With Iraq stabilizing and the defeat of al-Qaeda there, Afghanistan is starting to heat up and get a lot more attention.
This is natural..as our enemies are defeated on one front, they're becoming increasingly active on another, especially since they have a failed nation-state next door in Pakistan as a haven for training, recruiting and funding.
The often repeated partisan political line that Iraq was a distraction from fighting al-Qaeda will go down in history (depending on who writes it) as one of the stupidest fallacies ever foisted on a gullible public. Things are heating up in Afghanistan and Pakistan not because we were concentrating too much on Iraq but because al Qaeda has been driven from the place it proclaimed as the central front for victory over the Americans, the home of its new caliphate.
Instead, they've been roundly defeated and forced back to their final redoubt, the mountain villages and caves in Waziristan and Pakistan's North West Frontier Province(NWFP) on the Pakistani side of the Afghan border. That means Pakistan/Afghanistan's going to remain a difficult problem for some time, unless we take decisive action.
Both Pakistan and Afghanistan are barely countries as we understand them. They are tribal societies rife with ethnic strife and unstable, corrupt and ineffective governments. To be blunt about it, at present I don't think we're winning in Afghanistan for a lot of reasons. But I think with a few changes, we could, especially if we redefine our goals and get serious about it. To begin with, while Afghanistan and Pakistan are two different countries, they're part of the same strategic problem.
The main reason given for our involvement in Afghanistan is to prevent the place from being an incubator for Islamic terrorism that could lead to strikes against our country. All well and good, but Pakistan has exactly the same potential..even more in fact, because it has a functioning military armed with ICBMs and nuclear weapons, a whole host of Saudi funded hardline madrassahs to turn out new generations of dedicated jihadis and a population largely supportive, or at least sympathetic to Islamism.The London tube bombers trained in Pakistan, and so did the trans-Atlantic airline bombers. By any measurement, far more Islamist terrorism has originated from Pakistan than Afghanistan.
They're supposedly an ally, but apparently one with bi-polar disorder claiming that they are fighting the Taliban and al Qaeda one day and making treaties with them and threatening the West about their `sovereignty' if we try to get rid of the jihadis and stop them attacking us the next. Considering what Pakistan as an ally has cost the United States in dollars and cents versus their overall effectiveness, so far it's been a pretty lousy investment. I say that full well realizing the idiocy of the oafish attempts of Condi Rice and the US State Department to 'democratize' Pakistan by forcing the corrupt Benazhir Bhutto and her entourage on Pervez Masharraf as a governing partner. The result of that nonsense was to weaken a dictator who was at least nominally pro-western and bring to power a coalition of anti-American Leftist plutocrats and Islamists who are either unwilling or incapable of dealing with the Taliban and the mess in the NWFP.
The first step in winning in Afghanistan/Pakistan is to figure out what winning means.There are three ways to approach this, and they're related, but quite different as far as their ultimate objectives.
If winning means establishing a reasonably stable situation in Afghanistan that isn't a cesspool of jihadism, we have a fighting chance of success provided we also deal with the problem of Pakistan. But if we're talking, as Barack Obama and others are of merely "defeating al-Qaeda and capturing bin-Laden" we will be stuck in a never-ending war of attrition - since it's obvious to me that a President Obama would neither understand or be willing to take the steps that would accomplish that.
Of course, in my mind, the best thing would be the third way, to accomplish both. That's also possible if we take a larger view, although it might be unlikely right now given our present political paralysis.
In many ways, Iraq was a model for this, although it was incredibly bungled for the first few years and thus cost us a great deal more in blood and treasure then it needed to.
One interesting similarity between Iraq and Afghanistan is their strategic location. Iraq is the central gateway to the Middle East, with one end pointing towards the Arab states of the Levant and the other pointing towards the gateway to the oil riches of the Persian Gulf.Similarly, Afghanistan sits perched at the gateway to the so-called `stans, the oil and gas rich regions of Central Asia that were once part of the Soviet Union...and a nexus of no less than three countries with imperial ambitions, Iran, Russia and Pakistan.
To my mind, if we are going to take the time and put in the effort towards stabilizing Afghanistan there are three main objectives: changing our entire view of the situation, dealing with the poppy trade, and entirely changing the dynamic with Pakistan.
Afghanistan is different then Iraq in that it is, officially at least, a NATO operation. Unfortunately, most of NATO hasn't seen fit to send combat troops to the country. The vast majority of forces there are Americans, especially in the eastern part of the country and the Danes, British, Canadian, Australian and Dutch forces all play key combat roles in southern Afghanistan. But most of the rest of NATO has either failed to send any forces at all or limited their troops to logistical support only and forbidden them to engage in combat.
The Canadians in particular have been quite vocal about this, and PM Harper has actually threatened to remove Canada's troops unless the other members of the EU step up to the plate.They actually showed some signs of doing so until Barack Obama came along pledging to remove US troops from Iraq and send extra US troops to Afghanistan - thus taking the heat off of countries like France, Italy and Germany, who will now, of course be prepared to wait until after the election and see if the Americans and others do the heavy lifting under an Obama administration.
More troops are indeed necessary,and the US and others ought to be adamant about insisting that NATO's members live up to their commitments to the degree that this is possible.In addition, the Afghan army needs more boots on the ground. They actually have fought pretty well in combat for the most part, but there are only 80,000 of them. More are needed, and they need to be trained and equipped.
Another thing that's absolutely imperative is some form of unified command of the NATO forces, ideally an American. That sort of unified command doesn't exist at present, and it's imperative.
The next step is dealing with the poppy trade.
Afghanistan is by far one of the largest source of opium poppies in the world, and the trade not only plays a major role in the finances of the Taliban but is the primary source of income for a number of US-friendly warlords as well...which is one reason that efforts to curtail the trade have been sporadic at best. It's estimated that the trade nets $100 billion US plus per year.To simply burn the fields would deprive a number of Afghans of their livelihood, not to mention turning a great many tribal chiefs against us.
My solution involves classic capitalism,combined with a bit of Mafia-like intransigence. We should offer to buy the crops from friendly warlords, with the proviso that anyone caught selling and delivering to anyone other than the US is going to have his fields destroyed without delay.
A portion of the crop could be resold legitimately to pharmaceutical companies to manufacture prescription opiates - the rest could be destroyed. The tribal chiefs would mostly be happy with this arrangement, because they would be receiving money for their usual product without the risk of smuggling or the cost of paying 'taxes' to the Taliban, and the US could then command their loyalty as their chief economic benefactor. It would also have the benefit of having the US government controlling the market on these substances rather than, say, the Mafia or the Union Corse' or some other group of drug lords.
The Taliban and Al-Qaeda, on the other hand would find themselves increasingly dependent on foreign handouts as opium poppy producers loyal to them have their fields burned out, and would suffer a cash crunch. One of the things they've invested heavily in is the processing labs and the distribution centers to turn out heroin, which are located in Pakistan. Exerting some force to get the Afghan growers to sell to us while destroying the Pakistani fields at the same time would make that investment worthless. And among other things, squeezing al-Qaeda and the Taliban would have a disasterous effect on their ability to bribe Pakistani politicians and local tribal chiefs. For that matter, it would be interesting to see what would happen if we gave the Pakistani Pashtun tribes an ultimatum...turn over Zawahiri and the other Taliban and Al Qaeda top brass to us for a hefty reward or watch as we destroy your drug fields and your livelihood. I have a feeling we might just end up with a few jihadi special deliveries if we did, and it amazes me that it's apparently never been tried.
Lastly - and here's the most difficult part - we need to change the dynamic with Pakistan, and we need to do it very carefully, unless we simply want to give up Afghanistan as a bad job.
There's no other area Barack Hussein Obama reveals his total lack of understanding of military and strategic matters more than in his proposal to pull troops out of Iraq and if the Pakistanis can't or won't do it themselves, invade Pakistan's North West Frontier provinces and Waziristan with a couple of brigades to fight Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. He also expects the EU to send more combat troops to take up the slack.
First, there's the military stupidity of sending 6,000 men to invade a hostile area only a little smaller than Texas, with some of the highest mountains and the ruggedest terrain on earth. Joshua's Army member Captain Jimmy, late of the 10th Mountain, gave me a thumbnail estimate for doing the job calling for close to 150,000+ troops and support units minimum to do the job properly. And after Obama's well-publicized sound bites about pulling American troops out of Iraq and sending them to Afghanistan, the idea of certain EU nations sending more combat troops there instead of laying back and watching the Americans do the heavy lifting is optimistic in the extreme, to say the least.
And then, there's the little matter of keeping these troops supplied.
Obama, who is supposedly bright has apparently never looked at a map of the region.
Afghanistan is a landlocked country and the major lifeline for NATO's forces in Afghanistan flows through the Pakistani port of Karachi...which explains why we're giving them 'aid' and why we've been putting up with their nonsense of giving the jihadis in Waziristan and the NWFP a haven.
If we invade a piece of Pakistan and turn them into an even more hostile nation than they are already, the only other practical overland route to resupply our troops would involve going through the Black Sea through Georgia and Azerbaijan and then crossing the Caspian Sea and shipping the stuff through Turkmenistan and then over rough, mountainous country into Afghanistan from the Northwest. It could be done, but it would be much more difficult and time consuming.
Not to mention that with Pakistan we're talking about a very unstable country with nukes and ICBMs.
Unless we're going to pull our troops out of Afghanistan first or take physical control of a Pakistani port and a supply corridor to Afghanistan ,we unfortunately had better give up the idea of confronting Pakistan forcefully for now. Or find another way to supply our armies in the field efficiently.
So...how to deal with the problem of Pakistan, the final piece in a nasty puzzle?
The first step,obviously is to secure the borders to the degree that it's possible.
India was able to cut down considerably on the jihadis crossing from Pakistan into Kashmir by utilizing mine fields, and there's no reason a similar solution wouldn't have a similar effect in parts of Afghanistan. We could likewise simply enforce a security zone across the border with armed drones, after publicizing the fact to the locals that anything or anybody crossing except at designated checkpoints is going to wind up very dead. Our role as poppy purchaser would likewise cut down on border traffic and make it easier to secure.
We also need a much more ruthless attitude towards our enemies, especially the ones we capture. A few executions followed by pigskin burials could do a great deal to interfere with the Taliban's recruiting efforts. So could propaganda in Pashtun ridiculing them and reminding the locals of what it was like to live under them.
We also need to continue targeted strikes within Pakistan whenever we find Taliban or Al-Qaeda bases or personnel. The Pakistanis will fume over this,but they're unlikely to erupt into outright hostilities as long as we're not talking about a land invasion. They need our
I personally would provide them with economic aid rather than military aid as long as they continue to earn their baksheesh by putting up a reasonable effort against Al Qaeda and the Taliban and safeguarding Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.
The idea that Pakistan is going to evolve into a Western-style democracy is the same sort of crack pipe thinking that brought us the Islamic Revolution in Iran. I wouldn't count on it, to put it mildly.That said, our main criterion in our dealings with them has to be to what extent they are willing to meet us halfway in exchange for all that aid money. In other words, it's a relationship of mutual convenience.
In the event there are significant failures on the part of Pakistan, we should have contingency plans to perform a targeted strike and destroy Pakistan's nuclear facilities...another reason why the Bush Administration's wanting to spend $226 million of our tax dollars to upgrade the Pakistani airforce's F-16's based on the flimsy excuse they'll be used for 'counterterror operations' is such an exercise in stupidity.
Ideally, this would happen once Afghanistan is stable enough to stand on its own and is a US ally.
As I said, dealing with Pakistan right now is like dealing with someone with bi-polar disorder, frankly. We will either have to step carefully and take our time about things if we feel like taking things slowly or we will have to decisively invade Pakistan and end things decisively..and from the coast, where it makes sense and we can supply our troops easily, not from Waziristan where we can't, Senator Hope N' Change.
Ideally, invading Pakistan won't be necessary, provided we can secure the Pakistani-Afghan border adequately and cut off the Taliban's money supply at the knees by becoming the only risk free purchaser for the poppy trade in the area.
Afghanistan/Pakistan is a solvable problem. But we're going to need to revamp our approach and decide exactly what we're trying to achieve there in order to win.
A hat tip,by the way to Dave at Glittering Eye, who's pieces on Afghanistan got me interested in doing some in-depth thinking about it...