Stephen Schlesinger has a remarkably rosy reading of President Obama's speech at West Point. No matter how he reads it, though, the reality is that the U.S. will begin to abandon Afghanistan yet again in July 2011. And it will not bode well for the war on terrorism.
The Iraq Surge Is the Model for Afghanistan
While Schlesinger may not be convinced that the Iraqi surge provided a useful example by which President Obama shaped his Afghanistan surge, both the White House and the Pentagon appear to disagree.
As he sought the Democratic nomination for president, then-Senator Obama criticized Bush's surge strategy. At a July 19, 2007, campaign stop in New Hampshire, for example, Obama declared, "Here's what we know. The surge has not worked." Speaking on NBC's Meet the Press four months later, Obama argued that the surge in Iraq had already backfired, declaring, "George Bush continued to want to pursue a course that didn't withdraw troops from Iraq, but actually doubled down and initiated the surge. … Not only have we not seen improvements, but we're actually worsening, potentially, a situation there." Within months, however, Obama had a change of heart and scrubbed criticism of the surge from his website.
Similarly, replication of the Iraq surge is ubiquitous in the U.S. military's discussions of counterinsurgency strategy. On May 11, 2009, Obama appointed General Stanley McChrystal to command U.S. forces in Afghanistan, curtailing General David McKiernan's tour in that position. McChrystal's appointment was no accident: As commander of the Joint Special Operations Command, McChrystal played a key role in implementing the surge in Iraq.
Iraq and Afghanistan: More Similar Than Not
It is easy to point out differences between Iraq and Afghanistan, but those cited by Schlesinger cites are either partisan bugaboos or irrelevant to questions over the wisdom of Obama's deadline. (To quibble, however, neither Sunni Arabs in Iraq nor the Pushtuns in Afghanistan are tribes; they are a sectarian group and an ethnic group, respectively.)
Schlesinger finds no "awakening movement" in Afghanistan but misunderstands what the movement was about in Iraq: The various al-Qaeda groups operating in Iraq's al-Anbar province ran roughshod over local elites. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, for example, was not Iraqi but Jordanian. Iraqis are nationalistic, and they resented the insurgents' imposition of a pan-Islamist ideology at the expense of local culture. Tribal figures broke their accommodation with al-Qaeda and made their alliance with the United States because they believed that the Bush administration would not abandon them to their enemies for the sake of an artificial Washington deadline.
Schlesinger should not imagine that any Afghan, Pushtun or otherwise, wants to live under the Taliban; indeed, many Afghans are assisting U.S. forces against the Taliban. While the Taliban sought to project an image in the 1990s of an Afghan movement prioritizing rule of law, such a reputation was undeserved.
When I visited the Taliban's Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in March 2000, more than five years after the group first emerged in Kandahar, ordinary Afghan Pushtuns chafed at the participation of Punjabis and other non-Pushtuns in the movement and in their lives. They complained not only of Taliban abuses toward women but also of the arbitrary justice applied in the name of religion (or at least the Taliban's interpretation of it). Today, Taliban leaders seek to root themselves in Afghan nationalism. Mullah Omar, for example, trumpets his supposed Hotaki roots in order to claim the legitimacy bestowed from being a descendant of Afghanistan's founding dynasty (1709–1738). In Taliban propaganda, Mullah Omar often depicts himself as Dost Mohammad (r. 1826–1839; 1843–1863), whose forces routed the British army in the first Anglo-Afghan War. In contrast, he labels Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai as a modern-day Shah Shuja Durrani (r. 1839–1842), the weak ruler whom the British tried to prop up with such disastrous results.
Nationalist patina is not enough, however. The shadow government that the Taliban has now established, with governors and ministers parallel to those of the Karzai administration, does not engage in development, nor is it any less abusive of traditional local authority than it was a decade ago.
This does not mean that Afghans will not make accommodation with the Taliban—or any other power—should the Obama administration telegraph the limits of its commitment. Afghans famously switch sides to be on the winning team. While Americans see defection as treason, Afghan culture prioritizes staying alive. There are few Afghan politicians and powerbrokers who, during the past three decades, did not switch sides to be on the winning side. Hamid Karzai, for example, worked first for the Mujahideen, before affiliating briefly with the Taliban after that group's rise before finally joining the Northern Alliance ahead of its victory. Karzai's vice president, Mohammad Fahim, is no different: During the Soviet occupation, Fahim was a deputy to Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Masood. In 1994, during the Mujahideen's rule in Kabul, Fahim arrested and tortured Karzai, whom he suspected of spying for Pakistan. Nevertheless, fifteen years later, ahead of the 2009 elections, Fahim cast his lot with Karzai because Karzai was the strong horse.
Does Afghanistan Have an Alternative to the United States?
Is it realistic to believe that other powers could fill the vacuum left behind by a premature U.S. withdrawal? Yes. Schlesinger asks, "Where, for example, would Karzai find another nation willing to expend billions of dollars and the lives of its soldiers on behalf of Afghanistan?" Certainly, both Iran and Pakistan would, and India could. Indeed, this is why Karzai is so willing to call President Obama's bluff.
Granted, neither Iran nor Pakistan operates in the same manner as the Americans, but to assume that the American model of occupation and influence is the only one is naïve. Other strategies do not require the same expense. In 2007, the Iranian government gave $564 million in credits to Afghanistan, half of which were grants. What Tehran calls grants, however, others might see as bribes. When the U.S. government provides aid, the bulk is absorbed into security costs and administrative overhead. What little makes into the field is subject to rigorous accountability, as every inspector-general report makes clear. The Iranian and Pakistani governments need not worry about transparency and so can maximize political influence. It is no coincidence that, after Operation Enduring Freedom, the Islamic Republic dispatched Hassan Kazemi Qomi—its chief liaison to Lebanese Hezbollah and its future ambassador to Iraq—to head up Iran's relief efforts in Afghanistan. That Qomi hails from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps's elite Qods Force suggests Tehran's intentions were and are not altruistic.
Pakistan is more likely to fill the vacuum. In Washington, internationalists often speak of the importance of multilateralism and the international legitimacy it brings, but they seldom acknowledge the downside to multilateralism: the need to accommodate partners' interests. In Afghanistan today, NATO is dysfunctional because every member's parliament has imposed caveats on the use of its forces. Pakistan also has caveats. The Pushtunistan crisis of the 1950s and 1960s and the trauma of Bangladeshi succession in 1971 have led Islamabad to conclude that ethno-nationalism is a greater threat to Pakistan's existence than radical Islam. Simply put, Pakistan is an artificial country that lives in the knowledge that its constituent ethnicities may want to go their own separate ways. Islamabad knows that Pakistan hosts 28 million Pushtun, who resent Punjabi domination and would gladly accept revision of the Durand Line that forms the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan to enable their inclusion into a strong Afghanistan.
Since the days of General Muhammad Zia ul-Haq (r. 1978–1988), Pakistani leaders have embraced Islamization. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, Zia linked Pakistani cooperation with the United States with Washington's acquiescence to a Pakistani monopoly over a distribution of aid. Pakistan distributed funding and weaponry only to the "Peshawar Seven," Mujahideen commanders who prioritized a conservative Islamist outlook over Afghan nationalism. For the same reasons, Pakistani officials provided logistical and material support to the Taliban upon that group's rise. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, General Pervez Musharraf still sought to intervene with Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell with regard to the so-called "moderate Taliban."
Certainly, Pakistan pays a huge price for its support of radical Islamist movements—last spring's Pakistani offensive in the Swat Valley underlined that. But Pakistan's continued support for radical Islamism as an antidote to ethnic nationalism also proves that it is willing to pay an extraordinarily high price to assert its interests and neutralize what many in Islamabad believe to be an existential threat. For Washington, however, increased radical Islamist influence in Afghanistan would defeat the very purpose of invading Afghanistan in the first place. The last nine years of sacrifice of blood and treasure would have been for naught.
Needed: An Act of Simple Realism
While U.S. inroads against the Taliban are welcome, they will be temporary if Afghan villagers, the Taliban, and the Taliban's backers believe that U.S. commitment will begin to evaporate in July 2011. Schlesinger should not ignore insurgent statements or dismiss debates that occur on Afghan or Pakistani television. The voices of other players in the sandbox matter; indeed, they reflect external thinking and, in some cases, help shape responses. The White House may see dialogue as a means of conflict resolution, for example, but the Taliban may see it as an asymmetric warfare strategy designed to lull naïve Westerners into complacency.
Washington navel-gazing and projection have no place in foreign policy realism. What matters in the real world is not how Schlesinger parses President Obama's deliberately inexact words but rather how the Taliban in the mountains along the Durand Line, Pakistani officers in Islamabad, and Afghan officials in Kabul interpret Obama's remarks against the backdrop of their own history: as another Western abandonment of Afghanistan.