Afghanistan: A Fruitless War Continues

Judging by statements from senior Pentagon officers, there is a real possibility of another military “surge” in Afghanistan. If it materializes, the result will prolong a fruitless war and foreclose any political resolution of the underlying conflict.

A few words on the nature of this war. One, from the predominant Afghan perspective, this is a war of Afghan freedom (nationalist) fighters against what they view as foreign invaders assisting a government installed by foreign powers. Two, this is not a war marked by pitched battles. Its hallmark is an endless string of skirmishes. There are search-and-destroy missions, raids, ambushes, and all the other maneuvers associated with a large-scale insurrection and counter-insurgency campaign. There is little opportunity for grand strategy or decisive innovation in tactical operations.

A surge does seem a logical step – superficially. It could shift the balance of forces. But could it produce something approximating victory? Since there is no centrally organized and directed military apparatus to destroy, elimination of the Taliban and allies as a physical and political presence is not in the cards.

American forces in 2001 and 2002 were able to unseat the then Islamist government and crush or disperse its armed units. Its securing of territory, though, proved tenuous and impermanent. The current hybrid Ghani/Abdullah government has been steadily losing ground – geographically and politically. Just this week, the Taliban took the strategic district of Sangin – a center for the lucrative opium trade in Helmand province. Hundreds of Americans and Brits died in the area during the first surge 2010-1011.

As for the Afghan economy, it is on life support and will remain so under present insecure conditions. Its two significant sources of funds are foreign aid and opium. In other words, no approximation to victory is in sight.

In modern military campaigns, sound commanders set maximum and minimum aims as the basis for defining success. In light of the above, the maximum aim would be to build in Afghanistan a competent state whose writ runs across the entire (or almost entire) country. That means a stable Afghan government that could rule and maintain law and order by its own means. The paramount fact of life is that the conditions for reaching that goal do not exist and have never existed over the past 15 years.

That so many Afghans have given their allegiance to a revived Taliban and others, that they are prepared to go so far as to join (or support) the new Islamic State franchise, testifies to the level of disaffection from the government in Kabul and the widespread hostile reaction to the United States. At present, those obstacles look to be insurmountable.

There can be no success, or even significant progress, without a gradual “winning of hearts and minds” – at least of a substantial majority of Afghans. That applies both to the leadership in Kabul and their American backers. So, logically, it is back to square one – circa 2002. A massive counterinsurgency project more intelligently designed and implemented – OR a holding operation for some indefinite period which allows the Pentagon to avoid the intolerable word ‘defeat,’ Americans to ignore events there (no casualties), and the Afghan government leaders to hang on until electoral loss, expatriation or death parts them from office.

What concretely would an expanded American force do? There are no magic formulas. The 12 commanding generals who preceded the present incumbent, General John Nicholson, exhausted all possibilities. Only refinement of tactics is feasible. That means more temperate and selective use of kinetic force. For that to happen, Intelligence will need to be adapted.

Regrettably, the vast electronic intelligence capabilities of the US are of limited value in a setting like Afghanistan. Exclusive reliance on them leads to errors and collateral damage – with fatal political consequences. There is an inescapable trade-off when the most effective modus operandi in the short term that produces higher casualty rates for American soldiers. Back to Square One and squaring circles.

In strictly operational terms, the need is for old-fashioned human Intelligence which, over the years, the CIA has become steadily less proficient at, and for whose provision resorts to outsourcing. Here, outsourcing human intelligence is also likely to fail. The few purchasable Afghans who will put at risk their lives and those of their families are those already at the fringes of their communities. Others may well be double agents. The vanishing prospect of an eventual safe haven in America under Trump’s draconian anti-Muslim rules hardly helps the recruitment challenge.

What of governance in terms of basic administration and justice in those areas that may be secured? We should bear in mind that no central or even provincial justice system in Afghanistan has ever reached beyond the cities and major towns – even in its imperfect forms. Over time, it has eroded everywhere and largely disappeared in many places.

Afghanistan under Ghani/Abdullah is a hollow state. Any viable system, viewed as legitimate by the population, would have to involve restoration of the age-old tribal/village Jirgas, with some kind of semi-official recognition.

The catch here is to find leaders and members for Jirgas who are acceptable to the local people. I believe this has been tried, at least in some areas of southern Afghanistan. Sadly, the results have been disastrous. The principal reason is that Americans tend to pick the first local personality who volunteers. This practice originated at the very beginning of the occupation. The only one(s) who will volunteer to work under occupation troops is the person who is seeking protection from tribal reprisal for some past misdeeds and/or is aware that he will never make it to this position by his own right.

An additional complication is that local Jirgas enforce their decisions through peer pressure and/or force that they collectively possess. The first is hostage to the initial selection of recognized leaders. The second requires assistance to acquire the necessary force. The risk in regard to the latter is that, if you pick the wrong guy, you will either alienate the rest of the tribe or be arming potential enemies.

The comparison with Pakistan is instructive. There, the terrorists of the local Taliban and affiliated groups do not represent the aspirations of any significant segment of the population – only themselves. In Afghanistan, they do. If not the aspirations, they represent the collective angst if not enmity, even hate, that many Afghans feel towards foreign invaders – and their dependent native satraps.

Consequently, the sole way out of the current costly stalemate would be to bring them into mainstream politics like the UK finally did with the IRA. To do this, the sole way forward is by calling for a national Loye Jirga. A genuine Loye Jirga.

I have frequently tried to explain to American friends the following: the art of negotiation, even coercive negotiation, is to use the strengths [and weaknesses] of the opposition against it. The Pashtun are very egalitarian people. This means that not only the members of each tribe are equal, but each tribe, irrespective of numbers or strength, is the equal in status to all the others. Therefore, a Loye Jirga is functional only if it invites all stakeholders. If some are excluded due to the dislike of the one who summons the Jirga, it weakens the moral force of the Jirga.

On the other hand, if all are summoned, each representative has one vote and, obviously, those from the stronger tribes have a disproportionately weaker voice. When the US insists that any dealings with the Taliban must omit inclusion of the Haqqanis, it strengthens the position of the “Mullah-Omer” family of the Taliban beyond its desserts in the negotiation while damaging its image as a ‘honest broker’ among Afghan factions. Many Afghans then begin to think the group is purchasable by the US and, therefore, they hesitate to ally with it or to accept its authority. They will seek to ally themselves with groups that the US has omitted.

Neither the Mullah Omer family nor Haqqanis represent many of these tribes. But both should be invited to the Jirga because they have become a force to reckon with. Furthermore, the Haqqanis could be the natural countervailing force to the Mullah Omer family. Also noteworthy: the Haqqanis belong to the Zadrun (Judroon) tribe. This tribe is a majority in provinces that draw a U round Kabul.

As for the IS, they are operating in strength in the region north of Kabul. A cursory glance at any map will show that Mullah Omer’s family can have no influence north of Kabul on ethnic grounds. Haqqanis are the only ones who can. Why Americans refuse to, or do not wish to, recognize this reality is incomprehensible.

Today, even a subtle strategy informed by these daunting realities is barely doable. Sixteen years ago, if the US had come without revenge on their minds and had understood better internal Afghan realities (including the voluntarily dissolution of the Taliban organization), they would have been feted and garlanded by many. They would have had a real chance of success. Does Washington now have the skill and will to attempt such an undertaking under far more adverse conditions now? Obviously, not.

That is why, since General McChrystal sent his first downbeat SITREP; I have been advising all Americans who ask me that their best option is to quit and leave. Admittedly, whenever they leave; chaos will follow. But order eventually emerges from chaos. That proved true when the Taliban took over in the early 1990s to restore order in the post-Soviet mayhem. Had the US not undertaken an ill-advised and poorly conceived occupation in 2002, it would have again proved correct with the Taliban dispersed to the four winds. Iraq is another example that provides confirming evidence of this proposition.

The longer that the US delays its inevitable departure, the longer will be the period of insecurity in Afghanistan and the more intense and bloody the chaos. Whenever the US leaves, it will need a scapegoat for its “defeat.” Pakistan is ready-made and will inevitably face America’s wrath.

So be it. The die is cast.

Shaukat Qadir is a retired member of the Pakistan Pakistani regular (not ISI) soldier