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'Defeating' the Taliban only makes them stronger

COMMENTARY | July 29, 2009

What makes Obama think more troops are the answer in Afghanistan? A former CIA station chief questions the wisdom of banking on a centralized solution for a fragmented country.

By Haviland Smith

We have been sold a real bill of goods on Afghanistan.  We have allowed ourselves to be persuaded that in order to reach our goals there, whatever they may be, we will have to defeat the Taliban insurgency.  According to a recent statement by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, that is a “long-term prospect.”

This scenario raises a number of crucial questions about our Afghan adventure:  What are our goals there? What should our goals be? Must we “defeat” the Taliban to reach those goals? How much does the situation in Pakistan affect our chances for success?  What is the likelihood that we can succeed? Finally, how much additional treasure are Americans prepared to commit there?  How great is our patience for this war?

The Taliban doesn’t have to “win” in Afghanistan.  It simply has to avoid final defeat, something insurgencies know how to do and something the Taliban has actually accomplished since 2001.

Much was written about our goals for Afghanistan under the Bush Administration, which most notably includes wanting to “kick someone’s ass” on the heels of 9/11.

Obama Administration spokespeople have variously described our goals in Afghanistan as rooting out al Qaida and the Taliban forces, preventing their return, supporting self-governance, and ensuring security, stability and reconstruction. 

The president told McClatchy Newspapers last year: “I can tell you what our strategic goals should be. They should be relatively modest. We shouldn't want to take over the country. We should want to get out of there as quickly as we can and help the Afghans govern themselves and provide for their own security. Our critical goal should be to make sure that the Taliban and al Qaida are routed and that they cannot project threats against us from that region. And to do that I think we need more troops.”

Vice President Biden in February 2009 called for a “comprehensive strategy… that brings together our civilian and military resources, that prevents terrorists a safe haven, that helps the Afghan people develop the capacity to secure their own future.” Secretary Gates told U.S..troops in December 2008: "Significantly expanding [Afghanistan's national security forces] is, in fact, our exit strategy,"

Our one truly legitimate goal in Afghanistan should be very clear:  We need to be sure that Afghanistan does not once again become a sanctuary and training ground for Al Qaida or any other group that seeks to do us harm.

In order to accomplish that, however, we must understand some of the basic realities from Afghan history.  Traditionally, power in Afghanistan has rested in the many tribal chieftains who, in effect, have long run their own areas of the fragmented country.  Central authority and power have almost always been illusory.

But we are now training tens of thousands of national security forces in Afghanistan who are true products of their environment, having been recruited from all the tribes and ethnic groups in the country.  In this traditionally tribal society, to whom do they owe their true loyalty: the central government or their tribes?  Whose interests will they support when tribal and central government interests are at odds, which they nearly always are?  Since they exist with divided loyalties, how effective can they be in carrying out central national policy when that policy by definition will come at the expense of their own tribes?

There are tribes in Afghanistan that do not have a natural affinity for the Taliban.  We identified and worked with many of them during our 2001 invasion.  We now have the opportunity and obligation to work with them again, in our goal of eliminating Al Qaida. 

And we need to help our new allies without continuing to try to militarily destroy the Taliban, which only brings them more Afghan recruits against the foreign invader.  Make no mistake about it, that is how we are viewed and as long as that is true, we will unite the Afghans – as much as they can be united -- against us and our goals.

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