They say there’s no going back in time, but for tens of thousands of Afghans, it is as the blues singer says, “Thems that’s sayin’, sure ain’t thems that has.”
Afghanistan’s grip on the 21st century, always weak and partial, seems to be slipping, threatening a return to its recent, but pre-modern past.
For someone who spent a few weeks teaching young video journalists in Afghanistan, this is a very painful reflection, occasioned by the Washington Post’s account of a new National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) of the future of that country.
“A new American intelligence assessment on the Afghan war,” the Post’s front-page story begins, “predicts that the gains the United States and its allies have made during the past three years are likely to have been significantly eroded by 2017, even if Washington leaves behind a few thousand troops and continues bankrolling the impoverished nation, according to officials familiar with the report.
“[The NIE,]” the Post continues, “predicts that the Taliban and other power brokers will become increasingly influential as the United States winds down its longest war in history.”
To this, may we all add, “DUH!”
What is accomplished by force can only be sustained by force, until all opposing forces have been rejected, disarmed and disabled, and a credible local government is in place.
After 12 years, and more than 2300 Americans killed and more than 19,000 wounded (according to icasualties), and roughly $680 Billion spent (says the Center for Defense Information), The US effort has failed at both tasks, -- creating a government that is close to credible or competent, or disarming or disabling it’s life-threatening enemies (and not just the Taliban; all over Afghanistan, much local turf is ruled by local warlords, militias or religious factions).
Hence, a sharp reduction, or complete withdrawal of American forces in Afghanistan will result in a sharp reduction, if not eradication of American influence in Kabul. No kidding? As it did in Iraq? And Vietnam?
Is it us? Or is it the world? More on this later.
Let’s first return to the more immediate question, the future of Afghanistan, a.k.a. after American and other foreign forces leave. Will it irrevocably plunge my Third Millennium former students back into First Millennium feudalism, tribalism, fundamentalism, and violence? Is the best they can hope for that a few Afghan cities like Kabul or Herat might become relative safe havens of urbanity and opportunity, surrounded and besieged by various rural-based absolutisms.
The Post reports that the NIE says even that hope may be too optimistic. “The central government in Kabul is all but certain to become increasingly irrelevant as it loses ‘purchase’ over parts of the country,” is the estimate.
The report also predicts “that Afghanistan would likely descend into chaos quickly if Washington and Kabul don’t sign a security pact that would keep an international military contingent there beyond 2014. ’The situation would deteriorate very rapidly,’ said one U.S. official familiar with the report.
Whether achieving an agreement, and keeping forces here for 3 or 10 or a 100 years would, in the analysts’ opinion, do anything more than delay the inevitable, either the NIE or the Post has left unmentioned.
But as to the imminence of “chaos, “the Post reports, “That conclusion is widely shared among U.S. officials working on Afghanistan, said the official.”
But in Washington, it would seem, the Post found a different perspective, or at the least, it found 3 home front dissenters.
“One American official” told the Post, “there are too many uncertainties to make an educated prediction.” The big variable to this observer, “next year’s presidential election.”
The other push-back against the NIE comes from “a senior administration official [who] said that the intelligence community has long underestimated Afghanistan’s security forces.”
And this person predicted to the Post, White House pushback against the NIE assessment will be decisive. “’An assessment that says things are going to be gloomy no matter what you do, that you’re just delaying the inevitable, that’s just a view,’ said the official. ‘I would not think it would be the determining view.’”
Then there was the “e-mailed statement” from a presumably second “senior administration official saying intelligence assessments are ‘only one tool in our policy analysis toolbox… as we look at the consequential decisions ahead of us, including making a decision on whether to leave troops in Afghanistan after the end of 2014.’”
According to the first “senior official,” “’the intelligence community has long underestimated Afghanistan’s security forces.’”
Actually, the “gloomy” and “grim” assessments of the Afghan armed forces made in NIEs in 2008 and 2010 seemed pretty much borne out by the metrics of desertion, training performance, and battlefield outcomes
But in December 2013, this senior official told the Post, “’the development of a credible and increasingly proficient Afghan army and [has] made it unlikely that al-Qaeda could reestablish a foothold in the country.’”
This, the senior government defender attributes to President Obama’s decision to “surge” 30,000 American troops into Afghanistan in 2009. Whatever critics, including many of the military participants themselves, may think, the White House insists, the American fighters have not fought, slogged, frozen or died in vain, because al-Qaeda has lost its foothold in Afghanistan.
If Al Qaeda were still (or was ever) primarily an organization, this assertion might hold some water. But Al Qaeda has long since devolved into an idea, a shared, diversified mission to expel “Western,” modern, secular influences from Muslim lands and to bring the world of Islam under total Wahhabi control. This idea remains as alive and well in Afghanistan as the Taliban and other jihadis who adhere to it.
The Obama Administration’s “decimation” of the Al Qaeda group’s leadership hasn’t slowed the spread of the Al Qaeda mission to Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Kenya, Nigeria and Mali. As for Afghanistan, there are real questions to be raised about whether 12 years of American and international military intervention has produced real, lasting change. The NIE suggests that most of rural Afghanistan will be, as it long has been: a patchwork of feudal zones, controlled by local warlords, tribal elders or religious zealots like the Taliban. Even the cities, Kabul, Mazar-I-Sharif, Herat, Kandahar, whatever their shared interests might be, are as separate in culture and mentality as they are geographically.
But after 12 years of funding and frustration, fighting and dying in Afghanistan, almost all of it borne by people who live far from Washington, one sees few significant changes in the mindset of America’s rulers or its journalists.
For one thing, we still think it’s all about us.
For the Post that means, receiving the NIE leak, detailing it, and soliciting comment from within the Beltway, and then without any reference to what is happening in Afghanistan, turning to the important hometown question of who benefits, politically, from the leak. “The latest intelligence assessment, some U.S. officials noted, has provided those inclined to abandon Afghanistan with strong fodder.”
Actually, it provides “strong fodder “to those who advised against going to war in Afghanistan and those who opposed the “surge” of 2009. Especially, since this time, as opposed to when NIEs were issued in 2008 and 2010, the Post says, “Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, the commander of international troops in Afghanistan, chose not to submit a rebuttal.”
But lest defeatism dislodge “pragmatism,” the article gives the last word to Stephen Biddle, whom the Post calls, “a defense policy expert at the Council on Foreign Relations,” forgetting, I guess, that he has been a constant counselor in devising the disasters of Afghanistan’s last dozen years. “He predicts a stalemate for years to come,” the Post concludes, “‘Whether it’s a worse or better stalemate depends on the rate at which Congress defunds the war,’ he said.”
Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who got and kept his job largely because of American support, says what determines worse or better is the rate of death and destruction in his country, and he says that making things better depends on reducing the numbers, activities and autonomy of American forces.
Not everyone in Afghanistan agrees, and that very issue is likely to be very important in the 2014 elections for Karzai’s Presidential successor.
But there are other, perhaps even more important questions about Afghanistan which involve, not Americans, but Afghans. They relate to the 2 goals of the whole intervention, governance and security.
In re governance: these questions about the 2014 elections. (1) Who will be the candidates? (2) Will any of them represent a national constituency, or will each be beholden to particular local, tribal, or religious interests? (3) If it’s to be the latter, how will coalitions be formed to achieve a national plurality and central government? (4) Will the election be clean and credible, or just another instance of political theft? And (5) will the winner rule in the national interest, or just to enrich his particular constituents, his backers, his family or himself?
And for the purported hallmark of American achievement in Afghanistan, the security forces, the military and the police? (1) Will either group fight, and how well? (2) For what principles or values? (3) For whom, the nation, the leaders, some smaller center of power? (4) Against whom, all comers?
These are really hard questions, but they define the Afghan reality and its future, and not just political gamesmanship thousands of miles away. But these are the questions that matter.
Where were they in the Post’s report? AWOL.
No wonder the US has such an interventionist losing streak. We remain steadfast in our ignorance about our ignorance; we retain our Rumsfeldian determination to deny or ignore what we don’t like about what we ought to know.
Before we “surge” somewhere else, here a few small lessons we might want to learn.
Force sometimes works, but always breeds resentment, especially when it is visiting force used against “homies.” Thus, a visitor’s use of force should be minimized.
Reliance on local sources to identify enemies sometimes works, but always risks confounding the visitor’s enemies with their sources’ enemies. On the other hand, the visitors’ enemies, and local bystanders, can always identify them, both for blaming and for targeting.
The only way in which visitors win is by weakening their local enemies so definitively that their creation of a “better” home team can survive. The quicker and more completely the home team government can take over, the better.
It is always just a matter of time until the visitors return home. Everybody there knows this, and knows the capabilities of the “insurgents” to re-insurge, and shapes his or her loyalties accordingly.
Everyone here and there knows that time in Afghanistan is coming; sooner, or Steven Biddle would say, “better,” later. Then we’ll know the truth.
Did American intervention produce both a credible, sustainable governing structure, and a population ready to embrace it? Or have we, once again, spent blood and treasure trying to impose old-fashioned short-term domination on a world where new-fashioned weaponry and communications make that an impossible long-term ambition?