At the risk of being viewed as a “cut and run” anti-war activist, I think it is time for a review of President Obama’s Strategy and some historical perspective. Afghanistan is a fractious nation if in fact it could even be called a nation. Imperial China rarely had more than nominal control of the country and the reality was that the country was actually under the control of various warlords and this persisted until Mao centralized control in Beijing with a communist government. Although with his death modern China is increasingly looking more and more like Imperial China with a different name. But the point is that Afghanistan has always been a central government with only loose control while the real power was – and is – held by various war lords. Historically Afghanistan has been at war with the various warlords battling each other over various slights real and imaginary. While it may appear that the Taliban had total control over Afghanistan they did not. The Northern Alliance was not under their control and it was the Northern Alliance that worked with the NATO forces (read American) to over throw the Taliban. What has been lost in all of the subsequent rhetoric is that the objective was never the overthrow of the Taliban it was the destruction of Al Qaeda and had Mullah Omar agreed to turn over Osama bin Laden the Taliban would still be in power. Unfortunately, Mullah Omar stood by bin Laden because to do otherwise would have been a serious breech of Islamic hospitality which could have jeopardized his hold on the country because the Taliban were not popular, and his power rested on his strict adherence to Islamic Law and Custom.
So historically Afghanistan has been a series of tribal areas run by Tribal Chiefs with only loose loyalty to any central authority and the only unifying force has been Islam. It must be noted that Islam is not just a religion but it is the supreme authority over government. While the west likes to pretend that there are Islamic “nations” the reality is that these “nations” are actually shells which are under the control and direction of various Islamic authorities in the form of Mullahs and Imams. This means the US strategy of establishing a representative government in Afghanistan has always been somewhat misguided for several reasons. First Islam directs Muslims to not make or honor any treaty with non-Muslims. So any US efforts to establish anything from bureaus to schools will always be on shaky ground because Muslims are forbidden to accept or interact with infidels. Even if this can be overcome, any government will always be under the tacit control of Islamic authority, which means Karzai and his government will always be on shaky ground. So the US and President Obama are faced with a very thorny problem without any clear cut path to any sort of reasonable conclusion – given that withdrawal is not an option.
We are caught up in an insurgency, meaning that we are facing a light infantry guerilla force that melts into the population and attacks at will. Efforts to locate and destroy them inevitably leads to civilian deaths as they deliberately leak misinformation to the US which leads to attacks and the intended civilian deaths which causes the population to blame America. In the meantime efforts to locate and attack the Taliban are only marginally effective because when put under pressure they simply move across the border into Pakistan. Some might move into Iran but the real sanctuary is in the Pakistani Tribal areas where the Pakistani government has little authority and the Taliban enjoy the Islamic protections of hospitality and are supported due to the Islamic directive to kill infidels – meaning the Americans. So to these Pakistani Tribesmen – the Taliban are doing God’s (Allah’s) work.
Whether or not President Obama is sending one or 100,000 troops is almost beside the point because the probable outcome would be to force the Taliban across the border and into Pakistan where they can regroup, rearm, and raid back across the border – as these tribes have done for centuries. That would lead to a never ending war until the Americans tired of it and gave up and left at which time the Taliban would return and a civil war may or may not occur. So the troop surge is more of a tactic than a strategy, but unless the Pakistani’s step up to the plate and aggressively root out the Taliban and keep them in a vise between their military and the Americans, then the surge is just a waste of lives and treasure. But the darker side of this is can the Pakistani’s carry out their campaign against the Taliban? The answer is a very problematic maybe.
The Taliban are an irregular force, meaning they have no uniforms and cannot be distinguished from local population. It has already been demonstrated that the Pakistani military is not free of hidden Taliban agents, meaning any Pakistani military operation could be and to date has been-- betrayed. The Pakistani Intelligence Agency has been deeply infiltrated by the Taliban which means that both Pakistani and joint American operations are unlikely to be highly successful since the Taliban will be warned in advance by their hidden sympathizers. Before any really successful operation against the Taliban can be mounted the Pakistani military and military intelligence will have to be purged of Taliban plus the Pakistani intelligence agency will have to infiltrate the Taliban. While American surveillance techniques are superb they only go so far and cannot ensure victory in the long term. If victory is to be achieved it will only be possible through the Pakistani’s – not through more American Troops.
The other part of the Obama strategy is to bring the Afghan military up to a level where it can defend the country against the Taliban. But this means that the Afghan military must be free of Taliban sympathizers and it has already been demonstrated that it is not. This does not mean that all is lost and the situation is hopeless, but it does mean that the situation has no easy solution. The key is Pakistan. They must force the Taliban out of Pakistan, Pakistan must purge its military of Taliban sympathizers and Islamic extremists and the Afghan government must purge itself of corruption, Taliban sympathizers, and infiltrate the Taliban in order to gain better intelligence. And finally – the source of the Taliban’s military supplies and funding must be located and destroyed because without arms and ammunition they will exhaust themselves and if the troops are not being paid they will leave – because they too have families that must be fed.
So President Obama is faced with a situation that has no easy answer and more troops may not be the best answer. The real answer lies in diplomacy and strategy, let’s hope that the Pakistani government can finally gain control of their country – all of it.