It was not an auspicious beginning in November-December 2001 as Osama bin Laden was pursued from Jalalabad to the White Mountains and on to the caves of Tora Bora by a small force of CIA Special Activities Division paramilitary personnel, U.S. Army Special Forces, and even a contingent of the British Special Boat Service. Recently recruited Pushtun tribal fighters were supposed to provide the local knowledge that would allow OBL to be captured, killed, or driven toward the waiting Pakistan army at the Afghan border. It didn’t happen.
The Afghans drifted away just when it looked like the al Qaeda group would be cornered. Urgent calls for the injection of U.S. Army Rangers to block the al Qaeda retreat were denied. On the Pakistani side the well-positioned units of their army became functionally blind and Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda protective force slipped through. The principal leaders of the Taliban with key fighters also infiltrated uninhibited across the border into Pakistan and the scene was now set for what would become the longest war in American history.
The entire tactical plan of the United States and its NATO allies was predicated on being able to count on friendly elements in the Pushtun areas to ferret out the pro-Taliban elements and for the Pakistanis to hold firm on their side of the border as a blocking force. The strategy was not illogical; it was just not realistic in terms of the kaleidoscope of ever-changing Afghan — and Pakistani — local and national politics.
Washington persisted in the belief there were good Afghans (those who supported the national government of Hamid Karzai) and bad Afghans (the Taliban who had gone to ground in the tribal sanctuaries of the east and south and others hiding in Pakistan.) They continue to think that way today. The problem is that it is just not true. Neither is the parallel concept that the political problems of Afghanistan are primarily the result of the eco/socio disadvantages from which the country suffers. The root of the Afghan conflict in the past, the present, and will be in the future is the deeply embedded structure of tribal life and pervasive xenophobia. This situation can not be solved by massive aid programs and the superimposition of western democratic tenets.
Having finally admitted that “nation-building” was not a viable commitment for the U.S. and NATO in the year 2012, and that the Taliban insurgency should be left to the Afghan National Army to contain, the current White House has decided to withdraw all Western combat forces by 2014, with a major draw-down during 2013. In the end only a relatively small collection of Special Forces and a training cadre will remain behind. The magic of the next two years is supposed to be the growth of the Afghan Army. This is plain and simple wishful thinking. There is no evidence that the current Afghan military force will be able to contain a reformed and reenergized Taliban in two years.
Afghanistan is not divided into pro-Taliban and anti-Taliban. It is divided into families, clans, tribes, and subdivisions of each that have, in varying degrees, ties to several political military elements, Taliban and others, in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Some of these relations are close and supportive and others quite distant and barely connected. But for most in Pushtun-dominated areas these relations have been consistent over the years. What is it that is going to change in two years — or ever?
The answer is that little will change other than to give some combat experience to the Afghan troops and their units mentored by U.S. and NATO forces. Also, the American military may have a chance to withdraw with honor from a field on which it has battled for over a decade. This is an ancient tradition and one that the Afghans know only too well. Whether the Taliban will allow such an honorable ending, however, before they return to their own struggle for dominance is up to question. Something that isn’t open for question is the expectation of Iran and Pakistan moving to influence Afghanistan’s future. Of course, the interests of India, Russia, and China also can be expected to rise to the surface.
Pakistan will have a major investment in the future of whatever government that comes to power in Kabul. That is a given and both a short and long-range target for Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI. It seems that unless Afghan territory becomes once again an international terrorist training ground, it will be the United States that has the least political military interest in this country on which it has expended so much in human and financial terms.
Not unlike Vietnam, where even far greater blood and treasure was spent by the United States, Afghanistan will become a slice of history close to American hearts for a generation — but that’s all. The world’s Islamic terrorists have many other places in which to train and other more convenient sites as springboards for their terror. So-called al Qaeda franchises already have evolved around the globe along with other variously named jihadist terror groups.
What will remain the same is the historic route of the drug trade through the mountains and valleys of Afghanistan. From this some Afghan farmers will benefit and local tribal leaders as always will become rich. The Taliban will be divided as it was before over the degree they should accept the advantages of this unholy trade. The result will alternate between cooperation and condemnation.
A transformational leader may come along, after Mullah Omar and Hamid Karzai, to guide Afghanistan into a more modern society — but that is doubtful. Afghanistan will remain at the crossroads of conflict in its region as it has done for ages. That is its history and its future. The American presence will disintegrate the same as the mud-walled forts of the outposts of the British Empire and the abandoned, rusted residue of the more recent short-lived Russian occupation.