The Afghanistan War: Huge Challenges for President Barack Obama
Dr. Ehsan Entezar
The new administration in Washington, led by a man who has focused on improving the security situation in Afghanistan, is facing a grave problem: The Afghan people are increasingly angry with their government and with the American presence, which they now see as an occupation.
The living conditions-lack of security and basic services including high prices of housing and food and other necessities- are so bad that some Afghans are nostalgic about the days of Communism and the Taliban. During the Taliban, roads were safe and citizens did not live in fear because there was law and order and very little corruption. Unemployment and the education of children, especially girls , were of course a problem but the people were safe. I was told in Kabul a couple of years ago that if I left my suitcase on the sidewalk during the Taliban, it would be still there the next day. Similarly, when the communists were in power, people had enough to eat and had a roof over their head; the government provided its employees with subsidized housing, food, clothing and other basic necessities. Like the Taliban, government officials were not as corrupt as they are now.
The current situation and continuous disappointment with the Karzai government, may soon reach a critical point in Afghanistan: The public may rise and resist what they see as an occupation to foreign troops. Portents abound: The migration of internal or local refugees to Kabul and to other major cities; control of more districts by the insurgency; the emergence of resistance groups in parts of the country; cooperation of some government officials with the insurgency; the dangerous rift between the U.S. forces and the Afghan populace in the countryside; the recent anti-American demonstrations; and desertion of some police to the Taliban.
These problems are the result of the mistakes made by the Bush administration, such as collusion with Afghan warlords after 9/11. The corrupt and dysfunctional Afghan government is the outcome of this policy. Picking Hamid Karzai to lead the country was another mistake. He was inexperienced, indecisive, opportunist and corrupt and had no political base; now he's referred as the "mayor of Kabul". Still another U.S. blunder was paying Pakistan's Parvez Musharaf billions of dollars to crack down on al-Qaeda with very little effect..Not only didn't he do much about al-Qaeda, he allowed the Taliban to cross the border and kill Afghans, Americans and other foreigners. Finally, the most serious mistake the US made was the invasion of Iraq, diverting resources from Afghanistan in the process; the money spent in Iraq was the money not spent in Afghanistan. Thus, it was because of these and other mistakes that the Afghan war may turn into a quagmire, making it very hard and costly to correct the situation and come up with an effective strategy for the war in Afghanistan. What are the US options?
The United States has three options to prevent an uprising : 1) a declaration of regime change as sufficient to victory followed by a departure of the Western presence; 2) to continue the current strategy with more emphasis on a troop surge; and 3) a drastic change of the current strategy focused not only on the suppression of al-Qaeda and the Taliban but equally on nation and state building together with poppy eradication and, more importantly, confronting Pakistan and the Afghan warlords.
Option #1 is to draw down troops and depart the field. However, this option is unlikely because President Obama has promised to shift the focus from Iraq to Afghanistan and Robert Gates' stated goal "to prevent Afghanistan from being used [as a base] for terrorists to attack the United States or our allies." With U.S. departure from the country now, NATO and other international players would likely to follow suit. The long-term consequences of calling regime change in Afghanistan a "success" and departing is clear: Al-Qaeda and the Taliban would return in force to take power and might well attack the U.S again.
Option #2, to continue the current strategy with some cosmetic changes, is the conventional wisdom but very dangerous that could turn Afghanistan into another U.S. Vietnam. Based on what has been made public on the new strategy in Afghanistan, there are similarities between these two options: vagueness of the mission, outsourcing tasks to others, paying insufficient attention to the root cause of insurgency, and doing it on the cheap.
The second option appears to be the new Administration's strategy and it has serious flaws. First, there is no guarantee that NATO will take on the task of state and nation building in addition to its security and other obligations. Second, there is the problem of coordination between Coalition forces led by US and those led by NATO. Third, in focusing efforts on "certain areas," within Afghanistan, deterioration may accelerate in regions where there has been relative security, areas such as the non-Pashtun regions in the central, northern and western parts of the country. Fourth, the presence of more troops in a particular area simply increases the number of U.S. casualties as it did in Iraq—the Taliban response will be to send more combatants across the border and simultaneously intensify road bombs and suicide attacks.
Fifth, there are serious doubts about the success of arbaki or "tribal militias," and what the Afghan ministry of interior now calls the Public Protection Force (PPF). The invasion of the Soviet Union in 1979 and the subsequent civil war replaced the traditional elite system throughout Afghanistan; prior to that, only the Pushtuns were tribal. That is why the new elite are no longer the Khans, maliks (village elders) and others but warlords, commanders, council members, government officials and so on. Thus, unlike Pakistani Pashtuns, the Pashtuns in Afghanistan no longer have tribal leaders as it is the warlords who dominate the scene. Besides, what has worked in Iraq may not also work in Afghanistan. In Iraq, the Sunni Arab tribal leaders had no choice but to form tribal militias to seek help from the U.S. since Baghdad was dominated by Shi'is and the Sunnis did not want to be left out of power. Unlike Afghanistan, the Iraqi Sunni tribal militias were fighting al-Qaeda and other foreigners, not their fellow tribe men. And, of course, the borders are very different: There is no Pakistan there to send the Sunni Arabs thousands of trained and armed militias to fight the US troops in Iraq. Of course Iran had some role in the insurgency, but it was mostly to help the Shi'is.
Additionally, in the Afghan culture, members of the same ethnic groups rarely take up arms against each other. The Taliban are Pashtun and so are most of the residents of the south and east. Fomenting Pashtuns to attack other Pashtuns is an unlikely road to success. The U.S. must deal with the warlords in forming such militias or PPFs, and outsource the task of fighting the Taliban; outsourcing of this type has been a conspicuous failure in the past. For example, when bin Laden and some other top al-Qaeda operatives were surrounded in the Tora Bora mountains, the United States paid three local warlord groups to capture or kill them. These warlords took money from both sides but let the al-Qaeda terrorists escape to Pakistan. Here it was a question of money and religion. Perhaps the Taliban paid them more or the warlords did not want to hand Muslims over to the infidel Americans.
Further, if the US troops join such militias on missions, there is no guarantee that American troops would not be killed by "friendly fire" in exchange for a ticket to Paradise or for money from the enemy. One solution to this problem would be for the U.S. and/or NATO troops to be stationed on the Pakistani borders or to assign non-Pashtuns as border guards or PPF; the Uzbeks, for example would likely fight a Pashtun Talib. Finally, non-Pashtuns (60%) are against arming Pashtun militias, fearing that they (Pashtuns, 40%) would use the weapons against other ethnic groups as soon as the United States leaves Afghanistan. Also, in case of any uprising against Kabul or the U.S. and other foreign forces in Afghanistan, these armed militias would be very dangerous. In short, arming militias is very dangerous now that the warlords are in power. Finally, this misguided approach may also serve a political purpose—aid to the PPF in Pashtun areas will also help Karzai get more votes in the upcoming presidential elections in exchange for hefty salaries paid in US dollars (In Iraq, militias were paid $300 a month; in Afghanistan a teacher makes about $70 a month). The warlords also lie about the numbers of their militia/PPF in order to obtain more money from the U.S. To this end, Hanif Atmar, the minister of interior and notorious for nepotism, has already appointed his own men in key positions in these regions to handle the PPFs. Therefore, instead of the PPFs, money and other resources should be used to strengthen the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police.
Option #2 then, though in some ways an improvement to Operation Enduring Freedom (the Bush strategy) is still problematic because it relies heavily on outsourcing, quick fixes and a failure of an analysis of the Afghan society, among other drawbacks. This option will be very costly to the U.S. not just in blood but also in treasure. The US public may have the stomach for a few more years of war and casualties in Afghanistan, but the Afghan public does not. Their patience has run out. They have waited seven long years for "peace, prosperity and security"
To remedy the situation, therefore, the U.S. has no choice but to go for a third option.
Both the Pakistani military and Afghan warlords share a common objective of instability and chaos in Afghanistan. Pakistan is the source of terrorism and the indigenous warlords a big obstacle to good governance. The United States, therefore, must confront these twin threats in order to establish stability in Afghanistan.
To understand why Pakistani military behaves the way it does, one needs to keep in mind that militant Islam is a mechanism for keeping its military elite in power. Ever since the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union in 1979, Pakistan has been counting on establishing "a friendly government" there—the terrorist attacks on the United States on 9/11and the consequential overthrow of the Taliban snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, something the Pakistanis will never forget. Militant Islam is in DNA of Pakistan and unless it becomes a threat to Pakistan's national security, the country will not do anything willingly to curb militant Islam . However, continuous U.S. air strikes inside Pakistani territory, killing al-Qaeda and Taliban operatives,
Finally, Afghanistan's internal problem, the warlords, dominate not just politics, but also business and the drug trade. Most Afghans wonder whether these former mujahideen had waged jihad against the former Soviet Union for the sake of God or for money and power. These warlords- along with some Western technocrats in the Karzai government-or their family members provide the foreign community with much of its housing, rental cars, translators, servants and other services and projects, amounting to tens of million dollars a month. For example, in 2002, Gul Agha Sherzai, the governor of Kandahar, was making $1.5 million a month for providing building materials, fuel and other items."(Ahmad Rashid 2008: 133) Thanks to the support from the United States, warlords are now the richest and most powerful elites Afghanistan. In addition to bodyguards, ownership of mansions, fancy restaurants, and bullet proof cars, warlords have purchased property in Dubai worth tens of millions of dollars and have fattened their overseas bank. It is not surprising, then, that a government dominated by Warlords is dysfunctional, corrupt, inept and unaccountable. They are preoccupied with power and money and since they have been empowered by the United States, they don't feel obligated to serve the Afghan people. "Although the Americans had liberated [the Afghans]from the evil of the Taliban, they had brought back another evil: the warlords, " says Ahmad Rashid.(Ibid 131) To many Afghans, the United States pushed the warlords twice down the throats of Afghans: in 1989 and 2001, each time for almost eight years.
In conclusion, for Option#3 or "Operation Enduring Obligation" to be successful, the two major obstacles Pakistan and warlords must be tackled. Using its hard and soft power, the US needs to make Pakistan military uproot both al-Qaeda and the Taliban and withdraw its support of the Afghan warlords. Afghanistan needs good governance and that calls for a drastic change in the form and makeup of its current system. To this end, it would be necessary to replace much of the top- and mid- level officials of the current Karzai government—warlords and Western educated technocrats who are a part of the problem, not a part of the solution. The number of top Sunni and Shi'I warlords does not exceed 40, according to Ramazan Bashardost, a former minister of planning and now a parliamentarian. Most of the Afghan people resent these elites and warlords and would jump at the chance for a change of government. A Loya Jirgah could be called to (1) pick the head of state who will then take over when Karzai's term is over next summer; (2) appoint a government advisory council; (3) amend the constitution to adopt a parliamentarian model of government, provincial autonomy and others, and (4) appoint a Special Court to decide on the fate of war criminals and root out corruption.
This third option will not be easy going, but staying the course with only minor modifications will almost certainly lead to failure. Unless the war in Afghanistan is handled properly it could become another Vietnam. One can only hope that President Obama will reject quick-fix solutions and come up with a comprehensive strategy to meet these huge challenges, restoring the dignity of both nations in the process.