A Bit of Iraqi History and Obama's Mistake
Afghanistan saw a grave misinterpretation of events in the Iraq War. In 2007 when the Sunni population of Anbar Province rose up against the local al Qaeda, the seemingly intractable military conflict took a sudden turn for the better. The misinterpretation arose from selecting the wrong answer to the pressing tactical question of the day.
Did things in Iraq improve because of the surge or because of the Sunnis and the newly formed Sons of Iraq?
The wrong answer was, of course, the surge. The right answer, at least in hindsight, fell squarely to events in Anbar. Al Qaeda in Iraq finally "met its match" when the locals said "enough is enough."
All this would be rather academic if that same wrong answer had not been selected again in Afghanistan.
However, there is nothing in Afghanistan particularly similar to Anbar Province or the remnant of Sadam Hussein's Baathist minority. Given that, does the question go away?
No. The persuasive elements of President Obama's decision for the Afghan surge are clear enough, but this post is suggesting that the "other answer" was the one -- and still is the one -- which holds the most promise for US interests there now.
Reviewing the American/NATO Mission in Afghanistan
The 9/11 attack prompted then President Bush to listen far too attentively to one of the most decrepit clutches of military planners in the history of the country. We all know the infamous names now: Cheney, Rumsfeld, Condaleeza Rice and the rest. Few Americans realize that a general attack on Afghanistan had already been planned before the 9/11 incident. [Read more.]
However, thanks to the very convenient -- at least, very convenient for George W. Bush -- events of 9/11 and an undirected, dilapidated US executive, things rapidly became politically automatic.
What was the mission?
The "intervention" was justified by the proposal that it was necessary to eliminate al Qaeda's training camps in Afghanistan and to topple the Taliban government which hosted them. A quick, shotgun wedding with the mysterious Northern Alliance provided an open door, and the DOD took it from there. The Taliban was expelled and replaced in a 2004 "election" by the very shaky Hamid Karzai, a nicely available old CIA contractor.
To his credit, Obama has relentlessly attacked Taliban and al Qaeda leaders throughout Afghanistan and Western Pakistan with drone strikes while continuing to conduct a thoroughly indecisive ground war. The surge was intended to solidify military conditions adequately for a window to train Afghan security forces so they could take over when NATO forces withdrew in 2014.
The horrible present situation in Afghanistan is probably the worst kept secret in the world. During the surge violent Taliban attacks rapidly increased as did the number of American and NATO war casualties. The day by day record of "Afghan War progress" continued to be littered by one egregious case of corruption and theft after another.
The scandals continue like dandelions across every corner of the country -- including Karzai's nepotistic family members who hold high government positions.
The training and development of the Afghan Security Forces has been disastrous. Of the 23 divisions of the Afghan army being "developed" and "trained" in the window the surge was intended to provide, only one is currently defined as being capable of operating independently of Western forces. The "accidental" drone attack which killed 24 Pakistan Army border guards last year incited an understandable blockade on ground traffic through Pakistan to the war zone adding untold more billions of dollars to the occupation's costs.
The unavoidable conclusion here is that US military involvement in the country is never going to accomplish the Bush Era "wet dream." Afghanistan is never going to become Texas -- at least not any time during the next dozen decades.
This is enough history. We all already know more about the history of the Afghan War than we want. This MeanMesa post is all about the plans for the future. What do we do now?
Something is Better Than Nothing
There are roughly two years left before the withdrawal date. The withdrawal date is the decision of the Commander in Chief. The withdrawal date is not a "negotiated" decision made with the Generals on the ground. That is over; that is not happening again; that has already happened over and over for the last decade of continuous war, casualties and cost; that is something that American taxpayers will not listen to again.
So, what's left to be gained at this point?
First, remember our mission. We wanted Afghanistan to not become another al Qaeda training camp. That is what's left to be gained. With two years left, the sooner we get past the "Texas" idea, the better.
In fact, this "Texas" idea is very close to the very root of our problem there. Coming from the United States it's natural, we suppose, for our "strategic planners" -- the clowns on the Bush "planning committee" -- to map out a massive social transformation for their victim, Afghanistan.
Splitting off just a bit of the contract payments for the pet war profiteers, there should be just enough to do some real politically flashy "George W. Bush style" nation building. There was to be a Constitution, some elections and a steadily strengthening federal government which garnered more and more support from a happy, satisfied, well served population.
Over 90% of that "well served" population didn't even know why the Americans came there ten years after we arrived. They had never heard of 9/11. Roughly the same percentage couldn't tell you anything about the Afghan Constitution, either. The rest of the "well served" idea vaporized in rampant corruption roughly as fast as the cash could be delivered. The "rebuilding plans" included in the invasion budget also vaporized at about the same rate.
The "war dollars" that disappeared into the pockets of corrupt Afghans was peanuts compared to the "war dollars" that disappeared into a few hundred "contracts" awarded to American war profiteers.
We have to dump the reconstruction dreams. We will never "reconstruct" Afghanistan to look like Texas.
The transformation of Afghanistan with respect to governance, popular federalism, infrastructure construction or peace and prosperity is not now and has never been even slightly realistic. It's a clear "educational geography failure." A second grader would probably have known better than to even start.
How To Not Do More of the Same
With the Remaining Two Years
MeanMesa never likes to enumerate the dismal "broken bones" of a Bush era disaster without offering something up as a solution. So, here we go.
Years ago before the Russians and the Americans invaded this poor, war torn country, there was a series of national leaders in Afghanistan. However, unlike the "Texas dream," Afghanistan was never thoroughly federalized, that is, the country never had a strong national government. The national government was a weak one tolerated and manipulated -- if not outrightly supported -- by regional "bosses."
Here, we kiss the girlfriend. Those "bosses" were war lords.
Further, those war lords exhibited an amazing capacity to hang onto their respective fiefdoms. Occasionally one would slaughter his neighbor and take over, but in general, things were incredibly more peaceful than now. Most of what we Americans might casually assign to the "duties" of the federal government was, in fact, handled by the local war lord.
Don't kid yourself. These war lords brutalized women, had sex with young boys, sold opium poppy paste to the heroin makers further East and were uniformly what we would consider "outrageously corrupt," but what Afghans would consider "simply successful."
MeanMesa's proposition is simple. Rather than trying to transform an impoverished, illiterate, violently religious, tribal country into "Texas," why not attempt to mildly influence a return to its last successful state?
It's highly likely that an Afghanistan controlled by Afghan war lords, each one both quite jealous to retain his territory and quite pragmatic in his unfettered approach of doing just that, could successfully resist the inevitable Taliban incursion quite handily. Afghans don't like the government we have insisted that they all wanted. Afghans tolerated the war lord idea fairly well when it was in place and functioning.
To Afghans or anyone else, political structures become far less important when they come with day to day military violence. Now, with two years left to cauterize this wound we've made, let's not allow the "perfect to become the enemy of the good," or, at least, not the enemy of the better.
Institutionalizing Non-Democratic Corruption
-- and Peace
How could these war lords be persuaded to do this? This shouldn't be a problem for us -- we're the world's experts on changing our minds on the spot if conditions or opportunities call for it. Not even all those things we've said about the absolute necessity of establishing an Afghan democracy will be a problem for folks who have never even heard them, and most Afghans have never heard them.
Further, there's no shortage of well qualified war lords waiting in the wings. Sure, we roughed them up a bit while we were attempting to create "Texas," but they didn't go anywhere. Their appetite to be local war lords hasn't diminished much, either. We know who they are -- if for no other reason, for the terrifically horrible press they receive from media Islamaphobes here in the US.
At this point the plan gets a little "sticky."
|An example of Islamaphobic press treatment of Afghan warlords.(image and article here)|
At this point the plan gets a little "sticky."
Here at home we'll have to silence the greediest domestic oligarchs who are already eyeing the rare Earth mineral deposits, the screaming war mongers who just want more war no matter the goal, the Islamaphobes who have, for the last decade, demanded that all local Afghan customs duplicate Cleveland and the wild eyed religionists who have secretly agreed with George W. Bush's "Crusade" idea.
The first step is to place the "job opening" advertisement in the right circles. If there are to be 100 of these war lords, we can pay each one a starting salary of $10 Mn dollars -- a total outlay of $1 Bn per year. The war lord who can get elected -- probably by the other war lords -- to run Kabul and the national government would be paid even better.
If we intend for these new local "governments" to be able to protect themselves and their territories from the Taliban, each one will require an arsenal. Since the federal military that we've tried so hard to create routinely collapses into tribal mayhem weekly, the distribution of the troops currently in the Afghan security forces should be straightforward enough.
To "earn" a war lord's salary, there would be just a few conditions, but performing such conditions well could also mean a raise. What would we ask of a war lord for our pay checks?
So you want to work for the United States as an Afghan warlord?
Here's the best deal that's going to be offered.
1. Keep the Taliban out of your territory. If necessary, help your neighbor keep the Taliban out of his territory, too.
Right here we can address the question of US and NATO troops remaining in the country after the withdrawal. There should probably be half a dozen well fortified bases with enough fire power to tip the scales if there were to be a mass Taliban attack somewhere. The assistance would be requested and coordinated by the war lord who wasn't able to handle such an encounter. Afterwards, Western forces would disappear back to the base immediately. There would be no ground combat and very few casualties.
2. The United States would purchase the paste from the fields of opium poppies at roughly the same price that it commands now on the open market.
3. A very slightly liberalized position on the treatment of women, one consistent with Islamic religious law, would be imposed. This cultural-social improvement might actually work if war lords insisted on it.
4. Schools for children of both sexes must be established and sponsored by the war lord of a specific region. Again, these would need to be slightly liberalized schools within the Islamic traditions.
5. Afghan federal law must be composed by a conference of war lords and upheld throughout the tribal regions, but federal laws would almost certainly be greatly abbreviated from the top heavy, non-cultural disaster which is being attempted now. Tribal Sharia law would become a standard judicial approach for local matters. With a little luck, that tribal Sharia might be elevated to some sort of codified jurisprudence at some point, but one thing at a time.
Each war lord's territory would host inspectors from the central government -- and, of course, from Western forces -- who would "grade" his compliance with the job agreement. Good "grades" would result in the war lord receiving a raise and vice versa.
Post Withdrawal Afghanistan
Make no mistake.
This design holds the denial of Afghan safe havens to al Qaeda -- not to the Taliban -- as the highest strategic priority.
This design holds peace in Afghanistan as the second highest strategic priority.
If we wish to remedy the damage we've done there, we should be honor bound to put something together that can work after we leave. In this case, something that has worked before.
We need to quit imposing impossible demands on a society which cannot meet them -- or even understand them.
The annual cost of the post-withdrawal commitment would be minuscule compared to what we are spending now. Military casualties and injuries would be greatly reduced without ground combat. Our national reputation as violent, thoughtless meddlers might even improve.
All kinds of things become possible for Afghanistan once the fighting stops. One thought that keeps entering MeanMesa's mind is more rail roads. The neighbors of Afghanistan, notably China, Pakistan, Iran, India, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan have all made preliminary plans for new rail lines in Afghanistan.
The country is literally crying out for energy development, all sorts of municipal services such as land fills, sewage disposal and clean water. Domestic commercial development has basically stalled during the conflict.
Is all this just another shallow, impossible dream for the people we have been tormenting and killing for the last 10 years?
Hardly. The mineral deposits mentioned above are estimated to have a worth of $1-3 Tn.
Let's get out of the way. We've been on the wrong side of history here -- for years. If we want to emerge from Afghanistan with any semblance of dignity or reputation left, we have to quit pretending to make decisions based on choices we don't have.
MeanMesa's compliments to the President.
Here's Bloomberg on the value of Afghan mineral wealth:
Here's a map of planned railroads in Afghanistan:
Here's the official Afghan web site with all sorts of information:
These are all links to general information about Afghan history and culture: