americans on our goals.  We must eliminate the Taliban sanctuary in Pakistan.  There must be a solid, long-term US commitment including a flexible timeline.

Defining the issue

However, before those markers can even be discussed, the Obama administration must define the words “success” and “win.”  As the leading free enterprise democracy in the world, we habitually insist that any enterprise in which we are inclined to invest be prepared to show us that it is making progress that will profit us.  That is no less true for the Afghan war than it is for Microsoft, yet our goals have never been clearly defined by either the Bush or Obama administrations.

As a result, there is no way for anyone in this country to measure progress in this war.  Without that ability, we will predictably become more easily disenchanted with our Afghan war than we would if we knew fairly precisely what it was that America is fighting for.

Having once defined our goals or what constitutes success, Kilcullen’s four markers come into play before we can declare any progress, let alone success.  Our willingness and ability to deal with them will be crucial to the result.

Afghanistan’s historical and present realities

Afghanistan is a geographically inhospitable, tribal country whose people are corruptible, indomitable, bellicose and armed to the teeth.  The tribal Afghans have never had or wanted a strong central government.  They have often been invaded by foreign armies and as a result are strongly xenophobic.  Throughout the centuries they have successfully resisted all attempts at foreign invasion and occupation.

The governing ideals for the Pashtun people are embodied in their “Pashtunwali” or “Pashtun way” which sets forth a complete code for life.  It emphasizes self-respect, independence, justice, hospitality, love, forgiveness, revenge and tolerance toward all people. The main principles of Pashtunwali include freedom and independence, justice and forgiveness, honesty and keeping promises, ethnic unity and equality, support and trust within the Pashtun family and love for and defense of the Pashtun nation and culture.

In short, the “Pashtun way” is designed to motivate its followers to support their way of life and resist by force of arms all attempts by anyone, particularly foreigners, to change it either by force or subterfuge.  It is clearly the product of a people who have pretty much always been under the gun from foreign cultures and who have evolved their own very efficient way of dealing with such incursions.

The Pashtunwali is the guiding word, subscribed to wholeheartedly by Pashtuns around the world.  That should give us some notion of how welcome our armies are in Afghanistan, regardless of the purity of our motives.

That is Afghan history and if we are wise we will acknowledge it as such.

Trust in Afghanistan

We must get to the point where the American administration and people believe that the Afghan political establishment and people share with us a common definition of “success,” whatever that proves to be.  We are, after all, fighting this war for the people of Afghanistan, not for ourselves.

In the process of formulating our definition of “success”, we need to keep in mind that there is little in Afghanistan that argues in favor of any readiness on their part to accept democracy as we know it.

In order to proceed and persist, we have to be able to trust that we are on the same page as the Afghan population, accepting the fact, as Afghans do, that the election that put Karzai in power was massively fraudulent.  We must understand that that fact does not make Karzai or his government widely popular in Afghanistan.

In order to be “successful” in Afghanistan, we have to share a vision with the Afghan people.  Without that, it will never work.

The Taliban Sanctuary in Pakistan

As long as there is a sanctuary for the Afghan Taliban in Pakistan, we will never “win.”  The Pashtun people, who basically comprise the Taliban in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, straddle the border between the two nations.  In that fact lies one of our most difficult problems.  If we are to “win” over the Taliban in Afghanistan, we will have to deny them sanctuary in Pakistan.

The Pakistan military establishment has long supported the Taliban, seeing it as a potential counterbalance or lever in its conflict with India, its only true enemy on the face of the earth.  They are reluctant to commit resources to the fight against the Taliban in Pakistan because of its perceived role in any future battle with India.  Further, the more we involve ourselves directly in the struggle within Pakistan with drones and special operations, the more support we loose within Pakistan.  It is a true Hobson’s Choice.

Commitment of American Resources

Our commitment to Afghanistan is very expensive in human life and resources, yet, since the surge of our troops in Afghanistan, we have clearly not realized any breakthroughs in reaching our “goals” there.

When we invaded Iraq in 2003, the Army Chief of Staff told us that we would need half a million troops to successfully occupy that country.  The post-invasion period in Iraq showed clearly that he had a point.  We are now dealing with our Afghan problems with just over 100,000 troops.  
       
A look at a topographical map of Afghanistan will tell even the dullest among us that Afghanistan is a far more geographically complicated and challenging country than Iraq and that if we are to “win” there, we will probably need more troops than we needed in Iraq.  In fact, Afghanistan, with its valleys, mountains and lack of infrastructure is a military nightmare.

America’s Timeline

Finally, if we decide to try to “win” in Afghanistan, we will have to back off the 2011 withdrawal deadline given by President Obama and be prepared to extend our involvement there, perhaps by additional decades.  The most optimistic estimates from General Petraeus now range around a military commitment of at least seven years.

America will have to back that commitment at the ballot box.  Given our inability as a nation to commit to anything much farther out than the next election, we will clearly have to be convinced that such a commitment is in our national interest.

That will not be an easy task to accomplish.

Conclusion

It is impossible to find real experts on counterinsurgency who believe we can “win” without meeting the above requirements.

Can we really expect Americans to get behind an effort that has so many internal contradictions?  Can we trust Karzai?  Would we settle for anything less than democracy in Afghanistan?  Would we accept stability, irrespective of the Afghan form of government?

Pro-war voices in our country are those profiting politically, emotionally, militarily or economically from our involvement in the Afghan counterinsurgency program.  It is hard to find academics and other experts and truly well informed people on Afghanistan realities who believe that we can meet all of the requirements for “victory” in Afghanistan.

Even the most optimistic supporters of the war acknowledge that the Afghan Army and Police, two elements absolutely critical to our “success,” are a major problem.  After eight years of prodding, support and training, they are still not fit to do the job for which they have been trained.  Returning troops from Afghanistan roll their eyes when asked about such Afghan readiness.

And can we expect the Afghan people to get behind an illegitimately elected Karzai government?  Will the Pashtun Taliban support a Pashtun President (Karzai) whose government is complicit in killing his own people (the Pashtun Taliban)?  How does that fit with Pashtunwali?

Do our military leaders, intelligent and schooled experts in the history and practice of warfare, really believe that they can somehow change historical and current Afghan realities and successfully invade that country and change its governance and culture?  That is repeating the same act, yet again, while hoping the outcome will change.   Isn’t that the clinical definition of insanity?

And then, Americans were sold both Iraq and the second invasion of Afghanistan as part of the “war on terror.”  Iraq had nothing to do with terrorism prior to our invasion.  Al Qaida exited Afghanistan during our first invasion and has not since returned in significant numbers.

Additionally, given our exceedingly difficult economic circumstances, is it objectively important to continue to pour our treasure into the Middle East when that treasure may well be the only practical answer to our problems at home?  Are our real problems ever going to come first?

That, in turn asks whether or not we are prepared to “stay the course” in Afghanistan, or for that matter, in Iraq which now appears to be in ethnic and sectarian gridlock.

The now-abandoned military draft ushered in our professional, all-volunteer military establishment, thereby removing from voters the most effective way they had to object to the conduct of specific wars.  We removed the check and balance of the vote as it was wielded during the Viet Nam War.  That makes it relatively simpler for any given administration to wage war unfettered, particularly if it is dealing with a supine Congress, as was the case of Iraq in 2003.

Finally, there is the question of US national interests.  Terrorism is a problem for us.  It is in our national interest to deal with it.  However, terrorism has nothing to do with Afghanistan.  There are few if any terrorists there.  If we want to go after terrorism right now, Yemen would offer far greater rewards.  Can we afford another such adventure?  Because if we undertake it, the people we seek to “beat” will simply move to another venue.  That is the nature of mobile, unfettered terrorism.  Such is not the case for the well equipped and armed military.

But do we want to try to “wipe out” terrorism with our military power?  Can we even hope for that to succeed?  Every time we have confronted Middle East terrorism with our military power, we have watched it morph into insurgency.  Insurgencies are far more difficult to defeat than terrorism.  It can be argued that for that reason, we need to carefully review our counterterrorism strategy, perhaps considering less reliance on our military resources.

Unfortunately, with the advent of the new, professional military, we have politicized that establishment as never before.  Whatever his reasons, if President Obama chooses to continue in Afghanistan, he can probably do so without fearing Congressional intervention.

What he cannot escape are Afghan historical, cultural, tribal and political realities.   Even though he and his advisors may be inclined to dismiss them, they are there to be dealt with. It seems highly unlikely that, given all our own economic and political realities, he will be able to continue our Afghan military involvement sufficiently long to achieve any sort of “successful” conclusion.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief. A graduate of Dartmouth, he served in the Army Security Agency, undertook Russian regional studies at London University, and then joined the CIA. He served in Prague, Berlin, Langley, Beirut, Tehran, and Washington. During those 25 years, he worked primarily in Soviet and East European operations. He was also chief of the counterterrorism staff and executive assistant to Deputy Director of Central Intelligence Frank Carlucci. Since his retirement in 1980, he has lived in Vermont.

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[Originally published in the Barre Times-Argus and Rutland Herald.]

Shortly after his spring 2009 arrival in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal made the following statement: “(Afghanistan) is complex in terms of geography; it’s complex in terms of demographics, of resources, or more specifically the lack of resources, to include what I normally like to refer to as the lack of human capital, the lack of — the availability of people that can provide governance in Afghanistan, and that’s probably a fact of education in many years to come.”

What we have done in our 2001 invasion and subsequent 2008 reinvasion of Afghanistan is completely disrupt the patterns of governance that have existed there for centuries. Those patterns, whether or not we like, admire or approve of them, are the instruments that have made past life in Afghanistan workable.

Anyone who optimistically sees any sort of democracy as a logical destination for Afghanistan is self-delusional. Regardless how our policy evolves, we are not going to successfully turn Afghanistan into anything that would be appealing to the American or western mind. To be stable, Afghanistan will need to essentially revert to what it was in the pre-Taliban era.

Afghanistan has been at its workable best when it has had a weak central government surrounded by a strong and independent tribal system. A quick look at Afghan history will show that outsiders mess with that system at their own peril.

How, then, do we resolve this endless and unproductive Afghanistan struggle without “losing”?

First we must acknowledge the salient realities of the Afghan people. They are largely illiterate, xenophobic, bellicose, corrupt and independent. True warriors, they don’t negotiate, they shoot. The last thing they want is to be invaded and occupied by foreigners.

Tradition and human raw material in Afghanistan do not lead to anything we could think of as a desirable government, yet we must acknowledge that Afghans should and will choose their own form of government.

We can facilitate that in two ways: We should remove our military forces which, as a provocative and rather blunt instrument, represent one of the few unifying factors against us in present day Afghanistan. Having done that, we should support the old Afghan system by funding (or buying off, depending on your level of cynicism) the tribes and, by talking to them, find out what sort of a central government they would like to have. That will almost certainly include some element of the Taliban.

Since its birth in 1994, the Taliban’s brutal fundamentalism has alienated so many people that they do not enjoy great popular support. With appropriate U.S. support for Afghan tribes, there is no reason the Taliban will ever approach the power it enjoyed before 2001.

In arranging tribal funding, we will have to make a number of stipulations. This is a flexible list, subject to the needs of the US Administration, but which could include; an absolute ban on the return of Al Qaida, universal education and no further poppy cultivation. Those stipulations can be supported by an appropriate long-term commitment of U.S. Special Operations troops.

By doing this, we restart the attempt to return to the only model that has ever provided stability for the Afghan people. The simple drawdown of American military involvement will begin the change in today’s Afghanistan. Our military approach has brought us a major insurgency which is aimed primarily at us as a foreign power, and only secondarily at our lapdog, the Karzai government.

This sort of effort will not be cheap. However, if you stack it up against the $73 billion we are spending annually in the Afghan war, it all becomes relative.

There are 12 major tribes with hundreds of subdivisions in Afghanistan. The U.S. administration should be able to figure out precisely how to apportion funds to those tribes based on sub-tribes, population, need and politics.

If you start with the fact that we are now spending $200 million a day, it would seem we could easily settle an average of $100 million a year on each of those 12 major tribes. That would total up to $1.2 billion per year, a far cry from today’s costs of $73 billion. That, in itself, gives us great flexibility in setting subsidies. When you add in the costs to us of dead and wounded, it looks even more favorable.

We will never “win” in Afghanistan, whatever that may mean. However, getting out as planned can mean reduced financial and time commitments as well as sharply reduced military casualties.

All in all, a cheap solution.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in East and West Europe and the Middle East and as chief of the counterterrorism staff.

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Possibly seeking the impossible

[Originally published in Nieman Watchdog.]

The American effort in Afghanistan is doomed if the Afghans don’t share our goals, and if the Taliban have a sanctuary in Pakistan. Are we prepared to stay there as long as it takes?

We will not reach our goals in Afghanistan unless the Afghans share those goals, and until the Taliban are denied sanctuary in Pakistan.

But these two preconditions raise possibly unanswerable questions.

Q. What has led the Obama administration to believe that there is anything in the history or present realities of Afghanistan that suggests we will ever be able to convince Afghans that our goals, particularly as foreigners, have anything in common with theirs?

Afghanistan is a geographically inhospitable, tribal country whose people are corruptible, indomitable, bellicose and armed to the teeth. The governing ideals for the majority Pashtun people are embodied in the ”Pastunwali” or Pashtun Way, which motivates its followers resist by force of arms or subterfuge all attempts by anyone, particularly foreigners, to change their way of life. Afghans have often been invaded by foreign armies and are strongly xenophobic. They have never had or wanted a strong central government. And most Afghans believe that the recent election of Premier Hamid Karzai was massively fraudulent.

Meanwhile, the Pakistan military establishment has long supported the Taliban, seeing it as a potential counterbalance in its endless conflict with India.

Q. Can we continue our special operations and drone activities in Pakistan without further angering and alienating Pakistanis? Is there any chance the Pakistani government will change policy and actively join our efforts to eliminate the Taliban safe haven in their country?

We are now dealing with our Afghan problems with just over 100,000 troops. Our peak commitment in Iraq was of over 150,000 troops. Afghanistan is a far more geographically complicated and challenging country than Iraq and if we are to “win” there, we will probably need many more troops than we ultimately employed in Iraq. That would entail backing off the 2011 withdrawal deadline set by President Obama and preparing instead to extend our involvement there for years. The most optimistic estimates from General David Petraeus now range around a military commitment of at least seven additional years.

Q. Given our precarious economic and fiscal status and growing, competing national priorities, will we be able to continue the level of support that will be required? Is an increasingly disillusioned America emotionally and politically prepared to commit its treasure to achieve a “successful” conclusion — even if we knew what that meant?

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[Originally published in the Rutland Herald and Barre Times-Argus.]

In today’s America, it is the exceptional, bright, educated, aggressive and politically aware warrior who gets promoted to four-star general.

Certainly, Gen. Stanley McChrystal fits that mold. West Point and Harvard educated, Rangers, Special Operations, Desert Shield, Desert Storm, Iraq and Afghanistan. Before running afoul of Rolling Stone, he had pretty much punched all the required tickets.

Successful military commanders from all nations can tell you about every notable military campaign in the history of mankind. They are, after all, students of warfare. Thus, Gens. McChrystal, David Petraeus and all their savvy peers are aware of Afghan history, even if our less well informed national civilian leadership of the last 10 years apparently has not been.

An examination of the history of foreign invasions of Afghanistan will not give comfort to those who believe that America will “win” in Afghanistan, even if it were possible to define the precise contextual meaning of that word. In modern times, many have tried and none has succeeded.

Why, then, would either Mc-Chrystal or Petraeus, both knowledgeable students of their trade, take on a mission that has never been successful? They are both intelligent, so the reason must lie somewhere between hubris and politics. Either our military leaders believe they are so good and so smart that they can accomplish the heretofore impossible, or they are reluctant or afraid to tell their commander in chief that the job never has been done and probably can’t succeed. Sadly, as our diplomatic policy is driven in the Middle East by internal American politics, so now is our military policy. Forget reality and past history. After 9/11 it became politically attractive (or, perhaps in Obama’s case, necessary) to invade Afghanistan.

In forcing McChrystal’s resignation, however righteous that act, Obama took a major political risk here at home. That risk was mitigated solely by his politically inspired choice of Gen. Petraeus, McChrystal’s boss, as McChrystal’s successor. In today’s divided and hostile American political world, any other choice, however highly qualified, would almost certainly have seen Obama attacked by the Republicans.

What can we expect from a new Petraeus era? Are we to believe that he is any less well-educated or informed than McChrystal? He was, after all, his commanding officer and shares with him in abundance all those qualities that successful senior American commanders have. Since he already has signed on with the American policy now in force in Afghanistan, it would seem we will see no changes.

On the other hand, what seems clear is that this unexpected change will create a dynamic which will make it difficult for President Obama to turn down any “reasonable” request from Petraeus for support for this Afghan counterinsurgency. Petraeus has already spoken of an “enduring” American commitment that could last years.

Of course, the critical issue is whether Gen. Petraeus believes we can “win” and how he defines that word. In that arena he has already shown flashes of understanding that are not overly politically acceptable in the United States. He has said that the lack of a fair and safe resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict is having an ongoing negative effect on the success of our military operations in the Middle East. That is certainly a political no-no in this country.

More recently, the Marjah operation, which is the model to be used in Kandahar, has proven to be fairly effective during daylight hours, but not so great at night when the Taliban sneak back into town and maim or murder those who cooperate with the Americans.

Gen. Petraeus has acknowledged that our summer plans for Kandahar will be postponed until fall, because there is evidence that the majority of Kandahar residents do not want it to happen. More recently we hear that even Afghan children, who used to be quite friendly to our troops, now tend to throw stones at them.

The post-Iraq re-invasion of Afghanistan, which was cynically sold to the American people as part of the “War on Terror,” has now been belatedly acknowledged to be a counterinsurgency issue, as al-Qaida is no longer present there in any significant numbers.

The nature of counterinsurgency is winning hearts and minds. As either Gen. Petraeus or McChrystal will tell you, we will not be able to “save” the Afghan people if they don’t want to be saved.

Whose job is it to explain Afghan realities to the president? Or do the pressures of internal American politics trump those realities?

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in East and West Europe and the Middle East and as chief of the counterterrorism staff.

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[Originally published in the Randolph Herald.]

There is a major difference between the conduct of counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations. Critical to the process is correctly identifying the problem and then using the appropriate tools to combat it.

Terrorism has rarely if ever been defeated with military power. Historically, the best tools to use against it are police and intelligence organizations. They are often successful.

Insurgencies have rarely been defeated. This is particularly true when the insurgents are being fought by a foreign government as with the French in Algeria and Indonesia, with the British in Aden, Kenya, Cyprus and Malaysia and with us in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq. Even under the best circumstances, as in Sri Lanka, the Tamil Tigers, who began their insurgency in 1976, were only defeated in 2009 and then, if truly defeated, by the Sri Lankan government itself!

We went to Afghanistan in 2001 to deal with a terrorist threat. We destroyed the Al Qaida camps and put them on the run. We did serious damage to their hosts, the Taliban. We were still fighting terrorism.

When we invaded Iraq in 2003, there was absolutely no terrorism involved in the equation. We won a brief war and then entered into a counterinsurgency. The insurgents were joined by a terrorist group under Abu Musab al-Zarqawi who had managed to coalesce a number of Kurdish Islamists and foreign fighters around him. They were ultimately recognized, if somewhat reluctantly, by Al Qaida Central as Al Qaida in Iraq.

They came to Iraq because they were attracted by a target-rich environment that gave them a perfect training ground and recruiting tool for future militants, as well as increased fundraising potential. They worked within the framework of the Iraqi insurgency against US forces. The primary US strategy in Iraq was to conduct a counterinsurgency operation.

By 2009, a number of spontaneous developments had calmed the situation in Iraq, permitting us to refocus on Afghanistan, which, we were told by both Bush and Obama, was the primary scene of the struggle with terrorism.

Yet, Afghanistan 2009 and 2010 is another US counterinsurgency in which our conventional forces have no involvement with counterterrorist operations—simply because Al Qaida has left Afghanistan, primarily for Pakistan and abroad.

What brought us to the Middle East was our concern about terrorism, yet our military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq are concerned primarily, if not exclusively, with insurgency.

Counterinsurgencies, however carefully they are run, are magnets for the recruitment and training of terrorists and for fundraising on their behalf. Just look at our recent missteps in Afghanistan and the numbers of noncombatants killed.

Our struggle is for hearts and minds. In fact, moderates, the overwhelming majority of Muslims, hold the key to the success or failure of Al Qaida and militant Islam. Whoever wins them over will win the battle. Moderates are potentially the most effective enemy of and counterbalance to the fundamentalists.

Everything we do in our counterinsurgency operations has the potential to make our struggle with terrorism more difficult because it has the potential to alienate moderates. The mere presence of the US military, let alone their counterinsurgency operations, represents an advantage for Al Qaida that it simply could not create on its own.

The facts that rankle all Muslims include: US military presence in the Muslim world, with the concomitant occupations; the killing of Muslims; US support of repressive and despotic regimes; and the unbalanced US approach to the Palestine problem. These facts all remain, yet all can potentially be changed, particularly and most simply our military approach.

The question is, when and why did we decide that it was OK to run counterinsurgency operations when our original motivation was solely to deal with terrorism? Precisely what do we hope to accomplish with this approach?

We can disengage militarily. The internal US political response to this strategy is a repetition of the “failed state” argument, which holds no water. Terrorists don’t need failed states and they have proven it in Europe and the U.S. Furthermore, there is every indication that the Taliban has had it up to the ears with Al Qaida and would never permit them to re-open in Afghanistan.

If we were to address those problems enumerated above and created by our policies in the Muslim world, we would cut the legs from under Al Qaida and all the other Muslim fundamentalist terrorist groups simply because they would lose the support, even the grudging tolerance, of moderate Muslims.

That’s why Al Qaida approved so strongly of the Bush approach and of the Obama adoption of the Bush strategy.

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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[Originally published in The Herald of Randolph.]

David Kilcullen, one of the world’s leading counterinsurgency experts and preeminent advisor to the US government, says that we must meet certain markers if we are to “succeed” in Afghanistan: We must face the realities of historical and contemporary Afghanistan.  There must be agreement between Afghans and Americans on our goals.  We must eliminate the Taliban sanctuary in Pakistan.  There must be a solid, long-term US commitment including a flexible timeline.

However, before anything else, the Obama administration must define the words “success” and “win”.  As the leading free enterprise democracy in the world, we habitually insist that any enterprise in which we are inclined to invest be prepared to show us that it is making progress that will profit us.  That is no less true for the Afghan war than it is for Microsoft, yet our goals have never been defined by either the Bush or Obama administrations.

As a result, there is no way for anyone in this country to measure progress in this war.  Without that ability, we will predictably become more easily disenchanted with our Afghan war than we would if we knew fairly precisely what it was that America is fighting for.  Having once defined those goals, we must face Kilcullen’s realities as outlined above.

First, we need to face Afghanistan’s historical and current realities.   Afghanistan is geographically inhospitable, tribal country whose people are corruptible, indomitable, bellicose and armed to the teeth. The tribal Afghans have never had or wanted a strong central government.  They have often been invaded by foreign armies and as a result are strongly xenophobic.

The governing ideals for the majority Pashtun people are embodied in the “Pastunwali” or Pashtun Way.  It is designed to motivate its followers to support their way of life and resist by force of arms all attempts by anyone, particularly foreigners, to change it either by force or subterfuge.  It is clearly the product of a people who have often been under the gun from foreign cultures and who have evolved their own very efficient way of dealing with such incursions.

Second, we must get to the point where the American administration and people believe that the Afghan political establishment and people share with us a common definition of “success”, whatever that proves to be.  We are, after all, fighting this war for the people of Afghanistan, not for ourselves.  What do they think we want and do they share that goal? The fact that most Afghans believe that the recent “election” of Premier Karzai was massively fraudulent makes agreement on our current activities problematical at best.

Third, we must deal with the Taliban sanctuary in Pakistan.  As long as that  exists, we will never “win”.  The Pashtun people who basically comprise the Taliban in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, straddle the border between the two nations.  That is one of our most difficult problems. If we are to “win” over the Taliban in Afghanistan, we will have to deny them sanctuary in Pakistan.

Unfortunately, The Pakistan military establishment has long supported the Taliban, seeing it as a potential counterbalance in its endless conflict with India.  They are reluctant to do much against the Taliban in Pakistan because of its perceived role in any future battle with India.

Finally, we must be prepared to commit American resources to Afghanistan for a protracted period.  When we invaded Iraq in 2003, the US Army Chief of Staff told us that we would need half a million troops to successfully occupy that country.  The post-invasion period in Iraq showed clearly that he had a point.  We are now dealing with our Afghan problems with just over 100,000 troops.  A look at a topographical map of Afghanistan will tell even the dullest among us that Afghanistan is a far more geographically complicated and challenging country than Iraq and that if we are to “win” there, we will probably need many more troops than we ultimately employed in Iraq.

To deal successfully with this, we will have to back off the 2011 withdrawal deadline given by President Obama and be prepared to extend our involvement there for years.  The most optimistic estimates from General Petraeus now range around a military commitment of at least seven additional years.

In conclusion, we are faced with unavoidable Afghan historical, cultural, tribal and political realities as well as waning world support and Pakistani ambivalence.  Then consider our own realities of growing fatigue and discontent with the longest war in our history and severe economic and fiscal problems at home.  It seems doubtful we will be inclined to continue our Afghan military involvement sufficiently long to achieve any sort of “successful” conclusion, even if we knew what that meant.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA Station Chief who served in East and West Europe, the Middle East and as Chief of the Counterterrorism Staff.  A longtime former resident of Brookfield, he now lives in Williston.

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[Originally published in The Randolph Herald.]

When America invaded Afghanistan in late 2001, our stated national purpose was to eliminate Al Qaida. That goal was rapidly forgotten with the ill-timed invasion of Iraq in 2003 and our focus subsequently morphed from counter-terrorism to counter-insurgency.

Since then, we have fought Al Qaida in Iraq, while they joined an ongoing insurgency against us, and waged an unconventional war against them, mostly in Pakistan, consisting of special operations and drone missile strikes against their known and suspected people and positions. Those operations have decimated Al Qaida leadership.

We have focused on Pakistan because there are virtually no Al Qaida terrorists left in Afghanistan. What is left of the original Al Qaida leadership is now hunkered down somewhere in Pakistan’s Waziristan, simply trying to survive.

Al Qaida as we knew it has radically changed. It has been franchised out to discrete local volunteer terrorist groups. They now exist as Al Qaida Maghreb, Al Qaida Arab Peninsula, Al Qaida Yemen, and on and on. Al Qaida Central has little if any command and control over these groups. The situation is further complicated by the new phenomenon of singleton volunteers like the Nigerian Abdul Mutallab and US Army Major Hassan who were self-radicalized and therefore extremely difficult to uncover and neutralize.

Quite simply, America is today fighting a counter-insurgency in Afghanistan, an exceedingly difficult task. As long as that is our primary goal, the tactics we use will draw more and more fighters to and sympathy for Al Qaida, making them, our real enemy, increasingly difficult to defeat.

Combating terrorism, compared to counter-insurgency operations, is relatively simple and always potentially more successful. Terrorists do not often enjoy the support of the populations where they are operating. This has been true in Iraq and is definitely true in Afghanistan today. For that reason, they are easier to vanquish than insurgents.

Insurgents usually do have the support, or at minimum the tolerance of the local population. More often than not, as natives, they are preferable to a disliked regime in power or a foreign occupier. They can fade into that supportive population whenever threatened.

As things stand right now, we have none of the necessary advantages in Afghanistan needed to defeat an insurgency, a fact that makes any sort of ultimate “success” exceedingly illusory.

We do not have the overwhelmingly superior troop numbers needed to shut down a country as vast and geographically complicated as Afghanistan.

We do not have the support of the population because we are the foreigners and we are allied with a central “government” for which they have little use.

As long as that is the reality, we will not have the quality intelligence needed to adequately protect ourselves and keep them on the defensive because neither we, nor the Karzai government, is trusted by the bulk of the Afghan people.

In this respect, it doesn’t really matter that we think of ourselves as benevolent liberators, it only matters that Afghans think of us as foreigners occupiers.

Because Afghanistan always has been what it now is—a group of tribes unfavorably disposed to foreigners telling them how to live—our prospects for success in any form are extremely limited.

Al Qaida is finished in Afghanistan. The Obama administration, like its predecessor, claims we are fighting terrorism there. That is simply not true. It is a pure counter-insurgency issue. Why have we changed our goals? What is our concern with this purely national insurgency? What is our real goal and is it attainable?

We clearly hope to install a government of our liking in Afghanistan, yet it’s not at all clear what it would look like. The age-old resistance of the Afghan people to any sort of central government will make it difficult to implement any plan for the country that is consistent with our values.

The logical outcome, in the unlikely event we are successful in defeating the Taliban insurgency, would be further involvement in nation building in Afghanistan. Yet there is little evidence to indicate that the goal of any kind of “nation” familiar to us is attainable.

It took 33 years for Sri Lanka to vanquish the Tamil Tigers’ insurgency—and that struggle never involved foreign troops of any kind. In fact, there are very few examples of successful counter-insurgencies.

How long will the American people support an American counter-insurgency program in Afghanistan, particularly when its success, however unlikely, would likely lead to decades of costly nation building?

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA Station Chief who served in East and West Europe, the Middle East and as Chief of the Counterterrorism Staff. He is a former long-time resident of Brookfield who now lives in Williston.

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Are there solutions?

[Originally published in the Barre Times-Argus and Rutland Herald.]

Al Qaida has a major, long-term, existential problem in the Middle East and the greater Muslim world. It is a problem that they certainly cannot fix on their own. However, America’s counterterrorism policy has given Al Qaida hope for the short-term and if we continue that policy, it may well assist them in their ultimate goal of establishing a hegemonic Caliphate in the Muslim world.

The U.S. policy for the Muslim world that evolved after the events of 9/11 was crafted by policy makers who honestly believed that the solution to US problems in the Muslim world, or for that matter, anywhere else, lay in the swift application of American unipolar military might. That position might have worked in other parts of the world, but its application in the Muslim world has brought with it problems that its authors probably had not envisaged and for which they clearly had not planned.

U.S. interests in Islam

Years ago it was said that, “The United States does not have a Middle East policy. That is probably a good thing, because if it did, it would be the wrong one.” That reality has not changed much in the last half century, which underlines the politically partisan difficulties involved in constructing a precise definition of our national interests. Nevertheless, it is impossible to talk about solutions to our problems in the Muslim world without first broadly defining those interests. That said, it is probably safe to settle on the following generalities:

  • Stability or the absence of armed conflict.
  • The maintenance of U.S. commercial interests.
  • An end to being viewed as the enemy of the Muslims.
  • Realizing our National Security interests, i.e. inhibiting the growth of terrorism by marginalizing secular and religious extremists and supporting Muslim moderates.

U.S. and terrorism

After 9/11, the Bush Administration established fundamentalist Muslim terrorism as our primary concern in the Muslim world. The Obama administration appears to be following that

Bush program and for the last eight years, we have chosen military confrontation as our primary tool for dealing with terrorism.

At the same time, largely because of our choice of military confrontation, the nature of the threat we have faced has changed. Iraq was never a terrorist problem before our 2003 invasion. It became one solely because we were there militarily. We provided Al Qaida with an opportunity for first-rate live training, a target-rich environment and excellent prospects for recruiting. They moved in under the cover of the Iraq insurgency against our troops.

The Afghanistan situation began as a struggle with terrorism and has since morphed into a counterinsurgency. Today, there are hardly any Al Qaida fighters left. Again, we are dealing with an insurgency. Unlike terrorist movements, which are often overcome, insurgencies are extremely difficult to snuff out.

So, we start out with a major contradiction. We want to fight terrorism, but we are fighting insurgencies. The nature of the Muslim world is such that virtually any time we choose to go after Al Qaida militarily, we will end up fighting insurgencies, whether in Somalia, Yemen, Nigeria or Pakistan. All of those countries, like much of the Muslim world, have built into them the kinds of internal ethnic, tribal, religious and political contradictions that make general civil strife a perpetual nightmare waiting to happen. All it takes to push it over the edge into insurgency is something foreign, like American military involvement.

It would be nice, however irrational, to believe that one day we could actually conquer Al Qaida and bring an end to the terrorism that has plagued us for over a decade. Unfortunately, that is not going to happen. If we are ultimately to rid ourselves of this terrorist phenomenon, it will be because the terrorist movement itself dies, as has been the case with most of the terrorist organizations that have not survived during the past half-century.

According to a 2006 Rand Corporation study, in the past fifty years, the tactic least likely to succeed against terrorism is military confrontation. The Rand finding is supported by Israeli experience, which says that wars against terrorism turn into extended counterinsurgency operations which are seldom won.

Our goal in this ongoing struggle with terrorism is clearly to figure out how to help Al Qaida die.

Al Qaida today

The methodical decimation of Al Qaida leadership over the past few years, mostly by drones and covert operations, has resulted in the franchising of their terrorist operations. Al Qaida’s leadership has been sharply reduced and inhibited by unconventional attacks. With its surviving leadership concentrating almost entirely on its own survival in Waziristan, there is little if any central command and control left for their operations.

National franchises have sprung up around the world. They operate in Yemen, Somalia, the North African Maghreb, Pakistan, Indonesia and elsewhere. They are even currently advertising for a start up in Muslim north Nigeria. The scene is further complicated by the arrival on the scene of the new phenomenon of self-motivated singleton volunteers who present a very difficult counterterrorism problem. There is a new air of unpredictability in the counterterrorism field. As these terrorists get more efficient and change their tactics and targeting, which they certainly will, we will have more difficulty anticipating their activities.

Al Qaida goals

“Muslims hate us for who we are and everything we stand for” was an almost constant mantra for the Bush Administration. That is simply untrue. Muslims admire our standard of living, our entrepreneurial spirit, our business acumen and our creativity. Those Muslims who hate us, and today they come in ever increasing numbers, hate us not for who we are, but for what we do. They hate us for our policies.

Unlike Al Qaida fundamentalists, moderate Muslims, where they may have serious complaints about American policy, are not enthralled at the thought of fundamentalist Islam taking over their lives. Moderates represent our greatest potential allies in this struggle with Al Qaida, but they are also easily turned against us.

What turns all Muslims, including moderates, against us is that:

  1. They are offended by the stationing of non-Muslim, foreign (American) troops on the holy soil of Saudi Arabia.
  2. They resent the American history of supporting and maintaining in power despotic regimes that rule Muslim people by force and intimidation.
  3. They hate us for killing Muslims, waging war in and occupying Muslim countries.
  4. They would like to see Palestinian aspirations treated with the same respect and care by America as the US treats Israeli aspirations.

Al Qaida’s primary goal is the re-establishment of strict Islamic rule in a new Caliphate, modeled on the Eighth Century Caliphate that stretched from Spain through North Africa and on through the Middle East to the eastern border of what is now Iran and which held sway over what was then the entire Muslim world.

The establishment of this new Caliphate is designed to rid the Muslim world of what Al Qaida sees as the corrupting influences of the West. An established Caliphate would diminish support of elements in the Muslim world which would today be opposed to Al Qaida goals. That would include virtually all of the regimes now in power there, including those that Al Qaida considers to be the corrupt secular Muslim regimes supported by the West.

In 2005, Robert Pape of the University of Chicago analyzed over 500 suicide or martyrdom attacks around the world over the past quarter century. He concluded that “what over 95 percent of all suicide terrorist attacks around the world since 1980 have in common – from Lebanon, to Chechnya, to Sri Lanka, to Kashmir, to the West Bank – is not religion, but a specific strategic goal: to compel a modern democracy to withdraw combat forces from territory the terrorists view is their homeland, or prize greatly.”

It follows that the activities of groups that use such tactics are directed toward local, not international goals. Al Qaida is focused on reestablishing strict Islamic rule in a new Caliphate. To that end, Al Qaida is doing everything it possibly can to keep the US militarily involved in the Muslim world in the short run. They know that the Muslim world is not yet ready for their fundamentalist Caliphate. They want us to stay in Iraq and Afghanistan because our military presence and activities strengthen their position with their co-religionists.

Al Qaida “martyrdom attacks” are designed to create and maintain an unstable situation, which, in the short term, the US will find difficult to leave. They need us to stay in the Middle East in the short run because our military presence daily coalesces more and more moderates against us and for Al Qaida.

Moreover, they would be absolutely delighted to see us involved on the ground in Somalia, the Yemen or any other Muslim state. Our continued presence and military activities provide them with critical advantages they would not have in our absence.

Direct Al Qaida attacks in the West are designed to show the Muslim world how all-powerful they are. They even claim unsuccessful attacks. It would also increase western insecurity and disrupt their resolve to maintain their long-term interests in the Muslim World. Such attacks are not designed to take over the West or any part of it.

The old Bush notion that “we will fight them over there, so we don’t have to fight them at home” has no basis in fact.

Thus, it is in Al Qaida’s interest to keep America on edge at home. When and if airplanes become less vulnerable targets as a result of western countermeasures, Al Qaida will switch to softer targets; ships, subways, buses, trains, etc. They will do this until they believe America no longer represents a long-term threat to their goals in the Muslim world, when we have withdrawn, or when they have died a natural death.

To survive, Al Qaida must have an external enemy and we have turned ourselves into Al Qaida’s enemy of choice. If we disengage from their battlefield before the majority of moderates turn against us, they will have to deal immediately with all those unavoidable, intractable, internal Muslim issues that have made our lives so complicated since the Iraq invasion. Religious, ethnic and national differences, rivalries and conflicts will be Al Qaida’s to deal with in their quest for the Caliphate.

Al Qaida and its fundamentalist allies are no more likely to succeed in this than America was in attempting to forcibly install democracy in the Muslim world.

The key to the future of Islam lies in its moderates. Whoever secures their allegiance and cooperation, secures the region. Unfortunately, today’s moderates are driven more by their hatred for US policies than they are about Al Qaida’s un-Islamic excesses. They are less offended by Al Qaida’s taking of innocent Muslim lives than they are by US military activities and policies.

When America no longer poses a threat to Al Qaida, that is, after American military disengagement, the moderates will become the primary counterbalance to the radical excesses of Al Qaida. Until then, with our military present, killing Muslims and trying to keep the despots in power, we will exacerbate tensions with the moderates and drive them toward Al Qaida.

Failed states

Much is made of the necessity for us to pay attention to and “do something” about failed and failing states. Taking Taliban Afghanistan in the pre 9/11 period as our national model, we have apparently decided that the elimination of failed states is the answer to our problems with terrorism.

In the real world, that does not compute, a fact that is perfectly illustrated by Richard Reid, the shoe bomber whose terrorist odyssey was focused largely on the UK, hardly a failed state. Other Al Qaida affiliated operations have been planned in the UK, Spain and other non-failed states.

All an enterprising terrorist organization needs to carry out a shoe bombing or an underwear bombing is a reasonably secure safe house in a country where not too much attention is paid to people who mind their own business and thus do not come to the attention of local internal security authorities. The 9/11 attacks could easily have been planned in New York City itself and, significantly, required that its participants get their flight training in America.

Such conditions exist all over the world and provide Al Qaida affiliates with all the options they could need to plan their operations. However, even if it were not the case, the issue of dealing with failed or failing states presents an entirely different set of problems and pitfalls for American policy makers.

The Muslim world is comprised of a number of “nation states” that were more the creation of Western imperialist powers than the result of natural cultural, political, and economic evolution. The result can be seen in Iraq where there are two major interpretations of Islam, Shia and Sunni, plus two major ethnic groups, Arabs and Kurds. In Iraq, as in all the other “failed and failing states”, those divisions and conflicts are at the root of our difficulties in trying to find solutions to problems there and that are in keeping with our goals and values.

How can we solve our problems with Al Qaida when the host governments of countries where we have tangible military goals are not sufficiently helpful. They are either uninterested in our problems, as in Somalia, so busy trying to deal with their own that they have no time for our issues, as in the Yemen, or actually have reasons of their own not to help us out, as in Pakistan with the Taliban. In effect, we are left competing for the time and attention of the reluctant or incompetent governments on which our own policies have forced us to rely. That is not a good formula for success.

Solutions

There really are only three available solutions for our problems with terrorism in the Muslim World: (1) we can respond to all such situations with military power, (2) we can disengage militarily from the Muslim World or (3) we can try to implement a hybrid of the first two. Under the Bush Administration, we were totally married to the military solution. Under the Obama administration, it would appear we are flirting with the hybrid. No one has tried disengagement.

What we know is that a decade of military confrontation has created at least as many problems for us as it solved, largely because it has alienated, infuriated and neutralized moderate Muslims. It seems highly unlikely that the ongoing hybrid Obama approach will be any more successful, as the same issues of alienation and hostility still exists.

Yet, a careful examination of the realities of the Muslim world and our relationship with it will argue favorably for our complete military disengagement from the region. That act would effectively remove the primary motivation of present and future moderate Muslims who, as a result of our ongoing policies, have come to support, or at least not actively oppose Al Qaida.

There will be major concerns that our military disengagement from both Iraq and Afghanistan will precipitate internal strife in those countries, or worse yet, a general conflagration in the Middle East. Almost all of the disparate ethnic and sectarian components in each of the countries there have external advocates or protectors in the Muslim world. Iraqi Shia have Iran, the Sunnis have Saudi Arabia and Syria, etc.

It does not appear at this time that any of those “protectors” actively seeks to precipitate strife either in the countries involved or in the greater region. Quite the opposite, they have every reason not to seek regional strife. It is far too destabilizing. However, if such strife does come on the heels of US military disengagement, it will be the endemic hatreds and rivalries that will precipitate it, whether we leave now or in fifty years. These divisions and hatreds have existed for millennia. How long are we prepared to stay?

It will be argued that military disengagement will jeopardize the West’s energy supplies, but oil is fungible and only has value when pumped out of the ground and traded. It is also the only major economic asset most of those countries have.

Some will say Israel will be jeopardized, but we have been their primary mediators for forty years. What Muslims view as our totally biased involvement has led only to a deterioration of the situation there. Demographics argue for a two-state solution for both Israeli and Palestinian survival. It may be time to let them sort it out themselves for their own survival. Our disengagement should help mitigate the participants’ excuses for not really negotiating.

Are we deserting our friends? Who are they and are they really friends, or are they in it simply to get whatever support they can from us for their own narrow national goals, without making more than a minimal commitment to us and to our needs?

The fact is that our recent military-based and spearheaded policies in the Muslim world have exacerbated our problems with terrorism, added endless new terrorists to our enemies’ ranks, sullied our previously good reputation with Muslim moderates, maintained and encouraged despots in power and accomplished very little positive for us.

If nothing else, it’s time to consider change. In that context, it might be a profitable departure for America to see the world as it really is, not as we would like it to be. Only then will we get policies that are in harmony with the existing facts on the ground.

New policy

Within the framework of our national interests, there is no viable military solution for terrorism in any part of the Muslim world. Everything we do militarily is directly contradictory to our national interests. The reason for that lies partly in the fact that Muslim terrorism seems to regularly morph into or become absorbed by insurgencies as in Iraq and Afghanistan.

More importantly, it stems from the critical, decades-old complaints that Muslims have had about American policies and activities in their region. What Americans need to understand is that as long as those American policies continue, we will be dealing with terrorism and rejection in the Muslim world. They are the causative factors behind the fact that, “they hate us for what we do, not who we are”.

If, on the other hand, we were to change those policies, Al Qaida would not last long in an increasingly moderate Muslim world hostile to their extreme and un-Muslim philosophies and activities. Without the United States as an intrusive, compliant, external whipping boy, Al Qaida would be forced to deal with the realities of their own diffuse and fragile Muslim world, a world largely hostile to them.

But this is a suggested policy built on the realities on the ground in the Muslim World and we all know that U.S. policy is more often built on the internal political needs of the Administration in power, in this case, the Obama administration.

Whatever happens, whatever decisions are made, we will not “win” our struggle with fundamentalist Muslim terrorism with our military establishment. Quite the contrary, as long as we are militarily involved, we will lose far more than we will gain and we will see no end to this terrorism.

Finding himself in a recently weakened position today vis-a-vis the Republicans and facing disapproval from elements of his own party, President Obama is faced with unhappy choices. If he were to see merit in complete military disengagement from the Muslim world, he would face onslaughts from Republicans and from all those who see advantages in the “long war”, including those people and organizations that benefit politically and economically from its continuation. That might just be enough to do him in.

On the other hand, if he can make up his mind to consider what is in our national interest and is prepared to suffer the perhaps dire political consequences of going against the supporters of the “long war”, he could, at minimum, begin the process of solving our most basic problems with the Muslim world and with terrorism.

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[Originally published in the Barre Times-Argus and Rutland Herald.]

he Obama administration, in the face of strong, highly professional, reality-based advice and commentary warning against any Afghan build-up, has decided to go ahead with such a troop build-up coupled with a withdrawal deadline. It would seem on the face of it to be a strange mix. Why raise the ante and simultaneously set a date for a withdrawal that can easily be waited out? What is the military rationale for that?

For political observers and junkies, it is fascinating to look at the “whys” of this policy decision. Certainly it was not based on a rational assessment that the facts on the ground in Afghanistan (and Pakistan) gave any hope for its success. Quite the opposite, history and current realities argue strongly against his policy. So, the decision must have been political.

Perhaps it was based on the old George W. Bush premise that you make foreign policy, not on the basis of the way the world is, but on the basis of the way you would like it to be. There’s nothing new here, as the Bush administration’s neoconservatives always opted for principle-based, rather than reality-based foreign policy.

Or perhaps it was because the president felt hemmed in by the positions he took on Iraq and Afghanistan during the 2008 presidential campaign. He did say, after all, that Iraq was a mistake, but that Afghanistan was a just war that had to be pursued because it was the main theater in our struggle with al Qaida. Of course, the facts do not support him on that, but he may have felt constrained from other considerations by his own campaign position when it came to an expedient policy for Afghanistan.

Or perhaps it was made because, with absolutely no military experience and precious little foreign policy experience, he was reluctant to argue against the Pentagon and the remaining American citizens, politicians and business that share the now discredited neoconservative conviction that military power is the correct, the only decision for all such foreign policy dilemmas. One might think that after Bush, Afghanistan, Iraq and Afghanistan a second time, we could have learned. However, it may have seemed far too politically dangerous to this inexperienced administration to go up against its detractors. Particularly as the vice president is the only one with any claim whatsoever to any valid experience.

Or, perhaps it was made because of the administration calculus that to have gone in any other direction, whatever its possible promise, would have materially weakened the Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections and ultimately in the next presidential election. The thought of returning to power a Republican Party that seems to have no policy of its own, other than to be against everything the Democrats want to do, must be terrifying to the White House and the Democratic caucus.

Or, perhaps it was made in the hope of neutralizing the Republicans’ military trump card by playing it. Of course, that wouldn’t work if you told your own generals, who are good at war, but not necessarily good at politics, that they are very likely wrong when they say they can “succeed.”

Or perhaps he really believes that he will not lose his core supporters when they digest all the “perhapses” and realize that absent the choice he made, the Democrats might be consigned to the political dust heap in 2010 and 2012, thus losing the opportunity to implement their more significant domestic agenda.

Or perhaps, worst of all, the president has settled on the same cynical exit strategy that Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger employed in Viet Nam, where, understanding they could not win, they sought a “decent interval” between the decision to withdraw and the actual withdrawal. That might be fine for them, but what about the troops and treasure we will lose while watching our Afghan demise.

Perhaps it was all of the above combined. Whatever the truth, it would appear that this Obama Afghan policy will shake out as one of the most crassly political decisions made by a recent president.

However, he says he has done his due diligence. He has chosen his policy and begun its implementation. All we can do is wish him well and pray that in the face of inevitable, historical and contemporary realities, something positive will come of his decision.

Barring major developments in Afghanistan/Pakistan, or the opportunity to eat his words, this is the last this writer intends to offer on that subject until there is some resolution of the problem that now faces us. Everything that could have been said has been said and there is no reason to keep on beating this dead horse.

Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in East and West Europe, the Middle East and as chief of the counterterrorism staff. He lives in Williston.

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