A Further Perspective

Victory and Defeat in Afghanistan

The Taliban have to like their chances now.

By 6.23.11

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There have been many characterizations of "victory" with respect to the Afghan conflict, but none of them appears capable of being put into effect. Perhaps the reason for this is that Afghanistan is a country defined by no other purpose than to be the site of constant disagreement.

There is no central order -- nor has there ever been -- demanding peace. There is no single Afghan language. There is no ethnic unity. There is no modern economic dynamism other than the country's role as a trading crossroads -- and today in monetary terms that primarily means varying forms of drug production, processing, and distribution. The arable land is about ten percent and that which is cultivated is a little more than half of that. Afghanistan's economy is predominantly subsistence level, and has been for centuries. From the Afghans' point of view, the closest thing to victory would be just to be allowed to go about their lives with minimal interference.

President Hamid Karzai, the urbane, multilingual, pretend leader of the nation, has essentially said: "Train and equip our indigenous security forces; provide a continuing fund for reconstruction and development; declare victory, if you wish, then leave. Afghanistan will handle the rest. But please do it quickly because we really need to have all you foreigners out of here."

The response from Washington has been: "We can't leave until al Qaeda can't reestablish itself in your country and we know the Taliban can not take over the country; the drug trade is eliminated or at least controlled; and the nation can be drawn together in mutual security." In other words, the country known as Afghanistan must be reborn as a peaceful, self-sustaining entity. Of course there is little chance of that happening unless the history of the nation since the early 1800s is ignored.

Out of an approximate population of 30 million, of which about 12% live in Kabul and its environs, there are hundreds of tribes, sub-tribes, and families divided among seven principal ethnic groups. As an example, the largest ethnic group, the Pashtun, include some 60 tribes and 400 sub-tribes. The overriding allegiance of all Afghans is to their family/clan structure. This is not a base for a modern cohesive national structure unless a dominant leader arises who can bring the disparate elements together. Anyone with that ambition usually is restricted by his own ethnicity or else ends up assassinated by a rival group. This calculus is the basis for continuing internal competition and combat between and among the various partisan elements. The Taliban originally came to power in that environment.

Purportedly, General David Petraeus had submitted several options for withdrawal to the White House. President Obama also had recommendations from his own political advisors. It is certain that Gen. Petraeus would have loaded his options to provide ample military cover for withdrawal. Nonetheless he knew that Obama also would weigh his own political advantages in making a decision. This does not make for the best possible military strategic situation to evolve, but guarantees that troops would be withdrawn in a manner that satisfies White House re-election politics.

A mantle of pseudo-military science has been placed over the issue of withdrawal from Afghanistan. The terms counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism have become the shorthand for differing types of continuing involvement of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. One concept, counter-insurgency, takes more military forces than the other. But the other attacks this theme of "pacification" by limiting action to political/military target-specific operations. Field-experienced observers know that one actually does not exclude the other. In any case when the self-serving rhetoric is stripped away, the actual result is that troops are being removed before a definitive result has been obtained.

It is well understood that before that final phase is reached, military action must give way to a political solution. This can happen only after the various Taliban fighting groups have reached a level of attrition that they are forced to withdraw to regroup. It has been clearly indicated that General Petraeus believes this can be accomplished within the next year -- even with the announced force reduction. That means in one form or another the numerous factions and commands of those fighting under the Taliban umbrella must be incorporated into any political solution during that time period.

This factor has been known for a long time. And it has been known for just as long that there would be no formal "defeat" of a Taliban "army" in the field. Any "victory" over the Taliban will come from its incorporation, but not dominance, in a new Afghan political system based on tribal agreement. Unfortunately, this is more of an aspiration than a strategic plan.

Obama is now in full obfuscation mode as he struggles with the domestic political problem of attempting to run for reelection while at the same time justifying his espousal of what he termed "the real war." That war he effectually now seeks to end by bringing the Taliban into a "unity" government in Kabul. In other words, he would seek to turn a defeat into a victory simply by altering the characterization of the original aim.

The entire concept of truly defeating the Taliban has been based on denying these forces a sanctuary in Pakistan. This strategy has evolved as politically and militarily impossible -- certainly in the current time frame. What President Obama's intention now appears to be is to turn Afghanistan over to Pakistan as their problem. And how, Mr. President, do you think the increasingly influential pro-Taliban political forces in Pakistan will deal with that?

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About the Author
George H. Wittman writes a weekly column on international affairs for The American Spectator online. He was the founding chairman of the National Institute for Public Policy.