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March 22, 2012

Afghanistan for the Afghans

by Mike M

Just what’s going on at the Washington Post?  In a masthead editorial on Afghanistan today, the Post walked its readers through an argument for more attention to “some of the good news that has been overlooked recently.”  It referred to the testimony of General Allen and lamely regurgitated some of the weak statistics that are being broadcast by progress defenders around town:  “the Taliban has been greatly weakened by a NATO offensive in the south and by special forces operations against its commanders; attacks are down by a quarter so far this year compared to 2011.”

We’ve heard this junk before, and while technically accurate, it means nothing.  No one ever doubted that if the United States deployed tens of thousands more troops, it could shove the Taliban off some land.  The question was whether those tactical gains would have strategic effects, in two particular ways:  To so weaken the Taliban that they essentially sued for peace; and to provide the space for coalition civilian efforts to erect Afghan political and economic institutions that could win the allegiance of their people and be capable of carrying on the fight independently.

It is now pretty clear that neither of those things are true.  We hear reporting, both unofficial/open source and comments by U.S. officials, that the Taliban is exhausted, hard pressed, sick and tired of their Pakistani ISI overlords and so on, and they keep coming close to various forms of “talks” or talks about talks.  But the violence is as much criminal as insurgent, and even the insurgents are fractious; and any genuine sense of having shoved the “insurgents” to the breaking point seems far off.  With progress in the south has come disturbing reports from the east, where violence has escalated and Taliban control reportedly grown.  Meantime the efforts to build effective governance have failed utterly; anybody who still writes—as the Post did today—that “the administration must still tackle the challenge of fostering a credible Afghan government that can manage the army and the country after 2014,” is just spitting into a very stiff, decade-long wind.  We are leaving.  We have no more influence to make this happen.  Period.

Meantime there is strong evidence that the twin tragedies of recent weeks—the Koran burnings and the massacres of Afghan civilians by a U.S. sergeant—will someday be viewed as the inflection point of the U.S. role in the country.  Afghan tolerance for the U.S. presence had been on a slow decline for years; anger had been building about issues like night raids.  These two issues have thrown into stark relief the continued high-handed U.S. conduct of a war on Afghan soil, and there is now no going back.  Throw into the mix the fact that many Afghans believe that the massacres were the result of a collective conspiracy—a belief egged on by comments from senior Afghan officials—and a potent brew of resentment, fury, religious resentment, and nationalist pride has been awakened.

Far more persuasive than the Official Line being parroted by the Post is a short piece at FP by the analyst Ryan Evans, who points to personal experience and persuasive evidence to suggest that the campaign has stagnated—and rightly contends that war progress boosters like Michael O’Hanlon and Bruce Reidel won’t fulfill their own promises.  “Noting President Obama’s July 2011 deadline to major force commitments in Afghanistan,” Evans writes, “O’Hanlon remarked, ‘I agree that if the strategy is not showing certain signs of hopefulness over the next 12 months, then we have to fundamentally re-assess.’  Just months before, Riedel commented, ‘If, by the middle of 2011…we don’t see any sign of change, then we’ve learned something. The patient was dead.’”  But they left the analysis sitting there, Evans argued.  “Two years later, reading their article on ‘finishing the job’ in Afghanistan (which recycles the same old arguments) it is clear to me that O’Hanlon has not fulfilled his promise to call for a re-assessment, and Riedel has not been frank about our lack of success.”

Amen.  But then, the “salute and carry on” brigade is out in full force.  What else is there to do?  Nobody wants to pack up and leave—which would be irresponsible.  Many folks who recognize that the campaign has run out of steam don’t have any good alternatives, so they sit by and watch as a slow-motion tragedy plays itself out:  More years of war; thousands of Afghan dead, and hundreds of American servicemembers and contractors; a country that continues to be ravaged by violence; tens of billions more into the maw of conflict.

Again, there is no simple answer to this.  The fundamental response is the path we are already on:  Transfer responsibility to Afghans.  This will occur, faster than many realize—by 2013, Afghan forces will be “in the lead” in combat operations throughout the entire country.  In theory we’re just over two years from the near-complete withdrawal of coalition forces.

And yet, again, it remains “America’s war.”  We try to dictate its terms.  We determine what tactics are “necessary” for success.  We train Afghan units to our specifications.  Our aid organizations make studies and tell Afghans what is needed for development.  We, along with various coalitions of NGOs, make judgments about what standards will be tolerated in Afghan prisons, and tell the Afghan government when and under what terms it may take custody of its own citizens.  Meantime some troops have taken to buying unauthorized patches that proudly proclaim their infidel status.

Quite frankly, we’re lucky the whole damned place hasn’t risen up against us.  This is all a simplification, of course, and tells one side of a more complex story:  In many of these cases (for example, government reform and prison conditions), Afghan reformers are thankful for the U.S. pressure, without which they would never get the positive change they see as necessary to achieve better governance.  Thousands of times every day across the country, American troops and diplomats take steps, small and large, to make life better for Afghans.

But the fundamental truth now is that the inflection point has come, and gone.  Our strategy must now be to pair the military reality of transition with a political strategy—change our behavior, make concessions, grant greater control to Afghans at all levels starting immediately, beginning with some high-profile announcements, such as perhaps a drastic reduction in night raids (as some reports suggest may be in the offing).  Military commanders will howl, and say it will give the insurgency a breather.  The truth is more complex:  However many hundreds of Taliban we kill in those raids between now and, say, mid-2014 will not make the difference between victory and defeat; but the political signal of enhance influence and authority for the Afghan government from such a move, as well as the reduced resentment to the U.S., could make a serious difference.

Because the fact is, we’re going to be out of there quicker than anyone cares to admit.  It will be their war, very soon.  The primary question now is on what terms we engage with them on their fighting of their war.  Another very big assumption holds that we can keep 10,-15,000 men stationed there indefinitely, to ward off al Qaeda remnants and help prevent a Taliban takeover—but the betting here is that the residue of an Infidel presence can’t last too long after a decade of intrusive combat operations.  We’re going to need the sovereign government of Afghanistan to invite us in to do some of the dirty work we’re going to need done.

We’ve been talking about transition for a year now.  We have a plan to take our forces out.  It’s time for a serious plan to let Afghans run Afghanistan.

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