Is Less More in Afghanistan? by mattsteinglass
March 21, 2007, 10:55 am
Filed under: Islam, Terrorism, United States, Vietnam

Rory Stewart has a typically brilliant column in today’s NY Times. His first point echoes some familiar truths from the Vietnam War: ideology can get you very confused about who your friends and enemies are, and which enemies are only enemies because you decided to fight them. And if you, as an occupying power, turn the strongest locally rooted political structures into your enemies, you are never going to win.

…counterterrorism is not the same as counterinsurgency. Counterterrorism requires good intelligence and Special Forces operations, of the sort the U.S. was doing in 2002 and 2003. Recently, however, NATO has become involved in a much wider counterinsurgency campaign, involving tens of thousands of troops. The objective now is to wrest rural areas from Taliban forces.

But many of the people we are fighting have no fixed political manifesto. Almost none have links to Al Qaeda or an interest in attacking U.S. soil. We will never have the troop numbers to hold these areas, and we are creating unnecessary enemies. A more considered approach to tribal communities would give us better intelligence on our real enemies. It is clear that we do not have the resources, the stomach, or the long-term commitment for a 20-year counterinsurgency campaign. And the Afghan Army is not going to take over this mission.

Stewart’s second point, however, is one that sharply challenges the current conventional wisdom: rather than a tragic mistake driven by the diversion of forces to the senseless invasion of Iraq, the “light footprint” of Coalition forces in Afghanistan post-2002 was the right approach.

Sometimes it is better for us to do less. Dutch forces in the province of Uruzgan have found that, when left alone, the Taliban alienate communities by living parasitically, lecturing puritanically and failing to deliver. But when the British tried to aggressively dominate the South last summer, they alienated a dangerous proportion of the local population and had to withdraw. Pacifying the tribal areas is a task for Afghans, working with Pakistan and Iran. It will involve moving from the overcentralized state and developing formal but flexible relationships with councils in all their varied village forms.

The conventional wisdom seems to be that we squandered an opportunity in Afghanistan in 2002 and 2003, being distracted by Iraq and not bringing enough troops or resources. But my experience in Afghanistan has led me to believe that the original strategy of limiting our role was correct.

I don’t know what to say about this. It’s certainly true that American antipathy to all foreigners lacking MBA’s from major American universities leads us into rather senseless attacks on deeply rooted local governing structures and political elites whom we’d be better off negotiating with. This often involves the conjuring of mirage-like pro-American “third forces”, headed by said locals with American MBA’s (or their equivalent), who know how to say the right things to international conferences but don’t have much of an actual political constituency in their own countries. (See: Diem, Ngo Dinh; Chalabi, Ahmed; Karzai, Ahmed.)

On the other hand…isn’t it generally true that the more forces you have in a country, the less fighting you have to do? And that there’s been a pervasive situation of increasing anarchy in Afghanistan for the past 5 years? Wouldn’t it have been beneficial to have more forces in Afghanistan available to back up local authorities of whatever kind, even if – especially if – they were just sitting around looking authoritative, rather than fighting anyone? I don’t know. Bosnia seems like the relevant example, and there the solution involved BOTH a deal between the extant political parties and their constituencies, AND the presence of massive international force to guarantee the deal.


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