Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Sunday, April 24, 2011

A Conversation: Afghanistan, The Final Word

Yohanes asked me to offer some concluding remarks, so it looks like I have the final word in this conversation on Afghanistan. Below I list five take-home points.

1. There are many actors to blame for the protracted, bloody nature of the war. The militants (those scattered AQ elements and extremist Taliban who cause violence), Pakistan (which shields the Taliban), the Afghan government (which is weak and corrupt), American leadership and decision making (both Team Bush and Obama), and moderate Taliban members (who lack the courage to break ranks and deal with Kabul), among others, have contributed to the politico-military outcome we observe today.

The fact that there are so many players, with different and often opposing interests, adds to the complexity of war, making it difficult to resolve. To break the deadlock and get a sustainable agreement, all five actors must operate and work in one direction (either by choice, or because options have been imposed on them)–that is, toward putting down arms, renouncing violence, moving to the negotiating table, installing explicit or implicit trust-building measures, and so on. Those actors that are unable to get on the same page will undermine any effort at an effective deal.

2. The last nine years has called into question many of the assumptions and labels of the war that have been put forward by American leaders over the years. Remember, during the early years of the George W. Bush administration, this was supposedly the "easy war." The U.S. quickly toppled the Taliban and life in Afghanistan, especially in the bigger cities, seemed to rebound rather quickly. But by the end of his second term, this was clearly not an accurate description of the war. Barack Obama rode into office on platform that argued Afghanistan, not Iraq, was the "good war," the "necessary war" to fight. Yes, the war is essential to keep Afghan civilians, especially women and girls, safe and secure from violence and extremism. But that is not what Obama meant. He claimed the war was vital in a global strategic context. And as we now know, that is not entirely true.

Sure, it would be great if the U.S. can prevent AQ and extremist Taliban members from using Afghanistan once again as base from which they project their hate and violence locally and around the world (see my prior post for more on this). But AQ already functions this way. It does not need Afghanistan to cause death and destruction, wreak havoc with the global economy, and harm American security interests. After all, AQ has a base next door in Pakistan, and some sort of presence in at least 60 other countries. And with the rise of "virtual jihad," AQ does not need to capture territory. Through online communities (You Tube, message boards, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and other web sites), AQ headquarters and its affiliates can recruit and train followers, spread its message, coordinate and plan upcoming attacks, issue orders for jihad, and more.

3. Events in Afghanistan have validated the longstanding argument that, once started, wars are often unpredictable and uncontrollable. And this frequently applies to great powers involved in asymmetrical conflicts–the kind of situations in which countries should be able to impose their will on much weaker adversaries. Think about the Vietnam War or the Indochina War or the Soviet adventure in Afghanistan during the 1980s.

In short, a major problem is that there is so much that countries, no matter how powerful or weak, do not and cannot know about their opponent before and during war. For example, who is the opponent? Does it get support from other groups or countries? What kind of support? What are the opponent’s goals? How strong or weak is the opponent in reality? How will it respond to military force? Will it adapt on the ground to strategies and tactics employed against it? But beyond the nature of the opponent, there are things that countries do not or cannot know about themselves or their side in war. How will their public react if the war does not end quickly? Will the war become politicized? Will their allies free ride or defect from the coalition? Will internal civil-military relations impact the war? Have they overestimated their own military strength? Will wartime pressures induce any leadership mistakes?

On a host of levels, the U.S. nowadays finds itself in an unpredictable and uncontrollable war in Afghanistan. It cannot influence Kabul or Pakistan to be more productive partners in the war. The U.S. has been unable to push the Karzai to clean up his government. And despite recent military successes, overall, it has failed to coerce the Taliban into submission. Violence still permeates the country, at random times and places. While wildly supported among citizens and politicians in 2001, after the 9/11 attacks, the war is no longer popular, with many doubting the value of stakes and worrying about the costs of continued war. Furthermore, extreme polarization in American politics has turned the war into a political football, with neither the Bush or Obama administrations willing to take strong, bold action to effect different results.

4. Let us not forget what the war is all about. Over the last five years or so, there has been quite a bit of talk in the U.S. (in foreign policy journals, such as International Security and Small Wars, and newspapers; in speeches and television appearances by elected officials, bureaucrats, and military personnel; and by bloggers, scholars, and pundits) on the specifics of American military tactics and strategy in the war. There has been a ton of paper been used to explain, clarify, and critique U.S. COIN (counter-insurgency). While interesting and informative, these discussions often miss the major point of the war. As Carl von

What does this mean? For the sake of brevity, let us just focus on the role of the U.S. in the war. The U.S. employs military force in Afghanistan, not merely to shoot people or blow things up, but for select political purposes. Put simply, ultimately, the U.S. uses force to enhance its bargaining power vis-a-vis particular groups and countries (the Taliban, AQ, the Afghan government, and Pakistan) so it can get what it wants on certain issues (a reduction in extremism, violence, and terrorism, stability in Afghanistan, etc.). Military force is simply one tool among many (think about threats to use force, diplomacy, economic aid and sanctions, humanitarian aid and missions) that the U.S. wields to reach its desired outcomes–both in general and in Afghanistan specifically. That American military force has not sufficiently and decisively pounded the Taliban into submission means Team Obama must place more of an emphasis on non-military tools in its struggle in Afghanistan.

5. Most obviously, it will take a very long time to fix Afghanistan. To reduce terrorism in Afghanistan to a more manageable and livable level, it might take less than a generation. But to complete the project of nation building? As we know, nation building–in this case, building a functioning state out of whole cloth and reconstructing state-society relations–is an enormous, daunting task. And this is especially so in a country that has little experience with effective national governing institutions and has traditionally vested power at the tribal level. This project could take two or more generations, depending on a number of factors, including the nature and duration of America’s commitment to Afghanistan.

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