Montag, Februar 02, 2009

Foolishness Compounded...

This is about as foolish an opinion that I have seen in a long time.

In some ways, it pains me to say that, as Anatol Lieven isn't someone stupid. I think, though, that he is someone who has become completely exasperated with the world.

Let's take a look at what he says, not all of which is foolish.

It is certain that as one of its first actions, President Barack Obama's administration will approve a military "surge" in Afghanistan come the spring. The question that needs to be decided is: a surge for what? On the answer will depend in large part the success or failure of the administration in the "war on terror" as a whole.

So far, so good. Of course you can't simply throw troops at the problem, any more than the pork of the so-called stimulus bill, which embodies the time-tested solution of Washington to all problems (throw money at them), will actually help get us out of the recession, unlike tax breaks would.

This is less because of Afghanistan itself than because of the impact on neighbouring Pakistan – a country of critical importance to global security, where extremism is being gravely worsened by the war on its borders and the demands being placed on it by Washington.

The problem in Pakistan is not that the extremists are being driven to distraction by the US, the West and the war on terror, but rather because Pakistan is falling apart as the badlands - aka Tribal Areas - find that they can do what they bloody well please: without an overriding central authority, Pakistan is too complex and too easily broken for it to succeed as a country. The side effects of the war on terror don't help the situation, but they're not the cause.

If the Obama administration's goal in the surge is to buy some more time for a continuation of existing policies, then the Taliban will simply bury their weapons, melt into the population and across the border into Pakistan and lie low until US forces pull back to their bases. Thirty thousand more soldiers can certainly drive the Taliban underground for a while but they are not remotely enough to garrison their strongholds permanently.

This isn't unique to Afghanistan and the Taliban: this is standard for any counter-insurgency program. The point of a successful counter-insurgency is to stop the insurgency, not temporarily, but permanently: this is not done by the piecemeal efforts currently in place. Here I fear Lieven doesn't understand how the Surge worked in Iraq - and it did work, spectacularly so - since the game has changed so massively: the Surge worked because US and Iraqi forces were able to separate the insurgents from the crowd and then killed them. That's the whole point: of using modern observation and identification techniques to find the bad guys, follow them, find out where they hide, and then kill them there.

If the surge does achieve significant temporary success, will this be used to enable the US to go through with presidential elections in Afghanistan this August?

Should be the case. Duh.

As many US officials and soldiers recognise in private, there would be something profoundly odd about Washington risking a bloody disaster only in order to re-elect Hamid Karzai's administration, in which most Afghans and westerners have long since lost all confidence.

Fine: what is the alternative?

Seriously, what is the alternative? The Afghani government is in a shambles, corruption is commonplace, and this is new? This is something unexpected? Good lord, how naive can one be?

The point of the election is to continue the democratic process. If Karzai's government is as corrupt and incompetent as many seem to see, then where, tell me, is the loyal opposition? Where are the alternatives?

The usual response to this argument is that Washington cannot find anyone to replace Mr Karzai. This is true but what it reflects is the fact that the failure of the Afghan state since 2001 has been due not so much to the personal failings of Mr Karzai and his followers as to profound factors in Afghanistan that make the creation of a modern state across the whole country virtually impossible under any leader.

Well, no disagreement here.

Instead of dreaming of a new strongman, the Obama administration should use the military surge to buy time for a different plan altogether. This should begin with the calling of a new Afghan national assembly, or Loyah Jirga, in order to change the Afghan constitution.

Oh dear. When the Afghans don't seem to be playing the game we want them to, please call a constitutional assembly?

In other words, and in so many words, the wogs are being difficult, let's make them do what we want them to do.

This change should include the suspension or abolition of the executive presidency in favour of a prime ministerial system, with a cabinet composed of non-political technocrats; a law allowing political parties to put up candidates for parliament; and on this basis, the legitimation of political forces representing the Taliban, which, as with Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland, can then be used to open serious negotiations with the Taliban leadership.

This is the beginning of the foolishness. Just as Hamas and Israel will never meaningfully talk - because the destruction of Israel is the goal of Hamas - so, too, the Afghanis and the Taliban. This strikes me as a fundamental mistake, of ignoring the realities of Afghanistan - that it is and remains a tribal society, something that the Taliban want to destroy just as much as the Afghani socialists did when they overthrew the last king - in order to create a solution that would, at the end of the day, be little more than surrender.

In the long run, the aim should be a radically decentralised Afghanistan in which the Taliban can be permitted to take over much of the country in return for a guarantee – under threat of aerial bombardment – not to give shelter to terrorists.

Now this is where the real foolishness comes in. Give the country to the Taliban, make them promise not to be bad people, and when they are, then we'll bomb them. This is the sort of foolishness that condemns entire countries to poverty and oppression, that ensures that the tribal societies there are destroyed and a "new" generation of jihadistis will grow up and be trained to take the fight to the West.

Excuse me, who will you bomb? Think that the Taliban will put up a big sign "bad people here" and then stay in place when they start training the next generation of fighters? This is madness.

The Taliban isn't Al Queda, but it is about the closest thing to them. The Taliban would agree to this in the shake of a donkey's eye, but would break it when convenient - and after waiting for the West to conveniently forget about Afghanistan - just like they've always done. For the Taliban, breaking word with the infidel is not a sin, it's a virtue. After all, the West are unbelievers, and as such a promise means nothing.

This is exactly what Bill Clinton did with the Taliban, and we know how that worked out, don't we? It's the best way to get the Taliban to view us with even more contempt than we already do.

In the short to medium term, just as in Northern Ireland, the war should continue in order to put pressure on the Taliban to compromise, and in order further to harass and weaken al-Qaeda.

This is where the mistake comes in: since when does the Taliban compromise? The conflict in Northern Ireland took several decades to get to the point where compromises could be made on both sides: is this what Lieven really wants? Further, Northern Ireland, for all its hate and tribal fighting, was nonetheless part of the West, with some shared principles. Can one really say the Taliban is like that?

To pursue any successful US strategy will, however, also require a definitive answer to a second important question: Is the surge intended to allow the US to leave Afghanistan with honour and limited success, as is President Obama's stated intention in the case of Iraq? Or is the plan to establish a permanent US military presence in the country?

Or how about the third alternative: of the creation of a functioning Afghanistan state, one capable of showing the Taliban the door while impoving the lot of its people? To say that there are only two choices here is a straw man: no one wants a permanent US military presence in Afghanistan, but it may be necessary in order to achieve the latter. The former is "peace with honor", and we know how many Vietnamese died as a result. As such, it's not an alternative, but rather craven instead.

If the latter, then there will never be peace because, as long as US troops remain in Afghanistan, Pashtuns will be found to attack them and anyone allied to them. This has been the pattern of Pashtun history ever since the British showed up in the region more than 150 years ago. Furthermore, many of the even more numerous Pashtuns of Pakistan are now also committed to this struggle.

Sorry: this fails to understand how the modern military works. The supply of Pashtun is limited, and as the death toll of Pashtun who go to fight climbs and climbs, even the Pashtun will learn. Afghanistan is not Vietnam, nor is it Iraq. The countryside can be controlled and kill zones erected, but we won't be nice and tell the Taliban or the Pushtun where they are.

If, however, the Obama administration does intend to leave Afghanistan completely, then it should announce this publicly. The prior withdrawal of American forces has been set by the Taliban as a precondition of negotiations but it seems possible that, in certain circumstances, they would in fact accept a formal guarantee to leave by a fixed date not too far in the future.

And this is the penultimate foolishness. To tell the world: we're out of here, regardless of the situation, is to annouce defeat. Not merely to annouce it, it is tantamount to saying to the enemy "hold on until Day X; after then, we'll be gone, have a nice day".

If that is what Lieven wants, that's a different story. But that's is so completely foolish that I decided I had to write these words.

Fundamentally, you never give something like this away if you are trying to seriously deal with the problems in Afghanistan. Here I see the exasperance of the writer with the fact that the entire region - from Iraq to Pakistan - is, fundamentally, a failed region, incapable of governing themselves and absolutely opposed to having some else govern them, squabbling forever about splitting up the spoils while the needs of their populations go unanswered, and fundamentally unable to understand that the world is not a zero-sum game. I fear that the writer has been gamed by the Pashtun and the Taliban into believing what he writes.

All this will not be easy for the US to swallow. The leaders of the new administration, however, need to ask themselves whether, given Afghan realities, there is really a reasonable chance that 10 years and tens of thousands of deaths from now, a continued US military campaign will be any nearer to creating a successful Afghan state than it is today; and what appalling damage may have been done to Pakistan in the meantime.

And US interests? And the interests of the Afghanis? He talks here really only of Pakistan and how resisting the Pashtun tribal foolishness will destroy that state. The US need not bear the brunt of the fighting once the Afghanis learn how to play the counterinsurgency game: if anything, they will probably take to it with a vengeance. To be honest: Pakistan is doing this to itself, as it is already a failed state, albeit one with nuclear weapons, a small industrialized base and a state which is just at the beginning of collapse.

This is, fundamentally, a call to return to the policies of Clinton and that mad mob who were more than happy to toss a few cruise missiles at aspirin factories when they were annoyed.

Well, that really worked. There is no reason to believe that the policies listed here would be anything less than an unmitigated catastrophe for the region.

The alternative? Afghanistan is a tribal society. Work with tribes, solve their disputes (which was part of how the US succeeded in Iraq), get them to work together because they will profit, support their life styles, get them earning money, let them hate the Taliban, and then slowly fade away. It will take three generations before Afghan recovers from its national calamities.

Don't like that? Thank the Soviets. Actually, thank the misguided fools who sent Afghanis to the West to study things like sociology and let them bring back socialist ideas to ruin the country.

Keine Kommentare: