By William Pfaff
An account from the Taliban side of the Afghanistan war, which was published in The New York Times on May 5, provides devastating evidence of the failure that almost certainly will eventually overtake the United States and NATO. It is a long interview with a young Taliban “logistics tactician” who has been speaking with Jane Perlez and Pir Zubair Shah of the Times for many months about the Taliban view of the war, and about what he sees as their inevitable victory.
It amounts to an implicit challenge to the “democracy development” strategy adopted by the Pentagon and the Bush administration, and that now seems the policy of the Obama government as well. It is a strategy that assures a very “long war.”
This strategy, overall, is described by one of its American critics as “to install democracy at gunpoint inside failed or backward societies, along with unrealistic security guarantees to states and people of marginal strategic interest to the U.S.” (The critic is Douglas MacGregor, a retired Army officer, in an article entitled “Refusing Battle” in the April Armed Forces Journal. It’s to be recommended.)
“Refusing battle” simply means not fighting battles and wars you know you will lose. This is what the Times article confirms that the United States has again done, in Afghanistan as it did in Vietnam. In Afghanistan it is fighting a guerrilla war in which it has left to the enemy the choice, timing and location of battle, as well as a permanent option of withdrawal and dispersion.
The implications of the Taliban interview will be resisted by American commanders on the scene, professionally committed to their faith in victory, and conservative political observers in the United States, who believe that having second thoughts is weakness.
The implication of what the Taliban says is simple and convincing: that it will be impossible for the U.S. and NATO to win a war in Afghanistan in which the enemy is based on the other side of what is for them an easily permeable frontier between Afghanistan and the tribal areas of northwest Pakistan, but which is for American and NATO forces politically impregnable.
This is classical guerrilla warfare against regular forces. The guerrillas operate with (in this case) almost perfect intelligence concerning NATO troops. They are highly mobile and reactive, and possess a refuge where they are vulnerable only to attack by rocket-firing drone (unmanned) aircraft, since the main, ground-based NATO/U.S. forces cannot reach them.
The Pakistan government and army forbid American and NATO intrusion into their country. The United States in the past has scarcely been a scrupulous observer of foreign sovereignties, and the Bush administration declared its policy commitment to aggressive and pre-emptive attack wherever it chose. However, the United States today needs Pakistan.
It is inhibited not only by Pakistani sovereignty and by international law, but by military and political realities. The mobility of Taliban forces allows them to move as far into Pakistan as necessary to escape ground attack, and to disperse against air attack. Another inhibition is the character of the population of the region, where Pathan civilians are scarcely distinguishable from the Pathan Taliban, and all are ferociously hostile to foreign intrusion and air bombardment.
The anonymous subject of the interview acknowledges the strength of American forces, soon to be reinforced, but says, “The Americans cannot take control of the villages. In order to expel us, they will have to resort to aerial bombing, and then they will have more civilian casualties.”
The American authorities can see this as well as anyone else, and they have a new strategy, which will be implemented with the arrival of U.S. reinforcements. It is an adaptation of Gen. David Petraeus’ policy in Iraq of dividing the insurrection by hiring Sunni tribal militias to defend their own communities.
But it will ultimately rest—as in Iraq—upon an extremely doubtful long-term reliance on democracy development, of which we have heard much and seen little, since it assumes that a democratic society can be supplied by foreign military intervention. It is the recipe not for a long war, but for an unending one. The people of Afghanistan and Pakistan will in the end settle it, but only after the foreigners have gone home.
Visit William Pfaff’s Web site at www.williampfaff.com.
© 2009 Tribune Media Services Inc.
U.S. Army soldiers stake out a village from a hillside in Afghanistan’s Chowkay Valley in August 2007.