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Afghanistan makes Iraq look easy

COMMENTARY | August 08, 2008

A former CIA station chief writes that Obama and McCain should think again if they believe nation-building in Afghanistan can be achieved without an enormous cost in blood and treasure. History suggests otherwise.

By Haviland Smith

Both Barack Obama and John McCain appear to believe that the pacification and rebuilding of Afghanistan is a national imperative. But if they think Iraq has been complicated, just wait till they sink their teeth into Afghanistan.

If we have learned nothing else from Iraq, it is that pacifying and rebuilding a country with ethnic and confessional differences and problematic neighbors is anything but a cakewalk. And indeed, the similarities between Afghanistan and Iraq are striking. Also, as in Iraq, today’s problem in Afghanistan is not terrorism; it is a hostile entity, the Taliban, which we defeated in 2002 and which has since morphed into an insurgency against us and the government we installed in its place.  Terrorist organizations hardly ever win anything significant -- though insurgencies almost always do.

The differences between the two countries, however, suggest the challenge in Afghanistan is even greater. Where Iraq is fairly flat, Afghanistan is mountainous -- perfect for an insurgency and terrible for conventional warfare.  Afghanis display characteristics common to many mountain people: They are basically unconquerable and ungovernable.  They are Middle East versions of the Hatfields and the McCoys.  They are brave, bellicose, fiercely proud, loyal to their clan, tribe or family, wildly independent, and have a highly developed sense of honor.  They are normally armed to the teeth, ready to fight, and they are good at it, having spent millenia fighting each other and themselves.

Even if it becomes possible to defeat the Taliban insurgency, Afghanis are not ideal candidates for pacification or nation-building.  Foreigners have tried and failed many times. The British tried off and on from 1839 to 1919. Between 1979 and 1989, the Soviets committed well over 100,000 troops there.  They lost 15,000 soldiers and whatever favorable image they had in the world. And it cost them billions of dollars, which almost certainly played a role in the demise of the USSR in 1991.

As a people, Afghanis are not terribly interested in being ruled by anyone outside their own tribe or clan, let alone their nation.  The have tried that before.  If our goal in Afghanistan is to pacify the country, or bring them democracy and free enterprise, we should think again.

Pakistan, Pashtuns and Poppies

One of the starkest realities we face in Afghanistan is the fact that almost half the population is Pashtun – 13 million souls located in southern Afghanistan.  The same Pashtuns total 28 million in contiguous Northwest Pakistan – about one sixth of the overall Pakistani population. 

The Taliban is overwhelmingly Pashtun.  Pakistani Pashtuns have long supported and supplied the Afghan Taliban.  In addition, the Taliban has always been supported by the Pakistani intelligence service and to this day, there remains much active support in Pakistan for the Taliban.  

Any real attempt to crush the Taliban in Afghanistan will necessarily involve their supply lines and suppliers in nuclear Pakistan.  At this moment, the Pakistani government seems incapable of or disinclined to get involved with our Pashtun problem in Northwest Pakistan.  This creates a de facto safe haven for the Taliban in Pakistan.  To our peril, we may well find it impossible to solve the Afghan problem without getting more heavily involved in Northwest Pakistan. But if we alienate that country sufficiently, we could end up creating a brand new, nuclear-armed enemy.

Poppy production now accounts for half of Afghanistan’s annual national income of $8 billion. Eighty percent of that opium is grown in Pashtun territory and the Taliban now gets around 40% of its income from the opium trade.  Afghanistan’s poverty is a real issue here and, legal or not, opium is an important crop.  Eradication would bring increased poverty and hardship.  Switching poppy farmers to other crops won’t be easy.

And all of this in Afghanistan, a country which is traditionally and inherently corrupt.

Not Really a Military Problem

As in the case of Iraq, our problem in Afghanistan is only superficially a military problem.  Under the surface are crucial economic, religious and political issues.  If we do ramp up in Afghanistan, it is going to be wildly expensive because, in the end and even after military success, we are going to be back in the long, drawn-out, expensive business of pacification and nation building in a country that will not be easily or naturally united.

We had best be prepared for these realities, and given our total lack of preparedness for a similar situation in Iraq, it must be carefully thought through.  We are not dealing here with post-war Germany or Japan.  We are dealing with a Muslim country in which people think their Islamic-based system of governance is perfectly OK.  There may be discontent in Afghanistan, but it is not with Islam. 

We have little going for us here and changing Afghanistan will be an incredibly expensive, dangerous and difficult task, if it can be accomplished at all.

Private citizen
Posted by Harvey Allen
01/18/2009, 12:24 PM

We can only hope that President Obama's advisors carefully read Mr. Smith's commentary, and better yet, consult with him on foreign policy. The Bush Administration's reckless incursion into Iraq, and failure to follow up the successful early defeat of the Taliban with diplomacy should be a stark lesson to the new president that he must pursue a new, well-informed approach that understands the limitations on US military power.

How to Save Afghanistan
By Rory Stewart (Time, July 17, 2008)

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