At Large

The Old Afghan Waltz

The "new" Obama policy has been a loser for 150 years.

By 2.12.10

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"Getting in line" and "getting with the program" are old expressions in the Pentagon. The Navy version is to be "on board." You've got to get in line or be on board if you expect to "get ahead" at the good old DoD. In regard to war fighting in Afghanistan, the current program with which everyone is supposed to get in line is that paying off the Taliban with a starting offer of $500 million in an international program (mostly U.S. taxpayer derived) will turn the tide of their jihad.

If this sounds familiar, it's because a similar program was suggested by President Hamid Karzai in September 2008. And this recommendation had followed the expulsion months before in 2007 of the acting head of the EU mission to Kabul, the Irishman, Michael Semple, and the British UN official, Mervin Patterson.

Both of these men had traveled in Taliban areas speaking with local tribal leaders about what it would take to win over the insurgents. Unfortunately they did not follow the strict guidelines of whom to talk to and what to talk about set down by the governor of Helmand Province. Obviously they were "out of line" and soon they were out of the country. But they had started the ball rolling in regard to compensation and reconstruction and had paid the price of getting out front of the politics.

Actually the commander of British forces in Helmand, Brigadier Andrew Mackay, had instructed his men in a classified brief along the same lines in October 2007 to the effect that: "Great Britain's long association with Afghanistan has shown that we got ourselves into this country by forming tribal alliances. Equally we will get ourselves out, over time, by forming tribal alliances that support the government of Afghanistan."

Later in December of 2007 London newspapers carried an important quote from a purposely anonymous Foreign Office official: "We are going to have to sit down and do business with people whom we don't like, and who don't like us," he was reported as saying. General Stanley McChrystal, who was so openly pessimistic last summer, appears now to have accepted this over two-year-old advice.

The U.S. commander now strikes a more optimistic tone in support of the White House's "new" plan to participate in the multi-hundred million dollar cash and civil integration program aimed at buying or renting the acquiescence of various Taliban fighting groups in an effort to "do business with these people whom we may not like…" Isn't this just part of the old Army game? SecDef gets his marching orders from the President, and Gates passes the word to McChrystal who all of a sudden feels better about our military chances against the Taliban. The general accomplishes this even though his original bottom line request for more troops was halved after months of Administration dithering.

It might even work, especially with a few of the already warmed up Taliban leaders such as the former prime minister, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. The latter has known American intelligence operators and the support they can offer since his days as a mujahadin leader against the Soviets. The problem is that tough old Hekmatyar hates his fellow Pushtun, Hamid Karzai, and certainly doesn't want to be a part of any success that might accrue to the newly "reelected" Afghan president. But then everything in Afghanistan is possible -- and impossible.

One of the major issues in buying off the Taliban is the reaction of the fighters from the non-Pushtun north -- those Tajiks, Hazaris, Uzbeks and other smaller groupings that formed the Northern Alliance. What do they get out of this new payday? They have made it abundantly clear that they have no intention of easily agreeing to this giveaway to the same people they have been counted on to kill during the past eight-plus years. Nonetheless, they too have been urged to "get with the new program." Not as easily persuaded as the career-committed officers of the Pentagon, the Northern leaders have been promised they also would participate in any new treasure hunt.

The promises of big money aside, the indications are that none of this distribution of largesse will work unless the pressure is increased on the Taliban. In recognition of this need, an unprecedented winter campaign has been launched against the Taliban sanctuary of Marjah in central Helmand. Estimates of over 1,000 insurgents are said to be holed-up in their winter quarters in this drug transport hub. Thousands of U.S. Marines, accompanied by small detachments of the Afghan Army, along with several crack British Guards regiments, are attacking in a combined movement to trap the Taliban forces.

Of course the Taliban leadership knows exactly what this strategy portends. If they follow past historical trends -- going back to the days of British India -- they'll put up a stiff fight, lengthen out financial negotiations, and in the end take the money and await future political developments. This has been the pattern of the Pushtun for 150 years and there is no reason for them to change.

So goes the big "new" strategy of the Obama administration for which the Pentagon is now lining up. As a three-tour Airborne colonel said just last week, "And what would you suggest?" Hmmm!

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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.