I urge you, Mr. President, not to increase our troop strength in Afghanistan. Indeed, I urge you to announce instead a gradual withdrawal of American forces whose only justifiable mission, undertaken with the support of virtually all Americans and the whole world, was lost at Tora Bora, when a skinflint strategy dictated from Washington allowed Osama bin Laden to slip away. Since “failure” was unacceptable to the hawks of the day, that mission was allowed to mutate into this ill-conceived war against the Islamist forces known as the Taliban. The hawks have had their day. Do not listen to them now.
It's a Civil War within IslamWe have, in Afghanistan, thrust ourselves into the middle of a religious war we tragically helped to ignite. Now, however, this struggle is in no way ours to win or lose. That’s up to those who have a direct interest in its outcome, the Afghan people. Arguments about how properly to fight a war against insurgency, debates about how many troops are needed, advisories about how those troops should behave vis-à-vis the local population—irrelevant! It’s not our war–and we can’t oh-so-nobly win it for the Afghan people either. If, after eight years of outside intervention, competent or not, the fractious non-Taliban leaders of Afghanistan have been unable to unite around the task of fielding enough tough-minded, battle-savvy men to defeat the resurgent Taliban, there’s got to be a serious lack of something like will, motivation or interest or sense or urgency. Look at it this way: if the Taliban can fight modern troops to a standstill, then five times as many (an arbitrary but not impossible figure if all non-Taliban sheiks, chiefs, warlords and mullahs would work together) non-Taliban fighters, no better equipped but equally determined, could surely push them back, Afghan-style. It’s clear that fearful village fence-sitters would back a credible non-Taliban alternative. Memories (and current experience) of Taliban rule are not pleasant.
As it is, we pour money into Afghanistan, it seeps into the ground like rain after drought, and still the ground is infertile (except for poppy). There’s a message here. We are fools and we are being milked. I imagine lots of laughter at our expense when the Afghan maliks settle down on their carpets, lounge back on their pillows and sip green tea together after a day of smiling and saying yes, yes, yes, to the Americans.
Two Good Reasons
Two things have emboldened me to write so single-mindedly. What started this trend of thought was the reaction in Pakistan to Taliban-excesses in Swat, including decapitations and mutilations, as well as to the loss of life from dramatic suicide bombings throughout the country. The militants even dared to threaten the almighty game of cricket. Little by little the horror dawned. The Taliban couldn’t be trusted to honor a self-limiting agreement. As a result, the war against the Taliban and other such militants had become Pakistan’s, which meant that the Army was no longer in the humiliating position of fighting someone else’s war. When the army finally went after Baitullah Mehsud, it wasn’t head hunting for the U.S. It was defending a way of life more agreeable to the people of Pakistan. In short, a mission the majority of Pakistanis could support. (Note to America: you can’t buy loyalty or reliable allies, a lesson that should also be abundantly apparent in Afghanistan.)The second reason for my strongly urging you, Mr. President, not to send more troops to Afghanistan is related. It derives from the data in a recent Pew Research Center study. Over the past six years, and ironically while America’s popularity has been in free fall, confidence in bin Laden’s likelihood to “do the right thing” has plummeted, from about 58% to 28% in Jordan, from 60% to 25% in Indonesia, from 15% to 2% in Turkey, to mention just a few countries. Suicide bombing and other violence inflicted on civilian populations “to defend Islam against its enemies” has also dramatically lost support. This trend, it should be noted, can't be traced to the American anti-terrorism campaign.
In short, the Taliban and their ilk generate strong internal opposition, once their methods and intentions become clear. Taliban militants were initially welcomed in Kabul, but their notion of civic order turned out to be too oppressive to be popular. Taliban behavior in Swat galvanized the Pakistani opposition. Egyptians, too, recoiled when militants slaughtered tourists at Hatshepsut’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings.
One big objection to drawing down our forces in Afghanistan has to do with the “failed state” worry, the idea being that militants flourish where governance is weak or non-existent (which paradoxically was not the case when bin Laden was a guest of the Taliban-run Afghan state). But whether or not Afghanistan manages to get itself together in its own way (preferably through a loya jirga and not another travesty of an election in pursuance of a doomed-to-fail, externally imposed system of governance), there will be power vacuums in the Muslim world for the foreseeable future. Who is going to put Somalia back together? And what about Yemen? Even if the U.S. manages to “pacify” Afghanistan, the violently-disposed will re-site their efforts, and we can hardly fight simultaneous wars in Yemen (Saudi Arabia would love that!) and Somalia, to say nothing of Pakistan, since that’s where bin Laden actually is, these days.
Civilian Rule is the American Way
So Mr. President, don’t let the hawks make you think you must slavishly do what a general out to make his reputation perhaps predictably wants you to do. Save his reputation; don’t escalate a mission that makes no sense. It’s folly to try to force a tightly centralized government on a country with strong regional traditions. What’s more, no politically feasible surge of American troops would be sufficient to secure simultaneously every village in the country while any government, centralized or federal, takes hold—a generation say. In short, the plea for an Afghan surge must be resisted. Afghanistan isn’t Iraq or Viet Nam. It's sui generis. And finally, Mr. President, in the American system of governance, Presidents give orders to generals, not vice versa. The much abused term Commander in Chief has nothing to do with some mysterious unitary executive. It means that civilians rule, the military obeys.