Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Afghanistan Failure

At the beginning of June, Afghanistan became our longest war -- longer than even Vietnam. We have spent hundreds of billions of dollars and sent hundreds of thousands of soldiers. Yet, we are losing. The Taliban are running rampant and control huge swaths of the country. What’s worse, our current strategy won’t change that. We need to rethink this war. Let’s start this by going through the reasons that are routinely given for staying in Afghanistan and showing why those are bad. Then I’ll talk about a better plan.

Reason One: “Having invaded Afghanistan, the West has a duty to return a half-decent state to the Afghan people.”
I hear this a lot and it’s total bull. We owe these people nothing. Afghanistan is a primitive cesspool because its own people made it that way. It was like that when we got there, and it’s not our responsibility to change that. And frankly, claiming this is our responsibility with one hand while claiming that we need to respect their culture and religion with the other is a sucker's game.
Reason Two: “We need to deny al-Qaeda a haven.”
This is the primary reason given for being in Afghanistan. But we’ve already lost this one. Al-Qaeda has a haven in Pakistan, in Yemen, and in Somalia. The CIA has even noted that they are starting to use operatives from all over the world now, making “havens” almost irrelevant. Moreover, if the goal is just to deny them Afghanistan, a rather silly goal given their other havens, then there are better ways. Indeed, cutting a deal with the Taliban to toss al-Qaeda out would be more effective.
Reason Three: “If we leave, a civil war might start, which could suck in local powers like Iran, Pakistan, India and Russia.”
This one shows how little our policy people understand what is going on. This IS a civil war. The Taliban are not foreign invaders. They do not lack popular support. Indeed, recent polls show that one-third of Afghans openly support them, compared to only 25% who support the government. No matter how much we call them “insurgents,” we are participating in a civil war.

Our real target, al-Qaeda, has smartly piggybacked on the Taliban. Without the Taliban, al-Qaeda has no support in Afghanistan. Yet, we’ve lumped them together and, in so doing, we’ve chosen to fight tens of thousands of Taliban fighters who can draw upon local populations for support, when we should be fighting the 1,000 or so al-Qaeda members that the CIA claims are there and in Pakistan. In fact, once again, our best strategy would be to cut a deal with the Taliban to toss out al-Qaeda and we walk away.

Indeed, the military is starting to get this. Said one U.S. civil affairs officer: “We need to reevaluate who the enemy really is. . . Based on the evaluations and interviews in the report, we're not sure we're fighting the right war or fighting the war the right way."

And as for those other powers, who cares? Afghanistan is a worthless piece of rock populated by a few million goat-herders. It has no strategic value. And if Pakistan or Iran want it, let them have it. Where is the harm? Indeed, it might show the world that there are negative consequences to fighting with the United States. . . mess with us, lose your country.

Further, the idea that Pakistan and India or Iran would go to war over this is simply scare mongering. Those countries are ready to fight over any number of things already, tossing in the rocks and goats of Afghanistan won’t change a thing. Not to mention, we could partition the country before we leave to avoid any such conflicts entirely.
Reason Four: “A defeat would mark a humiliation for the West, that would encourage our enemies around the world.”
Finally, we come to the real reason we stay. It is absolutely true that the rest of the world follows the maxim -- “might makes right.” Thus, if we appear weak, then we will be weakened in the eyes of our enemies everywhere. And running away would make us appear weak. But so would losing. And make no mistake, we are losing and everybody knows it.

At the beginning of the year, the military put together an assessment called “The State of the Taliban.” This document paints a grim picture:
• U.S. and NATO leaders do not adequately understand the Afghan people, and our communication skills are poor.

• Our support for Karzai’s corrupt government has made it easy for the Taliban to recruit insurgents and prevents locals from working with NATO.

• The Afghan army and police forces are years away from providing security for the nation -- even though we’ve been training them for nine years.

• There are not enough civilian workers to complete construction projects, and fear prevents local workers from taking coalition jobs.

• Local governments steal project funding.

• Violence is up 87% since March and bombing is up 94% this year.
Said one official with knowledge of the report:
“We are getting beat up. The Taliban know their own people -- they are culturally accurate. We know the facts but we are culturally inaccurate. The main message in the report is that we don’t fully understand our enemy and we are not clearly communicating our message to the people.”
Indeed, the military admits that the Taliban are better propagandists than we are. They have persuaded the Afghan people that (1) 9/11 was a response to the planned invasion of Afghanistan by United States, (2) America does not allow Muslim women to cover themselves, and (3) mosques are not permitted in American cities. These are big recruiting points.

All of this leads to a quagmire. In fact, the situation is so bad, that the report recommends that US commanders mediate cease-fire negotiations with local Taliban commanders. But that’s not possible because the Taliban don’t respect our side. Said Lt. Col. Tadd Sholtis: “The bulk of insurgents clearly do not see foreign forces as a credible negotiating partner.”

What was supposed to change all of this was the “surge” that Obama and McChrystal promised. But that’s proven to be a failure. It started in Marja, a farming district in Helmand province. Thirty thousand troops moved into the city to push out 400 Taliban fighters. Along with the troops came government people and truck-loads of money. The idea was to establish Afghan government control and thereby gain the trust of the locals, who would then reject the Taliban. That didn’t happen. The Afghan government proved ineffective and the locals were less than impressed with the temporary nature of our military plans. Indeed, the Taliban put out posters telling people the date they would return, right after our withdrawal date. McChrystal now calls this test case for our surge plan “a bleeding ulcer.”

And because of this failure, they have postponed the next step, which was the invasion of Kandahar, a city under the control of drug traffickers and the Taliban. According to the military, the local people in Kandahar “are not ready to back” the invasion yet. Ominously, McChrystal implied, before he was replaced, that if we don’t make significant, irreversible progress soon, Christmas would be the end of NATO operations, i.e. the date we quit.
So What Do We Do?
Actual victory is an illusion. What we need is a genuine exit strategy. Obama’s "wait one year and then run for our lives" plan is about the worst thing we can do, apart from staying without any plan except waiting to be driven out. Here are our options as I see them:

Option One: Our first option would be to totally replace the government and impose a modern state on these people. I doubt we have the stomach to do this, but this is the only way we can win over the people who oppose Karzai’s corrupt regime and also eliminate the handicaps that keep us from creating a stable state. This one would require a longer military stay and a realization that we can’t “respect” a defective culture.

Option Two: Our second option would be to carve the country up and hand it to the neighbors along ethnic lines. This strategy actually makes a lot of sense as the neighbors would then become responsible their new territories, and none of the neighbors like al-Qaeda or the Taliban. The weak link here would be Pakistan, which is already a problem in and of itself. BUT, the force in Pakistan that props up the Taliban is Pakistan’s intelligence service (the “ISI”). The ISI use the Taliban as a way to destabilize Afghanistan and fight off Iranian and Indian influence in Afghanistan. If Afghanistan were broken up, then the ISI would no longer need the Taliban. Indeed, their concerns then would turn to maintaining the stability of Pakistan, which would mean ending the Taliban.

Option Three: Our final option would be to negotiate a settlement with the Taliban. In exchange for the Taliban kicking out al-Qaeda, we would either (1) cut the country in half, leaving them with the part they already hold, (2) walk away and let the locals sort it out, or (3) force some sort of power-sharing arrangement on Karzai that included the Taliban.

The advantage to this would be that we could somewhat-credibly declare victory, al-Qaeda would be denied the Afghan haven, and this would likely prevent foreign powers from getting involved. And if the Taliban don’t want to agree, then we use Option Two and their whole country disappears right out from underneath them.

As I read the tea leaves, we are giving up at the end of December. If we don’t come up with a better plan than "keep doing what isn’t working," we will leave Afghanistan in disgrace and we will face a much broader mess. But if we act now, and we stop thinking about winning this war in the traditional sense, then we can salvage a real victory. If we don’t, then this will be a defeat we will regret.


Tennessee Jed said...

Andrew - As a kind of devil's advocate, I'm wondering what incentive the Taliban would have to negotiate with us since they can see the handwriting on the wall anyway?

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, There are suggestions that the Taliban are willing to negotiate with us to make us go away -- though it's not clear how serious those are. I don't have any information to tell me how likely that is.

And I have seen that American special forces have been concentrating on night raids where they are killing Taliban commanders to up the heat on them. That's at least a good start.

Still, as long as our strategy is to "hope it gets better soon or we leave," then there's no real incentive because they just need to leave.

That's why we need to up the threat level. I think that starting to float the alternative that we are going to break up the country would be a decent start.

Alternatively, announcing a change of strategy would work -- "we don't care about the Taliban, they aren't our problem. But as long as they provide Al-Qaeda a safe haven, then we stay and fight.

CrispyRice said...

This is interesting, Andrew. Sad, but interesting. How much blame for this falls on Obama?

AndrewPrice said...

Thanks Crispy. It is sad and it's disturbing because as an American, I don't like losing and I hate seeing American lives endangered for a goal we can't achieve. George Will called Afghanistan "a fool's errand" the other day and I think he's right.

In terms of blame... I think Bush made the first mistake. After a brilliant "punitive" campaign, they should have left or cut a deal with the Taliban right then. But they decided to stick around and rebuild. That was a mistake.

And then they didn't send enough people and they weren't firm enough with our "friends."

But since that time, the blame has really fallen on Obama. He's not only done nothing to improve the situation, but he's put in place a schizophrenic policy of send more troops, do a little fighting, and leave on X date. There is nothing worse he could have done. That wiped out any credibility we still had.

One of the first things Petreas has done is to basically disavow that deadline. But until Obama joins him and says -- I've changed my mind, we're staying. Then there is no reason for the Taliban to do anything except wait for us to leave.

So at this point, I think the vast majority of the blame rests with Obama.

Joel Farnham said...


I respectfully disagree. I don't see us leaving there next year or even twenty years hence.

Taliban can be likened to the Mafia. The Afghanistans are more like clans and the Taliban has access to every clan.

I do see one way and that is if Obama is willing to hang around his neck the failure of Afghanistan, but I don't see him doing that.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, Obama has left himself no choice but to be forced out. The various Europeans are planning on leaving already, and his deadline has put it into the public consciousness that we're leaving.

So you're going to see a drawdown beginning next summer. And after that, you'll see the Taliban rapidly take back big parts of the country and we'll have to decide -- send more troops and fight or leave. Obama will leave.

He can prevent that right now, but he won't. He really has made a bad situation worse and his ideological limitations keep him from fixing that.

And as for the Taliban being like the mafia, they do have influence in each ethnic clan, but they are almost entirely Pashtuns. Outside of Pashtun areas, they have almost no support -- but they are stronger than the other clans.

The problem with Afghanistan is that it is a collection of clans who can't agree on anything and we are trying to hold them together. That simply won't work and need to stop risking American lives to try.

Joel Farnham said...


I disagree because in addition to Obama not wanting the failure around his neck, the Democrats left after November won't allow it.

If somehow the Republicans can be blamed for it legitimately, then the Democrats will go along with it.

Obama is not a dictator, no matter how much he thinks he is. He will face his party's wrath.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, They are already trying to blame Bush. After months of "now this is Obama's war and he'll show the world how it's done", the MSM is now referring to it as "a bad war he inherited from Bush after Bush ignored it."

On your disagreement, I'm not following you. You disagree about what? You think Obama will pull out or he won't?

Joel Farnham said...


This presupposes that Obama will leave. He won't. He has already indicated he won't.

Unless Obama can control a majority in this country, he won't pull out.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, I don't think that's right. If Obama doesn't leave, then his left flank will tear him apart. And he's never said we're staying, in fact, he's said the opposite.

And the public is not thrilled at all with staying either -- pulls show 43% support for staying, 43% for leaving. So no one is going to stop him if he comes up with the right "we've done what we came here to do" speech.

Also, as commander in chief, he can leave tomorrow even if 99% of the public wants to stay -- that's not being a dictator, that's being the CIC.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, It's inevitable that we're leaving soon. There is simply too much momentum for that now.

The question is how we leave -- do we cut and run like Obama is planning, do we wait until we get forced out -- which happens if we don't change our plan, or do we try to find a way to turn this into at least a marginal success.

Joel Farnham said...


If you say that Obama is CIC and can pull out tomorrow if he wants then Why doesn't he?

AndrewPrice said...

Because he's concerned about the politics. He doesn't want to appear to be the guy who lost the war. But that's what his 1-year plan is about. He's hoping that we can make enough progress that he can declare victory and leave. But it won't work.

I think what you'll see is that as we get near the deadline, he's going to announce that somehow we've achieve all of our goals and that we will be "ready" to leave right after November 2012.

Joel Farnham said...


Do you think Obama will go for a second term?

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, He'll run again because he's a narcissist and he loves all the trappings of power.

But I don't see him winning unless we run a real idiot, which is always possible.

Joel Farnham said...


Why did Obama choose Petraeus? I see it as grasping at a straw. What say you?

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, I'll give you three theories on this one.

First: He's looking for the most competent General he can find, and Petraeus is it. And/or he needed a "big" name to draw the attention away form the debacle to his reputation that just happened with McChrystal.

Second: He's looking for someone who has become associated with the Republicans so that he can spread the blame when the current plan doesn't work and he finally does announce the withdrawal.

Third: This is part of his pattern of appointing his rivals to positions that kill off their careers. Petraeus has been mentioned by many (even the MSM) as a possible Republican candidate for 2012. By appointing him to this job he keeps the General tied up through the election cycle. Also, if things go wrong -- which they are likely to do -- then the General's star power diminishes. . . just like with Hillary.

In fact, many of his appointments fell into this category -- people who might challenge him at some point. So far, he's managed to marginalize every one of them.

I would say that Pataeus actually satisfies all three goals.

Joel Farnham said...


Fair enough. Why would Petraeus decide to accept?

AndrewPrice said...

My guess? Because he's an honorable man who thinks that he can actually do a lot of good in Afghanistan.

Joel Farnham said...


Do you have any faith in Petraeus?

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, As a general, he's a pretty brilliant man. So if anyone can solve this, I think he can.

But my problem isn't with the military strategy per se, it's with the political strategy. I don't think we can "win" this war within the terms we've established because we've set too many stupid restrictions. For example, we are unwilling to interfere with their government or their culture. Yet, we expect a primitive violent people to become modern Americans just because they can now vote for their warlords.

We also have stupidly set these rules about keeping the country together, and trying to keep out the neighbors, when this place shouldn't even be a country in the first place. It would be much better run as a series of small countries, even if we had to deal with 5-6 different governments to keep the war going.

So while I have faith in Petraeus to do as good a job as possible on the military end, I think it's an impossible mission.

Joel Farnham said...


You don't see it as winnable, yet I see it as winnable.

Five or six states which in turn become the United States of Afghanistan sounds good to me.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, It's not winnable in terms of the goals we've set. We can't beat the Taliban while keeping the current culture and government in place.

In fact, I don't think we can beat the Taliban because they are basically an idea combined with an ethnic group. It's like Northern Ireland was only more violent.

Joel Farnham said...


You are making an assumption that Afghanistan can't be civilized or isn't civilized. A possibility, but unlikely.

The Taliban won't attack a village which decided to die before it gave up a Seal. This happened and a book was written about it from the perspective of the Seal saved. It was chronicled in Lone Survivor.

This book indicates that the Taliban isn't in as much control as some people believe.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, I don't think Afghanistan can be civilized unless civilization is imposed on them. I think that their culture of clan violence prevents the kinds of institutions from forming that are needed to modernize the country.

At the same time, the version of Islam that they are teaching each other is all but designed to regress a country to the dark ages and impedes the very growth that is needed to fix the problems that keep them where they are.

CrispyRice said...

Interesting discussion, you two! Thanks for all the thoughts.

AndrewPrice said...

You're welcome. Feel free to join in at any time.

MegaTroll said...

Very interesting discussion. I have a lot of faith in the military, but I don't have any faith in our political leaders. So I don't know how this is going to turn out.

AndrewPrice said...

Mega, That's my view too -- I have immense faith in the military, but no faith in the politicians. And I think that the restraints put on our strategy make victory impossible.

If we're going to risk American lives, then we need to have a good strategy that can lead to success. Otherwise, our government has no business sending Americans to fight.

Ed said...

Interesting stuff. I see hints of bad news in the stories I've seen on this, but nobody's put it together like this yet. I'm not sure which side I come down on this. I fear you might be right about the Afghans. Hopefully, somebody is thinking about this in Washington.

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, I hope they're paying attention. But I think the problem is that it's "politically correct" to accept certain things as facts even though they aren't true. For example, the idea that culture and religion are irrelevant and aren't the root cause of the kinds of problems going on over there.

Another example is the idea that we need to create a democracy, even if that part of the world lacks the institutions to sustain it.

I don't think anyone in Washington has the nerve to say let's re-examined these issues. And I think they're dumping this in the military's lap.

Joel Farnham said...

Here is something that can contribute to this discussion. The Taliban won't come to the peace talks table because we are leaving.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, I think that's correct. As long as you know your enemy is leaving in a short period of time, why give up anything when all you need to do is wait them out?

In fact, not only does this make negotiations impossible, but why would the locals sign up with us if they know that we're going to leave them to their fates?

Not only is this intensely stupid, but frankly, I view it as criminally negligent that Obama would announce that we're leaving and then send more soldiers for one last desperate effort to turn things around.

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