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America's Confused Approach to Afghanistan

William Pfaff
Columnist
William Pfaff is known as a globally respected political commentator and author on international relations, contemporary history and U.S. policy. He has been published in five countries and his column was…
William Pfaff

Richard Holbrooke’s comments on reconciliation with the Taliban in Afghanistan, made during the recent Munich Security Conference, echoed earlier remarks by U.N. officials and American military commanders in Kabul that suggest that diplomacy might be coming alive on the Afghan front. This could be true despite, or in coordination with, a new NATO offensive in southern Afghanistan.

For it to succeed, however, it has three enormous obstacles to overcome. The first is that neither the Pentagon nor the White House seems to have clearly identified what the United States wants in Afghanistan. To capture the al-Qaida leadership? Or to defeat that Taliban and create a client government there?

President Barack Obama is in Afghanistan because it is the “right” war to fight. This is because it is where al-Qaida supposedly has its headquarters. But the president seems also to have been convinced that his real objective should be to stabilize or secure Pakistan as well as Afghanistan because of the former’s nuclear weapons. This is entirely different. The highly nationalistic Pakistan army is already hostile to the U.S.

One more military intervention for the U.S.? Washington already is deeply involved in Afghanistan. Israel wants the U.S. to attack Iran. Iraq could blow up this spring because of scheduled elections and attempts by Shiite government figures to disqualify Sunni candidates accused of Baath Party connections. What is the rationale for an involvement in Pakistan, likely to involve India?

A former colleague of mine in the world of strategic studies said in a recent letter that on a Washington visit he could find no one among his acquaintances at the National Security Council who could give him a coherent explanation of what the United States is actually doing in Afghanistan.

Obviously there is a plan on paper: defeat and neutralize al-Qaida. But whatever al-Qaida consists of in Afghanistan today — leaders, a staff, arms, training areas for volunteers? — can leave the country whenever it decides to do so. The essential elements could probably depart with a few hours’ notice, while the rest scatter.

But the U.S. is laboriously building up a multinational military operational force with attendant bases, infrastructure and (highly vulnerable) lines of supply in order to defeat the Taliban effort to take back control of Afghanistan. The U.S. is doing this to defend the elected government in Kabul against its internal political and ethnic enemies. Why? Can’t the present Afghan leadership defend itself? Or make its own deal with the Pashtun majority in the country, where the Taliban have found their support?

U.S. military action to defeat the Taliban has not been a great success. Nor does Afghanistan offer the terrain for the classic seize-and-hold strategy of orthodox armies confronted with guerrillas and terrorists.

The unorthodox weapon President Obama seems to like best, the unmanned drone bomber, by all accounts has the collateral effect of bitterly alienating the population whose support the U.S. seeks to win.

Richard Holbrooke said at the Berlin security meeting that he regretted that in the past year the reconciliation of the Taliban has been “neglected.” He said that this year American generals hope to separate the Taliban from their existing relationship with the ordinary Pashtun people, among whom they live and find protection.

Holbrooke’s policy of reconciliation sounds very much like the strategy Gen. David Petraeus applied in Iraq, where he dealt with the tribal leadership to foster the Sunni “awakening” movement, through which the U.S. paid the Sunni tribes to provide security in difficult areas.

Last week it was reported in Afghanistan that one of the largest tribal groups, the Shinwari, has apparently turned against the Taliban (for reasons of its own). A million dollars in development funds has now been promised by the U.S. in payment directly to the tribal leaders. This is a fragile gain for the anti-Taliban cause but very much what Gen. Stanley McChrystal wants to see. American officials are talking about greatly enlarged tribal subsidies to provide jobs and economic security.

The objection here is that this buys loyalty to the U.S Army or to NATO units but not to the central government in Kabul, which is dominated by ethnic rivals of the Pashtuns, and is allegedly corrupt. Present policy is that defectors must swear allegiance to the government, which is often unacceptable. Buying the tribes doesn’t solve the problem of internal conflict in the country because the Americans inevitably will (someday) go home.

U.S. and U.N. officials have claimed that Taliban leaders met the top U.N. figure in Afghanistan, Kai Eide, although the story (unsurprisingly) has been denied.

The fate of al-Qaida aside, a negotiated settlement to the Afghanistan conflict is unlikely and maybe impossible without the involvement and support of neighboring countries, including — notably — Iran as well as Pakistan and India. All would expect withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Is that acceptable to the United States? If not, why not? What permanent interest, requiring permanent U.S. bases, does the United States have in the countries of Central and Southern Asia? This is a key issue, and the public has a right to know. The United States went into Afghanistan to find al-Qaida, not to rule Asia.


Visit William Pfaff’s website at www.williampfaff.com.

© 2010 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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