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What's the plan in Afghanistan?

ASK THIS | February 18, 2009

Even as President Obama sends more troops to Afghanistan, a former CIA station chief raises questions about the administration's goals there, and whether they are remotely achievable.

By Haviland Smith

The U.S. government is currently involved in a re-examination of its Afghan policy. And because the Obama Administration has committed itself to transparency – in stark contrast with the previous administration – that should lead to a public discussion of what our goals are in Afghanistan and how to pursue them.

So far, the Obama administration has not shared many details of its thinking with us.  Nonetheless, realities on the ground dictate that any reexamination of current policy consider the same basic issues.  Insurgency, terrorism, police and army training, counter-narcotics, the rule of law, our definition of success and our goals in Afghanistan have not and will not change with the adoption of a new policy.

Q. What is our ultimate goal for Afghanistan? 

If it is security and stability, that simply cannot be achieved militarily. If Afghanistan were ever to be pacified, which it never has, it would take hundreds of thousands of troops. Afghans have never accepted foreign domination of any kind. They have even been unwilling to accept central indigenous governance.  Whatever security and stability they achieve will have to arise from within the Afghan people, and will presumably reflect the character of those people, which is insular, secular and tribal.

Q. How do you create a “national army ‘ or “national police force” in a tribal society?

If Afghanistan is to somehow deal with its own internal issues of instability and tribalism, it will have to have some sort of central police and military organizations. How does the Administration propose to accomplish that?

Afghanistan is tribal in a way that makes Iraq look homogeneous. Sadly for us, tribal societies rarely form cohesive or successful national armies or police forces. 

Q. How does the Administration propose to deal with the armed groups that currently control most of the country?

Because of the pervasiveness of the Taliban, any solution will have to involve Pakistan as well as Afghanistan. The Pashtuns, who are the base of Taliban power, occupy both sides of the border. By definition and in the face of the ongoing decline of Al Qaeda, we will be involved in counter-insurgency rather than counter-terrorism – a far more complicated, long-lasting and difficult task. 

Q. Is the Administration prepared to deal with Shariya Law as the basis for Afghanistan’s future legal system?

Afghanistan already has a “Rule of Law” in the Shariya, or Muslim system of law based on the Koran, the Hadith and centuries of interpretations and precedents. Afghanis won’t look favorably on new western ideas of what its legal system ought to be. If recent changes in the status of the Swat Valley in Pakistan are a harbinger of things to come, Shariya is the law of the future in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Afghanistan also has a long and proud tradition of corruption.

Q. How are we going to run a counter-narcotics program in Afghanistan?

Poppies, Pashtuns and Pakistan are the immutable reality we must face. The Pashtuns are both Afghan and  Pakistani. They spill over the border between the two countries. They are also the Taliban who rely on poppies (heroin) for their financing.

Finally, given our modest level of success in the “War on Narcotics” here in the Western Hemisphere, it is hard to believe that we will suddenly figure out precisely what to do in Afghanistan, a culture infinitely more alien to us than that of Mexico.

In Conclusion

Any American plan for success in Afghanistan that includes the commitment of significant numbers of additional troops will put more stress on our current military and financial problems and encourage Afghan opposition to our plans and programs.

We need a new definition of “success”, one more in keeping with realties on the ground both in Afghanistan and in the United States, where a disastrous economy with a murky future and a war-weary population give scant hope of being able to support an inordinately expensive and long-lasting military campaign.

We will not make over Afghanistan into an image pleasing to us. The road to “success” in Afghanistan will be tribal and non-sectarian and will almost certainly involve the Taliban in some as yet unforeseen, but increasingly more significant way.

Posted by Syed Qamar Afzal Rizvi
02/20/2009, 10:53 AM

Haviland Smith's analysis regarding the Afghanistan syndrome does reflects the political correctitude of US's challenges in Afghainstan. The Obama administration needs to have a review of the Afghan policy based on the ground realities, thereby logically minimising the scope of the US- invited stakes in that area.And in this backdrop, a combination of the soft power and the smart power doctrine may bring about some durable results.

More American soldiers
Obama sends 17,000 new troops to Afghanistan.

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