Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

September 6, 2009

Choosing our course in the Hindu Kush

Filed under: International HLS,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on September 6, 2009

Over drinks late last week a senior military man — and long-time friend — surprised me by insisting it was time to cut a deal and (mostly) get out of Afghanistan. 

All I did was stammer, “I’m not there yet.” 

In this morning’s New York Times, Nick Kristoff is quoting a neighbor of mine to make a similar argument. 

Kristoff concludes, “The solution is neither to pull out of Afghanistan nor to double down. Rather, we need to continue our presence with a lighter military footprint, limited to training the Afghan forces and helping them hold major cities, and ensuring that Al Qaeda does not regroup. We must also invest more in education and agriculture development, for that is a way over time to peel Pashtuns away from the Taliban.”

Kristoff’s column reports on — and to my reading — may soften, the informed opinion of several national security and intelligence heavy-weights regarding the right choice for Afghanistan.  His sources include a neighbor (two hollers over and atop a taller mountain).

In his blog, my neighbor,  Howard P. Hart writes, “Given the realities of Afghan society, and the nature of the insurgents we are fighting, I believe that President Obama’s new strategy is a guaranteed recipe for failure, and is, in fact, self-defeating. While in theory we will lose fewer troops by abandoning aggressive search-and-kill missions, we will be setting up targets across the country that are perfectly suited to the insurgent’s attack capabilities.”

But what grabs my attention — in addition to reading this from a neighbor whom I respect — is Howard’s argument that a different strategy is better suited for dealing with AQ in Pakistan.  In the same blog post he writes,

Al-Qaeda has long since fled to Pakistan, where it is now firmly ensconced. Al-Qaeda should be fought in Pakistan, not in Afghanistan, where we are actually fighting the Taliban and other insurgents. IF we were to abandon Afghanistan and small units of al-Qaeda were to return, they could easily be attacked by raids by U.S. Special Forces troops based in Pakistan. We do not need to fight a major war against a completely unrelated enemy – the Taliban and other insurgent groups – in order to fight and defeat al-Qaeda.

As regular readers of  The Watch have noticed (and sometimes complained about), I give significant attention to Pakistan — especially FATA. But I  seldom deal with Afghanistan.  This is largely because the region’s homeland security threats are, to my way of thinking, mostly concentrated across the Durand Line from Afghanistan.

But my general sense has been we must persist in Southern and Eastern Afghanistan in order to maximize our impact against AQ and related targets in Pakistan.   My well-informed neighbor — and others — disagree.

Writing from far outside our neighborhood, Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, offers something between what we think-we-know of the McChrystal plan and what Kristof and Howard suggest.  In today’s Washington Post, Rashid writes,

To emerge from this mess with even moderately credible Afghan partners will be difficult, but it has to be done. (The Americans could start by forcing Karzai to create a government that includes all leading opposition figures.) Without a partner, the United States becomes nothing but an occupying force that Afghans will resist and NATO will not want to support. Holbrooke’s skills as a power broker will be sorely tested, with his past successes in the Balkans a cakewalk compared with this perilous path. The Obama administration can come out of this quagmire if it aims low, targets the bad guys, builds a regional consensus, keeps the American public on its side and gives the Afghans what they really want — just the chance to have a better life. There is no alternative but for the United States to remain committed to rebuilding a minimalist state in Afghanistan. Nothing less will stop the Taliban and al-Qaeda from again using Afghanistan and now Pakistan to wreak havoc in the region and around the world.

My neighbor has me second-guessing my prior position.  For this, I thank him.  But Rashid makes an argument that still makes sense to me.  It is not my decision to make, thank God.  But in the next few weeks “we” (the sovereign plural of a republic) will choose… and after we choose, it will not be possible to retrieve the options available today.


Prior posts on this topic in The Watch include:

Pashtun pride pressures US plans (August 30)

Can we take advantage of our adversary’s arrogance? (June 10)

You, me, Obama, Osama, and Omar: Climbing higher into the Hindu Kush (March 30)

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1 Comment »

Comment by Peter J. Brown

September 6, 2009 @ 3:23 pm

Back in April, I wrote a column for Asia Times, entitled, “A capital idea for Afghanistan” about the need to replace Kabul as the country’s capital.

(FYI Link is tricky because underscoring of South_Asia can create problems http://www.atimes.com/atimes/South_Asia/KD30Df02.html)

I was in Kabul years ago. I was heading west and bound for Ankara.

Among other things, I wrote,

“A nationwide dialogue in Afghanistan must commence about the benefits and advantages of creating a new capital. It is a sound idea because keeping Kabul as the capital is no longer acceptable. Resolving this conflict is made more difficult by what amounts to a lingering yet significant structural and institutional impediment.

“Let’s face it, a symbol of hope is badly needed in Afghanistan, and the entire process leading up to the actual building of a new capital in a more central part of the country might serve that purpose well.

“Take a quick glance at the map of Afghanistan. You can see immediately why Kabul does not measure up. An effective seat of government – a truly central government – in a country where travel is a time-consuming affair at best even in peaceful times demands a far more suitable site for a capital…”

An atypical solution I admit, and yet not the only one. as a lot of things need to come together fast if we are going to achieve the goals we set out to achieve.

No, this plan does not call for funding by the US as you will see in my text.

Events over the past few months have convinced me more than ever that this structural impediment looms large over the outcome. Our commitment is already talked about openly as lasting a decade or more.

If Kabul remains the seat of government, our options are going to be limited, and so are the future prospects for the Afghan people. So, it is time to make a major readjustment in our strategy, and not one that hinges on troop strength alone.

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