Monday, November 16, 2009

The Afghan Shuffle

Should I stay or should I go? If I go there will be trouble.... If I stay it will be double..-The Clash

Afghanistan has reared its ugly head, and the debate on how to handle it is in full swing. The latest is that President Obama has taken a look at the options presented to him after all this time and has decided he doesn't like any of he's 'reassessing' and stalling for time again with a road trip to Asia. This time the excuse is that he wants a handover date written in stone and has questions about the Karzai government's viability as a partner.

This is not a decision where the president can vote 'present' anymore. It's been over 9o days since General McChrystal requested additional troops, and our warriors are in danger and taking casualties because the president seems to be unable to choose between his apparent inclination to stroke his Leftist base and pull out and the political need he has to justify all of the 'war of necessity' rhetoric he spouted off during the campaign in an attempt to appear presidential.

There have been some absolutely ridiculous PR tactics in an attempt to cover what ex-Vice President Dick Cheney rightfully referred to as 'dithering.'

First, there was the excuse spearheaded by Rahm Emanuel and Senator John Kerry, who said that any future troop commitments should be held off until we know for certain who won the disputed Afghan elections - as if that matters in the grand scheme of things with the corrupt Karzai government or when we have troops under fire.

Kerry managed to muscle Afghan President Hamid Karzai into a runoff, but that's a good example of how wrongheaded our strategy is there. Karzai's opponent, Abdullah Abdullah is half Tajik and was unlikely to be supported by the Pashtuns, the dominant group in Afghanistan even in the unlikely event he won.

Even more farcical, Abdullah Abdullah realized he had no chance to win, withdrew from the runoff and Karzai is the president anyway. And Karzai is unlikely to forget the slight to his personal honor, a major offense according to Pashtunwalli, the Pashtun tribal cultural code that predates Islam and in some respects is an even more powerful influence. We now have a 'partner' in Afghanistan who is livid at the Obama Administration on a personal level for besmirching him and undermining his authority.

Next there was White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel and Spokesmouth Robert Gibbs' contentions that more time was needed because there was no plan for Afghanistan and the Bush Administration had left them no intel review or strategy, they needed to start from scratch and that ex- Vice President Dick Cheney had 'left recommendations sitting on his desk for eight months.'

That ended up being proven to be a bald faced, self serving lie, with Gibbs fumbling in a press conference when asked about the review and recommendations presented to the Obama Administration by Lt. General Douglas Lute by saying he 'hadn't read it and couldn't comment.'

Leaving these bits of despicable nonsense aside, the question remains: how should we handle Afghanistan?

Part of answering the question is a realistic assessment of what's both possible and desirable, and that's been in rather short supply lately on both sides of the debate.

I've been covering the Afghanistan war in detail these past four years, even when the dinosaur media was focused on the Iraq 'carnage'. I did it because of the incredible heroism shown by our warriors there, some of whom I'm honored to be on pretty friendly terms with. They have performed everything they've been asked to do superbly under the most difficult of conditions. But Afghanistan has to be seen as what it is, a battle in a wider war, and it's time we asked ourselves whether this is the battleground we want to focus on.

The usual reason given for us staying in Afghanistan is that if we pull out, the country will become a failed state, a breeding ground for Islamist terrorism, a place for al-Qaeda to regroup and a training ground for future terrorist attacks against us. That may all very well be quite true, but tell me - is that really any different from Somalia? Or Yemen? Or Pakistan, for that matter where al Qaeda already has regrouped, together with its Taliban allies?

Pakistan, of course, is the key to the whole ballgame and what happens there will drive what happens in Afghanistan. Considering one without the other is senseless. It always was, from the very beginning.

That's another way of saying that if we really wanted to strike a blow against Islamic fascism,we went one country too far north north. Far more Islamist attacks have originated in Pakistan than in Afghanistan.

Here's the hard truth to examine. After 9/11,our political leadership refused to face the fact that a whole lot of the Muslim ummah thought what Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and the boys had pulled off was absolutely wonderful. That would have meant looking into who was financing the gig as well as who was financing the pushing of the ideology behind it.And it would have meant confronting some old business partners and friends known to be very generous to retired politicians and State Department functionaries.

So instead of that, they miniaturized it. Instead of telling the American people that we were in a war against jihad and Islamic fascism and confronting, militarily or otherwise the nations behind it, we were given the nonsensical notion of a 'war on terror'.

Afghanistan was part of that miniaturization. From a strategic standpoint it's worthless, especially with an increasingly Islamist Pakistan next door. I may not have gone to West Point, but even I see the folly of committing an army and billions of dollars worth of equipment into a battle ground that's land locked, surrounded by hostile territory and depends on bribes paid to a hostile Pakistan for its lifeline,via the port of Karachi and the Torkum Pass.

Even worse is the problem we may have with how we're actually fighting the war. General McChrystal is an excellent field commander, but like many of our other Generals he's a zealot for political correctness. which is likely one reason why he has the job in the first place. We've become boxed into a situation that makes actually focusing on offensive war and killing the enemy difficult, because an offensive war strategy to be effective would involve either going into Pakistan or sealing the border effectively. And the latter is difficult if not impossible in this particular terrain. Instead, we now have our troops engaged in a kinder, gentler PR push that places the emphasis on nation building, drinking tea and eating goat with the Pashtuns who want us gone anyway and see us agents of a despised Afghan government.

McChrystal's ideas are based on what he accomplished in Iraq, a very different place. He wants us to control the population centers, protect the Afghan people and gradually wean them over to our side while essentially fighting a defensive war.

The problem is that unlike Iraq, Afghanistan is a tribal society that has rarely ever had a functioning central government. And I'm not sure the American people are willing to invest another trillion dollars and 4,000 lives to experiment with nation building again at this point. Neither are our NATO allies, the ones Obama claimed he bring on board by sheer hopeychangy charm. They're champing at the bit to get away.

And since Obama has now alienated the Karzai regime, the idea that we're going to be able to control the population centers in the face of a hostile government is ludicrous on the face of it.

I'd also have to perfectly honest and say that based on his performance thus far, President Barack Hussein Obama is the last man I'd want as commander-in-chief during a war. If he wants to pull out, well and good. We're probably better off. The problem of course is that Obama always wants it both ways, because it's about him , you see. Not only does he want kudos from his Leftist base for leaving, he wants everybody to forget all those cute remarks he made about how Afghanistan was 'the real war' one that he wouldn't neglect like President Bush did.

He's always wanted to bug out, while having it both ways and avoiding being saddled with any hard choices. It's his basic nature and I'm fine with letting him go with it - except it still doesn't solve the problem of stabilizing Afghanistan or at least monitoring it.

Of course, there is another way to go to accomplish those goals there, and it basically mirrors how the British Empire successfully handled the Afghans and how Reagan dealt with the mujaheddin, but with a few changes.

If we actually want to 'win' here, we need to define it strictly as making sure that we have enough oversight in Afghanistan to make sure that it doesn't become an Islamist fascist state that's going to pose a security problem for us.

If that's the goal, then flooding the area with US power including Pakistan, and engaging in an occupation and nation building again might achieve it, but the end results are likely to be fairly dubious and counterproductive. High cost, low return.

Instead,a far better and more workable idea is to stop treating Afghanistan as a 'country' and more like a system of tribal areas of influence, which is what it actually is.

First, we should waste no time in distancing ourselves from the Karzai government and pulling most of our troops out as soon as feasibly possible , along with every bit of our gear that isn't nailed down.

And as we do that, I'd concentrate on dealing with the tribes and the warlords directly, because that's where the real power lies.

I've seen some excellent ideas from men who ought to know about actually utilizing the tribal society of Afghanistan to our advantage by embedding small,specialized groups of troops within the tribes to to live with - and fight alongside - the Pashtun tribesmen who dominate southern and eastern Afghanistan and have no loyalty to the government in Kabul.

It's a sensible strategy, especially if we allow the warlords and tribes to cut a deal with us so that we're paying them directly, just as we did with the Sunni tribes in Iraq. And there's an additional advantage in that many of the Afghan tribes, having experienced Taliban-style government at first hand already would just as soon keep their autonomy.

We'd keep the arms and a stipend coming to our tribal allies as long as they followed through, just like the British did to theirs, and we'd have enough boots on the ground to provide intel so we could utilize air and drone power to keep things tidy when necessary.

Part of assuring that loyalty would involve decisively dealing with Afghanistan's other problem, the opium trade. That's something we're not doing at all now.

Over a year ago, I suggested that we choke the financing of the Taliban and its allies by becoming a major player in the Opium trade.

Afghanistan is by far one of the largest sources of opium poppies. That trade not only plays a major role in the finances of the Taliban but is the major 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 a $100 billion US plus industry, money which goes a long way there. But simply destroying the fields would deprive a number of Afghans of their livelihood, not to mention turning a great many tribal chiefs against us.

Instead, we should use classic capitalism,combined with a bit of Mafia-like intransigence. We should 'offer' to buy the opium poppy crops outright at fair market prices from friendly warlords and tribal chiefs 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 be happy with this arrangement, because they would be receiving money for their usual product without the risk of smuggling, and the US could then command their loyalty as their chief economic benefactor. It would also have the side 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.

We might also, as a parting shot, destroy the processing labs, which are located in Pakistan. The Taliban have invested heavily in these facilities. And if I were making the decision myself, I might give some thought to taking out Pakistan's nuclear facilities at the same time, or at the very least I'd want a clear contingency plan for doing so that could be implemented on fairly quick notice. But that's another topic.

The Afghan tribes themselves, backed up by our inter-tribal teams and our air power would take charge of keeping our enemies out of the areas of Afghanistan they control. It would pay for them to do so, and it would accomplish what we need to accomplish there at a fraction of the human and economic cost.

Then, with that front stabilized to a degree, we might, hopefully with different leadership be able to begin to prepare our forces and resources for the real war to come.



Anonymous said...


You understand the crux in the matter ; I understand the crux in the matter : ' Afghanistan is a tribal society '. No progress can be achieved via Kabul.

& you are right to look to the past, eg, the British Empire, for lessons learnt the hard way & inspiration.

You have the economics nailed down & have a feasible strategy.

You understand that Afghanistan - Pakistan = Failure.


You have no possible future political career in Washington, DC !



B.Poster said...

I must say I like your plan better than any thing else that I've seen. It understands the nature of Afghan society and it has a better chance of succeeding than the current plans. Also, its less expensive. We can't afford expensive military conflicts right now. We will have to win this the same way we partially defeated the Soviet Union, by outsmarting them.

The last sentence is truly telling. Part of how we do this is first we need to determine if the United States wants to try and remain a major world power. If so, this will be a tall order. While the other major powers of Russia and China have problems, the problems they face are nowhere near as severe as those America faces. As such, America's situation is far more challenging than the situation faced by the other major powers.

If we want to be a major power, we will need to build a military that can compete with Russia and China or both of them if necessary. Right now we don't have a military that could be competetive with either Russia or China. This is nothing against our brave warriors. I'm simply stating the facts.

If we don't want to try and remain a major power, the best bet is withdrawing all forces around the world and redeploying them to our borders. Also, the nuclear arsenal needs to upgraded. If we do these things, the Russians, Chinese, and other major powers may decide America is to difficult to conquer or control and let us live in relative peace.

Anonymous said...

I served a tour in Afghanistan in 2005, and you're right about one thing, it's the tribes that are the key.

The average Afghan gives his loyalty to his tribe, not the government.

Calling it a country and treating it like one is no way to operate there.


Anonymous said...

Do I have an admirer or an imitator ? That DD ( 3 pm ) is not me ! -- dragon/dinosaur

Freedom Fighter said...

I think that DD was just his initials

Anonymous said...

To FF :
OK, it probably was a coincidence.
-- dragon/dinosaur ( I guess we DDs think alike. )

Ymarsakar said...

McChrystal's ideas are based on what he accomplished in Iraq, a very different place. He wants us to control the population centers, protect the Afghan people and gradually wean them over to our side while essentially fighting a defensive war.

The problem is that unlike Iraq, Afghanistan is a tribal society that has rarely ever had a functioning central government.

It's a sensible strategy, especially if we allow the warlords and tribes to cut a deal with us so that we're paying them directly, just as we did with the Sunni tribes in Iraq.

There are too many contradictions in those statements.

How is putting people with the tribes not protecting the Afghan people. And how is it not a defensive war.

On the other hand, how was the Sunni Triangle under an effective central government when COIN, aided by McChrysta's units, was employed in the region as a central strategy.

Then again, if it was 'just as we did' with the SUnni tribes in Iraq, how is it that Iraq is a 'very different place'. McChrystal was not operating in the Kurdish or Shia territories.

General McChrystal is an excellent field commander, but like many of our other Generals he's a zealot for political correctness. which is likely one reason why he has the job in the first place.

What's more likely is that you are jumping to conclusions based upon insufficient substantiation.

McChrystal's notable field commands were in the nature of Special Operations Command, forward deployed, with specific targets in mind. As a result, they found Saddam, through tribal contacts. THey found Zarqawi through tribal informants as well.

McChrystal's a zealot for succeeding in the mission. If Obama had appointed him using his own network of people, that would cast doubt on McChrystal's character. Since Obama initially utilized the Bush Review for the 'job', which included General Petraeus, it's not likely McChrystal is like the General failures, Casey and Shinseki unless you have real evidence stating otherwise.

Excellent field command and political correctness do not normally go along with each other.

Once Marine units arrive in their designated towns and villages, they have been instructed to build and live in small outposts among the local population. The brigade's commander, Brig. Gen. Lawrence D. Nicholson, said his Marines will focus their efforts on protecting civilians from the Taliban and on restoring Afghan government services, instead of mounting a series of hunt-and-kill missions against the insurgents.

From your other post.

What's ridiculous is you call somebody else's strategy a path that leads to defeat, then you recommend the same exact thing and call it a stepping stone to 'offensive war'. Don't be ridiculous.

Freedom Fighter said...

Hello Ymarsakar,
Welcome back.

I could be mistaken but it seems your waspishness is getting the better of you, just a bit.

First , it is obvious (or should be to anyone unless they're not thinking clearly) that keeping Afghanistan from becoming Taliban central involves protecting the Afghan people. In fact, I say so directly, when I remark that one of the advantages we have here in dealing directly with the tribes is that they have already experienced Taliban rule and already know they prefer autonomy.

Second,if we actually look at what those Marines you refer to are doing, they are situated in base and not directly embedded with the tribes themselves, and are thus seen as associated with the Karzai government. Tribe members are tribe members and ferenghi are ferenghi, and when we have small units embedded in the tribes they in effect become tribe members once they're accepted. The time element in that is similar to the amount of time it would take to withdraw most of our forces.

If you haven't already,please take another look at the links in this piece.

Third, our strategy in Afghanistan is of necessity going to be a defensive one unless we're prepared to get involved on the ground in Pakistan, because of the nature of the terrain on the border and the realities of how deeply imbeded the Islamists are in Pakistani society.

I don't think we are...especially under this president.

Fourth, I'm not saying that an Iraq style surge might not's a direct quote:

"flooding the area with US power including Pakistan, and engaging in an occupation and nation building again might achieve it, but the end results are likely to be fairly dubious and counterproductive. High cost, low return."

That's assuming the American people want to spend another trillion dollars and 4,000 lives plus here right now.

Seen the polls lately? I don't think they do.

Fifth, It should be obvious to most observers by now that General McChrystal has no choice but to be PC, given who the C in C is. Right now, we have FBI agents in Afghanistan actually mirandizing enemy combatants and advising them to get lawyered up before talking to our warriors about any intel they might have. That's how bad it is.

McChrystal is an excellent field commander. Aside from his superb record in Iraq, here is a guy who was willing to go head to head with Obama rather than keep quiet and preside over he and his men being hung out to dry.

But tell you really think publicly bringing this to a head enamoured him to Obama, given what you know about the president? Do you actually think he's going to be allowed to accomplish 'the mission' however one conceives it, since I still havent heard a common sense realistic definition of what victory in AfPak means?

Do you think that Obama is actually likely to give him the men and resources he needs rather than vote 'present by going in part way?

I don't.

Nor do I think McChrystal is going to be able to set up to protect the population centers anyway, with the way Obama has alienated the Karzai government. We'll just end up being identified with them.

On the other hand, the strategy I've outlined here actually takes stock of reality, dealing directly with the warlords and tribes that can actually keep the Taliban out and who's territories extend on both sides of the AfPak border.It chokes the Taliban financially . It's low cost, high return and doesn't leave an army stranded in a land locked country surrounded by hostile territory.

It's also similar to what worked in Iraq with the Sunni Tribes and the Awakening movement, and an updated version how the Brits kept control of Afghanistan for years with relatively few troops and low cost.

And it stabilizes the front here until we actually are prepared to wage the war we still haven't begun to fight yet...leadership included.

Th eleadership part in DC is something we definitely don't have right now.

Think about it.