Winning the Good War

Why Afghanistan is not Obama’s Vietnam.

By Peter Bergen

Bookmark and Share
 
Photo: Associated Press

T hroughout his campaign last year, President Barack Obama said repeatedly that the real central front of the war against terrorists was on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. And now he is living up to his campaign promise to roll back the Taliban and al-Qaeda with significant resources. By the end of the year there will be some 70,000 American soldiers in Afghanistan, and the Obama administration is pushing for billions of dollars in additional aid to both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

This has caused consternation among some in the Democratic Party. In May, fifty-one House Democrats voted against continued funding for the Afghan war. And David Obey, the chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee, which controls federal spending, says the White House must show concrete results in Afghanistan within a year—implying that if it doesn’t do so, he will move to turn off the money spigot. If this is the attitude of Obama’s own party, one can imagine what the Republicans will be saying if his "Af-Pak" strategy doesn’t start yielding results as they gear up for the 2010 midterm elections.

It’s not just politicians who are souring on the Afghan war. A USA Today poll earlier this year found that 42 percent of Americans believe the war is a mistake, up from 6 percent in 2002. The media has only added to the gloom. Newsweek ran a cover story in January speculating that Afghanistan could be Obama’s Vietnam. And the New York Times has run prominent opinion pieces with headlines like "The ‘Good War’ Isn’t Worth Fighting" and "Fearing Another Quagmire in Afghanistan."

But the growing skepticism about Obama’s chances for success in Afghanistan is largely based on deep misreadings of both the country’s history and the views of its people, which are often compounded by facile comparisons to the United States’s misadventures of past decades in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. Afghanistan will not be Obama’s Vietnam, nor will it be his Iraq. Rather, the renewed and better resourced American effort in Afghanistan will, in time, produce a relatively stable and prosperous Central Asian state.


Objections to Obama’s ramp-up in Afghanistan begin with the observation that Afghanistan has long been the "graveyard of empires"—as went the disastrous British expedition there in 1842 and the Soviet invasion in 1979, so too the current American occupation is doomed to follow. In fact, any number of empire builders, from Alexander the Great to the Mogul emperor Babur in the sixteenth century to the British in the Second Afghan War three decades after their infamous defeat, have won military victories in Afghanistan. The graveyard of empires metaphor belongs in the graveyard of clichés.

The Soviets, of course, spent almost a decade waging war in Afghanistan, only to retreat ignominiously in 1989, an important factor in their own empire’s consignment to history’s dustbin. But today’s American-led intervention in Afghanistan is quite different from the Communist occupation. The Soviet army killed more than a million Afghans and forced some five million more to flee the country, creating what was then the world’s largest refugee population. The Soviets also sowed millions of mines (including some that resembled toys), making Afghanistan one of the most heavily mined countries in the world. And Soviet soldiers were a largely unprofessional rabble of conscripts who drank heavily, used drugs, and consistently engaged in looting. The Soviets’ strategy, tactics, and behavior were, in short, the exact opposite of those used in successful counterinsurgency campaigns.

Unsurprisingly, the brutal Soviet occupation provoked a countrywide insurrection that drew from a wide array of ethnic groups—Tajiks, Uzbeks, Pashtuns, and Hazaras—and every class in Afghan society, from mullahs to urban professionals to peasants. By contrast, the insurgents in Afghanistan today are overwhelmingly rural Pashtuns with negligible support in urban areas and among other ethnic groups.

That makes quite a difference to the scale of today’s insurgency. Even the most generous estimates of the size of the Taliban force hold it to be no more than 20,000 men, while authoritative estimates of the numbers of Afghans on the battlefield at any given moment in the war against the Soviets range up to 250,000. The Taliban insurgency today is only around 10 percent the size of what the Soviets faced.

And while today’s Afghan insurgents are well financed, in part by the drug trade, this backing is not on the scale of the financial and military support that the anti-Communist guerrillas enjoyed in the 1980s. The mujahideen were the recipients of billions of dollars of American and Saudi aid, large-scale Pakistani training, and sophisticated U.S. military hardware such as highly effective anti-aircraft Stinger missiles, which ended the Soviets’ command of the air.


A corollary to the argument that Afghanistan is unconquerable is the argument that it is ungovernable—that the country has never been a functioning nation-state, and that its people, mired in a culture of violence not amenable to Western fixes, have no interest in helping to build a more open and peaceful society. Certainly endemic low-level warfare is embedded in Pashtun society—the words for cousin and enemy in Pashtu, for instance, are the same. But the level of violence in Afghanistan is actually far lower than most Americans believe. In 2008 more than 2,000 Afghan civilians died at the hands of the Taliban or coalition forces; this is too many, but it is also less than a quarter of the deaths last year in Iraq, a country that is both more sparsely populated and often assumed to be easier to govern. (At the height of the violence in Iraq, 3,200 civilians were dying every month, making the country around twenty times more violent than Afghanistan is today.) Not only are Afghan civilians much safer under American occupation than Iraqis, they are also statistically less likely to be killed in the war than anyone living in the United States during the early 1990s, when the U.S. murder rate peaked at more than 24,000 killings a year.

An assertion that deserves a similarly hard look is the argument that nation building in Afghanistan is doomed because the country isn’t a nation-state, but rather a jury-rigged patchwork of competing tribal groupings. In fact, Afghanistan is a much older nation-state than, say, Italy or Germany, both of which were only unified in the late nineteenth century. Modern Afghanistan is considered to have emerged with the first Afghan empire under Ahmad Shah Durrani in 1747, and so has been a nation for decades longer than the United States. Accordingly, Afghans have a strong sense of nationhood.

What they have had just as long, however, is a weak central state. The last king of Afghanistan, Zahir Shah, who reigned from 1933 to 1973, presided lightly over a country in a time that Afghans recall with great nostalgia as one of relative peace and prosperity. Today President Hamid Karzai similarly presides over a weak central government. Critics contend that President Karzai is unable or unwilling to fight the epic corruption in his government, and joke that he is only the "mayor of Kabul." This criticism is largely accurate, but misses the fact that Karzai is still a somewhat popular leader in Afghanistan. Fifty-two percent of Afghans say that the president is doing a good job, only 15 percent less than the number of Americans who say the same thing about Obama—and that is eight years after Karzai assumed the leadership of a country in which any honeymoon period has long since evaporated. Afghans are also wildly enthusiastic about participating in real politics. In the 2004 presidential election, more than 80 percent of them turned out to vote, an accomplishment Americans haven’t been able to claim since the late nineteenth century.


S o if Afghanistan itself is not necessarily ungovernable, what of the other argument—that as far as the United States is concerned, the war there will be a rerun of Vietnam? Hardly. The similarities between the Taliban and the Vietcong end with their mutual hostility toward the U.S. military. The some 20,000 Taliban fighters are too few to hold even small Afghan towns, let alone mount a Tet-style offensive on Kabul. As a military force, they are armed lightly enough to constitute a tactical problem, not a strategic threat. By contrast, the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese Army at the height of the Vietnam War numbered more than half a million men who were equipped with artillery and tanks, and were well supplied by both the Soviet Union and Mao’s China. And the number of casualties is orders of magnitude smaller: in Afghanistan last year, 154 American soldiers died, the largest number since the fall of the Taliban; in 1968, the deadliest year of the Vietnam conflict, the same number of U.S. servicemen were dying every four days. Estimates of the total civilian death toll in Vietnam are in the low millions, while estimates of the total number of Afghan civilian casualties since the fall of the Taliban are in the thousands.

Nor has the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan been anywhere near as expensive as Vietnam was—in fact, that’s in part why American efforts have not met with as much success as they could have. During the Vietnam War, the United States spent almost 10 percent of its GDP on military spending. Today’s military expenditures are somewhere between 4 and 5 percent of GDP, and of that, Afghanistan last year consumed only 6 percent of the total expenditure, while Iraq sucked up some five times that amount. And unlike the Vietnamese and Iraqis, Afghans have generally embraced international forces. In 2005, four years after the fall of the Taliban, eight out of ten Afghans expressed in a BBC/ABC poll a favorable opinion of the United States, and the same number supported foreign soldiers in their country. Contrast that with Iraq, where a BBC/ABC poll in 2005 found that only one in three Iraqis supported international forces in their country. While the same poll taken in Afghanistan this year reported, for the first time, that just under half of Afghans have a favorable view of the United States, that’s still a higher approval rating than the U.S. gets in any other Muslim-majority country save Lebanon. And a solid majority of Afghans continue to approve of the international forces in their country. What Afghans want is not for American and other foreign soldiers to leave, but for them to deliver on their promises of helping to midwife a more secure and prosperous country.


S keptics of Obama’s Afghanistan policy say that the right approach is to either reduce American commitments there or just get out entirely. The short explanation of why this won’t work is that the United States has tried this already—twice. In 1989, after the most successful covert program in the history of the CIA helped to defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan, the George H. W. Bush administration closed the U.S. embassy in Kabul. The Clinton administration subsequently effectively zeroed out aid to the country, one of the poorest in the world. Out of the chaos of the Afghan civil war in the early 1990s emerged the Taliban, who then gave sanctuary to al Qaeda. In 2001, the next Bush administration returned to topple the Taliban, but because of its ideological aversion to nation building it ensured that Afghanistan was the least-resourced per capita reconstruction effort the United States has engaged in since World War II. An indication of how desultory those efforts were was the puny size of the Afghan army, which two years after the fall of the Taliban numbered only 5,000 men, around the same size as the police department of an American city like Houston. We got what we paid for with this on-the-cheap approach: since 2001 the Taliban has reemerged, and fused ideologically and tactically with al-Qaeda. The new Taliban has adopted wholesale al-Qaeda’s Iraq playbook of suicide attacks, IED operations, hostage beheadings, and aggressive video-based information campaigns. (The pre-9/11 Taliban had, of course, banned television.)

Why should we believe that the alternative offered by the Obama administration—committing large numbers of boots on the ground and significant sums of money to Afghanistan—has a better chance of success? In part, because the Afghan people themselves, the center of gravity in a counterinsurgency, are rooting for us to win. BBC/ABC polling found that 58 percent of Afghans named the Taliban—who only 7 percent of Afghans view favorably—as the greatest threat to their nation; only 8 percent said it was the United States.

There are other positive indices. Refugees don’t return to places they don’t think have a future, and more than four million Afghan refugees have returned home since the fall of the Taliban. (By contrast, about the same number of Iraqi refugees fled their homes after the American-led invasion of their country in 2003, and few have returned.) There are also more than two million Afghan kids in schools, including, of course, many girls. Music, kites, movies, independent newspapers, and TV stations—all of which were banned under the Taliban—are now ubiquitous. One in six Afghans now has a cell phone, in a country that didn’t have a phone system under the Taliban. And, according to the World Bank, the 2007 GDP growth rate for Afghanistan was 14 percent. Under Taliban rule the country was so poor that the World Bank didn’t even bother to measure its economic indicators.

Today 40 percent of Afghans say their country is going in the right direction (only 17 percent of Americans felt the same way in the waning months of the Bush administration). Considering Afghanistan’s rampant drug trade, pervasive corruption, and rising violence, this may seem counterintuitive—until you recall that no country in the world has ever suffered Afghanistan’s combination of an invasion and occupation by a totalitarian regime followed by a civil war, with subsequent "government" by warlords and then the neo-medieval misrule of the Taliban. In other words, the bar is pretty low. No Afghan is expecting that the country will turn into, say, Belgium, but there is an expectation that Afghanistan can be returned to the somewhat secure condition it enjoyed in the 1970s before the Soviet invasion, and that the country will be able to grow its way out of being simply a subsistence agricultural economy. 

Obama’s Afghanistan strategy is well poised to deliver on these expectations because it primarily emphasizes increased security for the Afghan people—the first public good that Afghans want. In the south of Afghanistan, where the insurgency is the most intense, the U.S. is deploying two Marine brigades and a Stryker brigade, 17,000 soldiers in all, to supplement the thinly stretched British, Dutch, and Canadian forces in the region. These are not the kind of units that do peacekeeping; they will go in and clear areas of the Taliban and, most crucially, hold them. This will be a major improvement in a region where NATO forces have often had enough manpower to clear areas but not to hold them. One Western diplomat in Kabul joked grimly to me that every year in the south NATO soldiers have gone in to "mow the lawn." This time the idea is not to let the grass grow back.

One potential objection to Obama’s Afghanistan strategy is that the thousands of additional American soldiers that are now deploying to the country will only be the thin end of the wedge, because the Pentagon will inevitably ask for significantly more troops. This is a reasonable concern, but should be obviated by the fact that dramatically scaling up the size of the Afghan army and police is the best American exit strategy from the country, and that effort is at the heart of Obama’s plan.

Today there are only some 160,000 Afghan soldiers and cops, a quarter of the size of Iraq’s security services, and they are tasked with bringing order to a country that is larger and more populous than Iraq. Obama wants to modestly improve the size and professionalism of Afghanistan’s police force, and almost double the ranks of the Afghan army over the next two years. The latter is especially important because Afghans trust their army more than any other institution, and the army has emerged as a truly national force not riven by ethnic divisions. To help train those Afghan security services, some 4,000 trainers from the 82nd Airborne are deploying to Afghanistan. The administration is also pushing to make salaries in those forces competitive with what the Taliban pays its foot soldiers—often three times what an Afghan policeman makes.

Another possible objection to the introduction of more U.S. soldiers into Afghanistan is that, inevitably, they will kill more civilians, the main issue that angers Afghans about the foreign military presence. In fact, the presence of more boots on the ground is likely to reduce civilian casualties, because historically it has been the overreliance on American air strikes—as a result of too few ground forces—which has been the key cause of civilian deaths. According to the U.S. Air Force, between January and August 2008 there were almost 2,400 air strikes in Afghanistan, fully three times as many as in Iraq. And the United Nations concluded that it was air strikes, rather than action on the ground, which were responsible for the largest percentage—64 percent—of civilian deaths attributed to pro-government forces in 2008.

Cognizant of the importance of the issue of civilian casualties, in his Senate confirmation hearing in June the new commander in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, testified that their avoidance "may be the critical point" of American military operations, adding, "I cannot overstate my commitment to the importance of this concept." McChrystal, generally regarded as one of the most effective officers of his generation, has now put the avoidance of civilian casualties at the core of his military strategy in Afghanistan, and that message will undoubtedly filter down the chain of command.


T hese key features of the Obama administration’s Afghan policy are supplemented by several others that merit highlighting and represent a distinct break from the Bush administration’s sputtering efforts. One is a shifting emphasis within the attempt to curtail the opium trade, from poppy eradication to going after the drug lords. This is a no-brainer—poppy eradication penalizes poor Afghan farmers who can’t pay the bribes to ensure their fields are not eradicated, and who are then easy marks for Taliban recruitment. Obama is also seeking to draw in potential regional partners like Iran, which played a vital role in the formation of the first Afghan government that emerged out of the discussions in Bonn in the winter of 2001. And third, the U.S. government plans to regularly host meetings among key Afghan and Pakistani officials, as it did in Washington in February and May. This is important for confidence-building measures between Afghans and Pakistanis, whose relations have varied between icy and openly hostile.

This brings us to the one skunk at this garden party, and it is a rather large one: Afghanistan’s nuclear-armed, al-Qaeda- and Taliban-headquartering neighbor to the east. The Pakistani dimension of Obama’s Af-Pak strategy is his critics’ most reasonable objection to his plans for the region. It is difficult for the United States to have an effective strategy for Pakistan when Pakistan doesn’t have an effective strategy for Pakistan. There is a set of interwoven problems that the country must face if it is to effectively confront the militants in its own territory. If it fails to do this, the regional insurgency that encompasses both sides of the Afghanistan/Pakistan border will continue to gather strength.

The first problem is that Pakistan effectively has two governments. There is a weak, elected civilian one, and a strong, unelected military one. Pakistan’s civilian government knows little about military strategy and is often at odds with the army, which has veto power over all aspects of national security policy. Pakistan’s army, meanwhile, has wavered ineffectually between mounting punitive expeditions against the militants and appeasing them, and is generally unable or unwilling to adopt an effective strategy against the Taliban. (The recent operations in the Swat Valley, characterized by the use of artillery and air power and millions of refugees streaming out of the battle zone, are not the hallmarks of a successful counterinsurgency.) As a result, civilians caught in the middle don’t know which way the wind will blow from day to day. They have reason to be skeptical that the government will protect them from the predations of the Taliban if the former chooses to revisit the various "peace" agreements it has struck with the militants over the past several years. Finally, the Pakistani establishment has done a poor job of persuading the public that the Taliban and other militant groups to which it once gave succor, and which are now attacking the Pakistani state, pose a grave threat to Pakistan itself.

Some have argued that if the U.S. does succeed in Afghanistan, it will only make this situation worse, pushing the Taliban and their allied foreign fighters into Pakistan and further destabilizing the already rickety nuclear-armed state. But this line of reasoning has the equation precisely the wrong way around: al-Qaeda was founded in Pakistan in 1988, and many of the Taliban’s leaders and foot soldiers emerged out of Pakistani madrassas and refugee camps. Following the vacuum created by the Afghan civil war of the early 1990s, the Pakistan-based militants expanded into Afghanistan. The notion of the militants enjoying safe havens in either Afghanistan or Pakistan is a false choice—in truth, they have had a persistent presence in both countries for decades.

That said, there are some hopeful signs that the militants have shot themselves in the feet in Pakistan. There has been no single "9/11 moment," but the cumulative weight of a number of events—the Taliban’s assassination of Benazir Bhutto; al-Qaeda’s bombing of the Marriott hotel in Islamabad; the attacks on the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team and the police academy in Lahore; the widely circulated video images of the Taliban flogging a seventeen-year-old girl; and the Taliban’s decision to move from Swat into Buner District, only sixty miles from Islamabad—has accomplished something similar. Each of these incidents has provoked revulsion and fear among the Pakistani public. Indicative of this, the alliance of pro-Taliban religious parties known as the MMA was annihilated in the 2008 election, earning just 2 percent of the vote. And support for suicide bombing among Pakistanis has cratered, from 33 percent in 2002 to 5 percent in 2008.


T he United States can neither precipitously withdraw from Afghanistan nor help foster the emergence of a stable Afghan state by doing it on the cheap; the consequence would be the return of the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Fortunately, the U.S. is not alone; unlike in Iraq, there is an international coalition of forty-two countries in Afghanistan supporting NATO efforts there, with troops or other assistance. Even Muslim countries are part of this mix. Turkey, for instance, ran the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan in 2005, and the United Arab Emirates and Jordan have both sent small numbers of soldiers.

The United States overthrew the Taliban in the winter of 2001. It has a moral obligation to ensure that when it does leave Afghanistan it does so secure in the knowledge that the country will never again be a launching pad for the world’s deadliest terrorist groups, and that the country is on the way to a measure of stability and prosperity. When that happens, it is not too fanciful to think that Afghanistan’s majestic mountains, verdant valleys, and jasmine-scented gardens may once again draw the tourists that once flocked there.


Bookmark and Share
   

Subscribe & Save! Gift Subscriptions Make a Tax Exempt Donation

- - Advertisers - -


Liberal Blog Advertising Network

buy from Amazon and
support the Monthly

   

Peter Bergen is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and a frequent visitor to Afghanistan since 1993.  
 
Washington Monthly subscribe | donate | mission statement | masthead | contact us | send letters to the editor

This site and all contents within are Copyright © 1969-2011 Washington Monthly
Editorial offices: 1200 18th Street NW, Suite 330, Washington, DC 20036