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Afghanistan Unvarnished

Playing domestic politics with Afghanistan will only further undermine Obama's war policy.

By 8.7.09

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General Stanley McChrystal reportedly indicated that he might have to request up to 20,000 additional troops for Afghanistan. The initial White House reaction was to send national security adviser Gen. Jim Jones to Kabul to make sure McChrystal would do no such thing.

Apparently contrary orders from Defense Secretary Gates and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Mike Mullen, were given to the hard-charging former Spec. Ops. Commander who was encouraged to ask for what was needed no matter the WH political reaction. To create some insurance for whatever Gen. McChrystal's final recommendation might be, several think tanks were hired to send representatives to Kabul to conduct a strategic review. The interim results of this study were the subject of a special meeting of all these personalities plus General David Petraeus and the NATO Supreme Commander held at Chievres Air Base in Belgium on August 2.

The White House focus, however, is on domestic political reaction rather than the real problems of Afghanistan that, quite frankly, are not going to be solved by another limited commitment of 20,000 U.S. troops. In the long history of foreign nations contesting for power in Afghanistan -- a period long and complicated enough to have given the region the name "Graveyard of Empires" -- it hasn't been the lack of foreign troops on the ground that has been the problem. In the past, as now, the ancient heterogeneous grouping of the Afghan people has successfully resisted foreign conquest and all but the most modest socio-cultural change.

Vast amounts of money have infiltrated the Afghan economy in recent years through drug cultivation and trade. Nonetheless the flow of cash into farmers' hands ($732 million in 2008 out of a total of $4 billion crossing the border) has provided little or no constructive investment in local economies other than to enrich tribal and government leaders, and provide a 10% zagat to the Taliban. There is no shortage of money locally, yet there have been repeated calls in Washington and London for more aid to "reeducate and rebuild" Afghan local economies. Apparently the people who need reeducation must reside in those two cities and not Kabul and Kandahar.

The theme currently in vogue among strategic planners is to add more troops to U.S./U.K. and other NATO forces so as to augment the type of operation elsewhere currently in effect in Helmand. Only now, in addition to seizing key areas, these foreign forces will secure and control them. This purportedly would be accomplished by a policy of friendly contact with the local tribal people so as to encourage them not to assist or harbor Taliban fighters.

If this sounds a bit too fanciful for the rugged murderous reality that is Afghanistan, then it's apparently not so for the military and political strategists of the Obama and Brown governments. No one wants to admit it in so many words, but what is touted as a war against insurgents (Taliban) and radical Islamic gangsters (al Qaeda) is now being paired with nation-building. Supposedly that's not why we are there.

In theory the plan is to take and expand control, step by step, of areas of Afghanistan and hold them long enough for an enlarged Afghan Army to take over. The trouble -- or rather one of the troubles -- with that is while Afghans make brave and innovative irregular warriors, they don't make very good regular troops.

There is no modern tradition of a disciplined national army. It's just not part of their cultural makeup, and old rivalries still divide them. These are not the descendants of the subcontinent who, British-led, created the historic regiments of India. They are the same rival Pathan (Pushtun), Tajik, and Hezira tribesmen who fought by family and clan from mountain and valley ambush to prevent the advance of those self-same foreign troops.

The strategy that calls for what military officials term "top-to-bottom partnership between Afghan and NATO security forces" is a great idea if the foreign forces represent an imperial power with the desire and ability to remain in-country for decades, even generations. But this isn't the 1800s, and there is no British Raj or East India Company to pay the bill in blood and treasure.

Blaming the Karzai regime and the corruption that has flowed from it as the reason for U.S., British and NATO failure to destroy the Taliban may be convenient, but false. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband has said that the Taliban's power base can be dismantled (his term) by, among other things, "offering bigger incentives to switch sides and stay out of trouble." Apparently his strategic plan is to teach the Afghan government how to corrupt more efficiently.

The bottom line is to fully commit U.S./U.K. and other NATO forces or get out of Afghanistan by phased withdrawal -- except for Special Forces anti-Taliban training cadre -- and fight al Qaeda by the only way to beat them: Uncompromising and uninhibited covert warfare!

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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.