President Barack Obama has announced plans to send another thirty thousand American soldiers to Afghanistan, bringing the total US troops strength to 100,000 there in the ninth year of the Afghan war, already the longest in US history. This troops surge is part of the latest U.S. attempt to improve the security situation in Afghanistan, defeat the Al Qaeda and the Taliban militants, and to transfer security responsibilities to an Afghan national force to be trained by the Americans by mid-2011. Are these goals achievable? To answer these questions, it is important to understand a few facts and myths about Afghanistan, Pakistan, Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
1. Afghans are fiercely independent. They have rarely been colonized in their entire history. The British occupied the country for brief periods of time but they could never maintain their rule. Unlike the neighboring states of India and Pakistan which became their colonies, the British did not build any western-style state institutions, or railroad systems, or road network, or electricity grid or telecommunications network or other similar systems in Afghanistan.
2. Although no foreign power has been able to gain and keep control of Afghanistan for any significant length of time, it has not stopped them from trying to increase their influence via proxies. During the British Raj in India, for example, both Britain and Russia fiercely competed for influence in the country. The last several decades have seen the India-Pakistan rivalries played out in the resource-rich landlocked nation. Others, including China, have an interest in Afghanistan, as demonstrated by the Chinese contract for a multi-billion dollar Aynak copper mining project.
3. Contrary to the impressions of many Americans or Europeans, Afghanistan is not comparable to either Iraq or Pakistan or any other nation in the region. The country is not a modern nation-state by any stretch of the imagination. It has almost no history of strong central government and working institutions such as functional bureaucracy, central government tax collection and revenue service, effective police or strong national army, capable of asserting national authority over the entire population. It has been ruled by a weak central authority dependent on the goodwill of the various local tribal chiefs, and warlords with their private militias.
4. During the Communist era starting in the 1970s, the army split into government-backed soldiers and Mujaheddin rebels. By 1991, the military of Afghanistan became dysfunctional, dissolving into portions controlled by different warlord factions when President Mohammad Najibullah was forced out of power and the mujaheddin rebel groups took control of the country. This was later followed by the Taliban take over, who established a military force on the basis of Islamic sharia law.
5. It is among the poorest, minimally urbanized, and least developed countries in the world with very low levels of human development. There is an extremely small middle class in the country.
6. It is a tribal society with its mostly rural population widely dispersed over a large area and extremely difficult terrain.
7. The last several decades have been devastating for Afghanistan because of constant warfare, first against the Russians in the 1980s, then amongst the multiple ethnic/tribal factions led by various warlords in the 1990s, then the Taliban rule characterized by relative peace through ruthless central control imposed by the Mullahs, and finally the American invasion and occupation since 2001.
8. Afghan public spending has historically relied on foreign assistance because of the consistently low level of domestic revenue collected by the central government. Revenue generation had always been a problem for the government. Between 1939 and 1972 revenue grew by only 26 percent after discounting for inflation. Although revenue grew much more quickly between 1978 and 1982, the 170-percent increase in revenue could not keep pace with the hike in spending. Afghanistan’s ratio of total domestic revenues-both tax and nontax-to GDP (only $400 per capita–one of the lowest the world) was about 19 percent, considered by observers to be relatively low. Government revenues remained comparatively small because of the low level of taxation. The country’s tax administration depended, as did that of all central governments, on a monetized tax base. In Afghanistan, however, much of national production was subsistence agriculture production largely beyond the reach of tax collectors.
Al Qaeda Facts:
1. Al Qaeda was an organization with central leadership, command and control located in Afghanistan prior to 911. But that is no longer true. According to former State Department official Mathew Hoh who served in Afghanistan, al Qaeda is an elastic, amorphous entity, one based not on geography but ideology. “Al Qaeda is a collection of ideas, of independent, autonomous cells,” Hoh says. “They don’t need a lot of funding. They need an apartment with an Internet connection.”
2. Even the 911 hijackers were not all recruited and trained in any one country. They came from different nations and were educated and trained mostly in the United States and Western Europe. What they shared in common was an ideology rather than a geography.
3. Hundreds of al Qaeda members, including many top leaders, have been captured or killed by Pakistani and US military in the region since 911.
4. There have been multiple reports of al Qaeda popping up in several countries around the world, confirming Mathew Hoh’s arguments that al Qaeda is not confined to a particular geography in central or south Asia.
1. In spite of some regional radicalization promoted to fight the Soviet menace in the 1980s, Pakistan is a moderate Islamic state where the religious parties have had little public support in multiple elections organized since the nation’s independence from Britain in 1947.
2. Although democracy has not thrived in Pakistan, the country does have a significant and growing middle class, an active civil society, vibrant mass media, an array of political parties, elected government and parliament, functioning bureaucracy, judiciary and police, and a powerful national military armed with nuclear weapons.
3. There were no religious militants or incidents of suicide bombings in Pakistan before the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
4. There was practically no presence of the Taliban or al Qaeda in Pakistan prior to 911. But in recent years, thousands of Pakistani soldiers and civilians have died fighting, killing or capturing the militants who fled into Pakistan from Afghanistan.
5. There have been thousands of casualties from high-profile terrorist incidents in Pakistan. Both the government and people of Pakistan have greatly suffered as a major terrorist target in recent years after joining the US war on terror.
6. India-Pakistan rivalry continues to play itself out in Afghanistan, close to the Pakistani border, with each nation building alliances there to serve their interests. Since returning to Afghan after US invasion in 2001, India has done its own surge with thousands of diplomats, intelligence agents and workers into Afghanistan and pumped hundreds of millions of dollars to build its presence along the Pakistan border in Afghanistan. All of these Indian activities make Pakistanis justifiably suspicious, creating a sense of siege in Pakistan. Many Pakistanis see the rural-tribal Pashtun supporters of the Afghan Taliban as counterweight to India’s growing influence threatening Pakistan’s western borders.
Afghan Taliban Facts:
1. According to Maximilian Forte, the Taliban expert Ahmad Rashid points out that the core and founding leadership of the current Taliban movement did indeed form part of the anti-Soviet mujahidin struggle.
2. The Taliban are all local Pashtuns with deep roots in Afghanistan and the border region of Pakistan. In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan invited some of those who later became founders of the Taliban movement to the White House and hailed them as “moral equivalents of America’s founding fathers”.
3. None of the 911 hijackers were Afghans, or Pakistani, or the Taliban. They were all Arabs, who were educated in the West and trained to fly planes in the United States in preparation for their terror attacks.
4. The Taliban now control most of the territory in Afghanistan with the acquiescence of the Afghan population, afraid of the Taliban or disenchanted with the corruption and incompetence of the Karzai government, which is seen to be supported by the United States.
Given the above facts, the chances of success of the Obama strategy of immediate surge with 30,000 troops followed by exit from Afghanistan beginning in 18 months appear to be remote. The best that US and NATO can hope for is to fight to a stalemate in Afghanistan. The goal of training a national Afghan army and transfer of security is almost impossible to achieve, as the Soviets learned more than twenty years ago, when they were defeated. The US surge in Afghanistan and expansion of drone attacks in Pakistan will simply increase fighting, causing more US and Afghan casualties and it will push more fighters into Pakistan. This strategy will result in higher death toll in Pakistan and further destabilization of the entire neighborhood, a far more dangerous prospect for the whole world that the current situation in Afghanistan.
The biggest obstacles in the efforts to achieve peace in Afghanistan and security for the United States are the corrupt and incompetent Karzai government, the brutal and unscrupulous Afghan warlords, and the continuing India-Pakistan rivalry playing itself out in the region, and destabilizing nuclear-armed Pakistan.
The best course of action now open for the US is to use the 18 month transition period to reach a direct accommodation with the Afghan Taliban that guarantees that they will not permit any one to launch terrorist attacks against any nation from the Afghan soil. The US military withdrawal from the region should begin immediately after such a peace deal with the Taliban backed by regional guarantors, including Pakistan and China. Beyond Afghanistan, the global terrorist threat from al Qaeda needs to be met with a coordinated international effort that relies on carrots and sticks to give the insurgents a stake in maintaining world peace.