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A Guide to Avoiding Disaster in Afghanistan

For those of us who can remember how lonely it was to be in favor of the Iraq war and the hoped-for surge in 2006, reflecting on America’s current travails in Afghanistan—a “fool’s errand” (George F. Will) administered by “well-meaning infidels” (Andrew J. Bacevich)—isn’t nearly so depressing. Although one can have serious doubts about how the Obama administration has so far handled the conflict (doubts made only a little less nagging with hearings, starting today and expected to confirm General David Petraeus’ appointment as the theater commander), the status quo in the country shouldn’t yet produce so much doom and gloom.

In Afghanistan the non-Pashtun population—the Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazara, and Turkmen—openly like us a lot more than did the Iraqi Arab Shia, who still have a very hard time saying what they privately confess (“thank you very much for destroying the Butcher of Baghdad, the Ba’ath Party, and centuries of stifling Sunni domination”). The non-Pashtuns make up probably a bit more than 50 percent of Afghanistan’s population and control more or less stably about 60 percent of the country. They’ve been remarkably well behaved among themselves, toward each other, and toward the Pashtuns, who once embraced pretty solidly the Taliban’s rough treatment of minorities, especially the Shia Hazara, who not infrequently were just killed for sport.

There’s certainly been some (largely unreported) post-invasion ethnic ugliness: Pashtuns, who were seeded in the non-Pashtun north by Afghanistan’s Pashtun kings, have sometimes been forced to flee since 2001 as the non-Pashtuns vengefully started to flex their muscle. Yet to see Tajiks and Pashtuns mingle easily in Kabul or in the commercially dynamic city of Herat, where Tajik power has grown enormously since 2001, is to realize that we are still culturally in a much better position in Afghanistan than we were in Iraq in 2003. And the Pashtuns, diverse in their cultural and political loyalties, are still very much in play ideologically and religiously (with Pashtuns, the two always go together). By comparison, in Mesopotamia the Sunni Arab community was for nearly four years enthusiastic in its embrace of the anti-American/anti-Shi’ite insurgency. The Taliban do have a certain appeal among Afghanistan’s rootless and most radicalized young men, but the anti-Taliban Pashtun community is still vastly larger in numbers than those who want to see a return of Mullah Omar and his kind.

Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty has an enormous following among the Pashtuns, as it does with the Tajiks (RFE-RL broadcasts in both Pashto and Dari). The astonishing exhibit of its Afghan service’s fan mail at the Library of Congress, which shows just a rivulet of a tidal wave of appreciation, gives a good idea of how sincerely and powerfully Afghans can express their gratitude to foreigners who have the good sense to create surrogate radio about the subjects average Afghans care about (good governance, human rights, art, literature, music). Afghan patriotism—even after its religious radicalization in the 1970s and the awful, sanguinary years since—isn’t particularly xenophobic, except among those Pashtuns who’ve drunk deeply of the radical Islamism that the Arab jihadists carried with them during the Soviet-Afghan war (1979–1989) and that Pakistani madrassas incubated so effectively.

Foreigners who like to depict the Taliban as an increasingly popular liberation movement seriously miscast the dynamics at work. It is entirely possible that the United States and its European allies, in league with president Hamid Karzai, could turn the Taliban into a popular force, but this will most likely happen because the West has done too little, not too much. Average Afghans, even among the Pashtuns, have wanted us to interfere a lot in their country (compared to Afghan warlords and decades of strife, we look very good). Under President George W. Bush, we really didn’t want to get involved; President Barack Obama would—it’s a very good guess—strongly prefer to have the counterterrorism-centric/Afghan lite policy of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (Vice President Joseph Biden is Rumsfeld on steroids), but he’s been constrained by its obvious failure under Bush.

To avoid disaster, Washington is going to have to admit that the time and resources now allocated to Afghanistan are insufficient. President Barack Obama’s July 2011 schedule for drawing down, which he appears to be abandoning (who really knows given how much parsing is required), compounds the most debilitating mistake he has made so far: his failure to force a recount or a new vote in the presidential election of 2009. What was true in Iraq is as true in Afghanistan: elections matter. The principal problem the Afghan Pashtun community faces is that it has been unable to generate a new core loyalty that ties it peacefully and productively to other Afghans. The monarchy could at one time do this since traditional institutions, even when coercive, respect and reinforce traditional loyalties and class hierarchies. But the old Afghanistan was largely blown away by the savage brutality of Afghan communism, the Soviet-Afghan war, internecine strife, and the rule of Mullah Omar’s Taliban, who cared much more about God and Osama bin Laden than about Afghanistan’s tribes and antiquated ethics.

The primitive, slow, and most assuredly ugly development of democracy in Afghanistan allows for the Pashtuns to find a new center. It gives them a chance to disentangle religious militancy from Pashtun pride: the Pashtuns on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border historically have a strong tendency to express their ethnic identity, when distressed or challenged, through religious militancy. The massive vote-rigging by President Karzai, or by Mr. Karzai’s minions, seriously compromised the evolution of the Pashtuns and alienated Afghanistan’s minorities, who are no longer at all sure of the Pashtun president’s ecumenical goodwill. The tragicomedy of the Obama administration then having buyer’s remorse about Karzai, who quite legitimately could have wondered about the staying power and competence of the Obama Afghan team, produced an even worse result: the White House reinforced Karzai’s long and counterproductive habit of reaching out to the (good) Taliban and the (good) Pakistanis (there actually are many good Pakistanis, who will, of course, quickly become bad Pakistanis the moment they think the United States is fleeing Afghanistan). What’s worse, Karzai’s engagement proclivities were, more or less, backed by the White House, which can’t let go of the idea that there may be a diplomatic escape from Central Asia. But Pashtun cultural and political evolution dies with these outreaches, the Taliban become more powerful, and Afghanistan’s minorities become ever-more convinced that a return to civil war is inevitable.

Fortunately, none of this is yet terminal. Expectations among Afghans are pretty low; the awfulness of Taliban rule remains sufficiently vivid to allow the Americans probably several more significant cock-ups before we lose the Pashtuns and the minorities. The keys now are sufficient American troops to both clear and hold, and an American willingness to get into the nitty-gritty of Afghan politics and reconstruction. This doesn’t mean that we will seek to undermine Mr. Karzai’s constitutional authority (for better or worse, he’s the president); but we should be willing to monitor and intrude into local governance whenever it becomes abusive. We will certainly alienate many Afghans on the top of the food chain, but they will adjust so long as they know we’re not leaving in 2011. Since 2001 Afghans have wanted us to play the khan, a tribal leader. We should finally do so while insuring that local governance that works (and we can have a pretty low bar for success) stays free from American intrusion.

But we should all be clear about what lies ahead if we just give up. Without us militarily backing a Pashtun alternative to the Taliban, the Taliban will win. There is no single Pashtun military force or conceivable Pashtun alliance capable of beating them in the most strategic points in the south. If they take Kandahar, they will eventually get everything else. A lightning expansion of Taliban power, similar to what happened in the mid-1990s, would be very likely. Civil war will follow, which could well be even more ferocious than before, since the minorities know well what’s in store for them if they lose. The Pakistanis will inevitably support the resurgent Taliban (given Pashtun Pakistani politics, they’ll have no choice), which will further the radicalization of Pakistan proper and put enormous stress on the country’s fragile democracy. India will throw its weight behind the Afghan minorities (as will Iran). Arms will flow. And if Indian and Iranian arms aren’t enough, it’s not unlikely Washington would have to ship weaponry to a re-born anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. Islamabad will, of course, be furious. The Pakistani army now can’t control the country’s militants. Civil war in Afghanistan would likely launch jihadists against Indian targets, with the unofficial support of even more religiously-impassioned Pakistani military and intelligence officials. Anger at the United States, especially if Washington must choose sides in the civil war, would likely become volcanic. Simply put: All hell could break lose.

And last but not least, Al Qaeda, which has become a subcontinent-based terrorist organization with a subcontinent culture, will have more breathing space, in both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Some folks want to hope that the new Taliban won’t have the pro–Al Qaeda philosophy of the old Taliban, that they will have learned their lesson that the global jihad brings foreign invasion and Predator drones. But the opposite seems vastly more likely: The Taliban will have driven the United States out of Afghanistan. Victory against the Soviets will have been followed by victory against the Americans. Mullah Omar’s decision to sacrifice his regime on the altar of global jihad will have in the end brought ultimate victory. Bin Laden and Ayman Al Zawahiri will come out of the mountains (with a civil war in Afghanistan, where the Pakistanis are supporting the “new” Taliban, Washington can be confident that Islamabad will end the CIA’s covert Predator-drone basing rights). Their triumphant return to Jalalabad, where bin Laden landed in 1996 after his flight from Sudan, should make stunning video. Without American boots on the ground in Afghanistan and (covertly) in Pakistan, operations against Al Qaeda and its allied subcontinent brothers will effectively cease. There is no such thing as an “over-the-horizon” intelligence and counterterrorist operation. We will be back to Bill Clinton’s war of firing cruise missiles at rock huts and praying that we kill someone other than Kashmiris. It will likely take no time at all before America’s long war in Afghanistan won’t seem so costly or foolish, but by then it will be too late.

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a contributing editor at The Weekly Standard.