Thursday, November 12, 2009

How to deal with Afstan, AfPak, Indo/Pak, and al Qaeda/Update on strong horses

Steve Coll is the author of Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001, probably the best contemporary history of those events. Last month he wrote serious think piece in Foreign Policy about the way ahead for US Afghan policy and related issues (thanks to Terry Glavin for bringing it to attention).

I think the first part on Afstan itself is very good. The second, on Pakistan (and India) much weaker and over-optimistic. The third, on al Qaeda, hits the mark. The fourth, on setting up a durable Afghan polity, makes a lot of sense. But how to achieve it?

Some excerpts:
The Case for Humility in Afghanistan
A Taliban victory would have devastating consequences for U.S. interests. But to avoid disaster, America must beware the Soviet Union’s mistakes -- and learn from its own three decades of failure in South Asia.

...The international effort to stabilize Afghanistan and protect it from coercive revolution by the Taliban still enjoys broad support from a pragmatic and resilient Afghan population. Nor does the project of an adequately intact, if weak and decentralized, Afghan state, require the imposition of Western imagination. Between the late 18th century and World War I, Afghanistan was a troubled but coherent and often peaceful independent state. Although very poor, after the 1920s it enjoyed a long period of continuous peace with its neighbors, secured by a multi-ethnic Afghan National Army and unified by a national culture. That state and that culture were badly damaged, almost destroyed, by the wars ignited by the Soviet invasion of 1979 -- wars to which we in the United States contributed destructively. But this vision and memory of Afghan statehood and national identity has hardly disappeared. After 2001, Afghans returned to their country from refugee camps and far flung exile to reclaim their state -- not to invent a brand new Western-designed one, as our overpriced consultants sometimes advised, but to reclaim their own decentralized but nonetheless unified and even modernizing country...

In a global and diplomatic sense, the Soviet Union failed strategically in Afghanistan from the moment it invaded the country. Nor did it enjoy much military success during its eight years of direct occupation. Neither Soviet forces nor their client Afghan communist government ever controlled the Afghan countryside. And yet, despite these failures and struggles, the Soviet Union and its successor client government, led by President Mohammad Najibullah, never lost control of the Afghan capital, major cities and provincial capitals, or the formal Afghan state. Only after the Soviet Union dissolved in late 1991 and Najibullah lost his supply lines from Moscow did his Islamist guerrilla opposition finally prevail and seize Kabul...

American policy over the next five or 10 years must proceed from the understanding that the ultimate exit strategy for international forces from South Asia is Pakistan's economic success and political normalization, manifested in an Army that shares power with civilian leaders in a reasonably stable constitutional bargain, and in the increasing integration of Pakistan's economy with regional economies, including India's. Such an evolution will likely consolidate the emerging view within Pakistan's elites that the country requires a new and less self-defeating national security doctrine. As in the Philippines, Colombia, and Indonesia, the pursuit of a more balanced, less coup-ridden, more modern political-military order in Pakistan need not be complete or confused with perfection for it to gradually pinch the space in which al Qaeda, the Taliban, and related groups now operate. Moreover, in South Asia, outsiders need not construct or impose this modernizing pathway as a neo-imperial project. The hope for durable change lies first of all in the potential for normalizing relations between Pakistan and India, a negotiation between elites in those two countries that is already well under way, without Western mediation, and is much more advanced than is typically appreciated. Its success is hardly assured, but because of the transformational effect such normalization would create, the effects of American policies in the region on its prospects should be carefully assessed...

These are credible, serious arguments that accurately describe some of al Qaeda's character as a stateless, millenarian terrorist group. But they misunderstand the history of al Qaeda's birth and growth alongside specific Pashtun Islamist militias on the Afghan-Pakistan border. It is simply not true that all potential al Qaeda sanctuaries are of the same importance, now or potentially. Bin Laden and his No. 2, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, have a 30-year, unique history of trust and collaboration with the Pashtun Islamist networks located in North Waziristan, Bajaur, and the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan. It is not surprising, given this distinctive history, that al Qaeda's presumed protectors -- perhaps the Haqqani network [more here], which provided the territory in which al Qaeda constructed its first training camps in the summer of 1988 -- have never betrayed their Arab guests.

These networks have fought alongside al Qaeda since the mid-1980s and have raised vast sums of money in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states through their connections. They possess infrastructure -- religious institutions, trucking firms, criminal networks, preaching networks, housing networks -- from Kandahar and Khost Province, and from Quetta to Karachi's exurban Pashtun neighborhoods, that is either impervious to penetration by the Pakistani state or has coopted those in the Pakistani security services who might prove disruptive. It is mistaken to assume that Bin Laden, Zawahiri, or other Arab leaders would enjoy similar sanctuary anywhere else. In Somalia they would almost certainly be betrayed for money; in Yemen, they would be much more susceptible to detection by the country's police network. The United States should welcome the migration of al Qaeda's leadership to such countries.

Because there is no nexus on Earth more favorable to al Qaeda's current leaders than the radicalized Pashtun militias in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border region, American policy in the region must take special account of this specific, daunting political-military geography. As counterinsurgency doctrine correctly argues, the only way to penetrate such territory and disrupt or defeat insurgents, including outside terrorists like al Qaeda's leaders, is to do so in partnership with indigenous forces that are motivated to carry out such a campaign because they see it as in their own interests. No such campaign is plausible if the Taliban rule Afghanistan. And no such campaign is plausible if Pakistan does not continue to receive the economic and political support from the international community that may lead its own elites to decide that they will be better off without the Haqqanis and other uncompromising Islamists than with them...

...during the late 1980s, faced with a dilemma similar to that facing the United States, the Soviets tried to "Afghanize" their occupation, much as the United States proposes to do now. The built up Afghan forces, put them in the lead in combat, supplied them with sophisticated weapons, and, ultimately, decided to withdraw. This strategy actually worked reasonably well for a while, although the government only controlled the major cities, never the countryside. But the factional and tribal splits within the Army persisted, defections were chronic, and a civil war among the insurgents also played out within the Army, ensuring that when the Soviet Union fell apart, and supplies halted, the Army too would crack up and dissolve en masse. (I happened to be in Kabul when this happened, in 1992. On a single day, thousands and thousands of soldiers and policemen took off their uniforms, put on civilian clothes, and went home.)

Finally, during the mid-1990s, a fragmented and internally feuding Kabul government, in which Karzai was a participant for a time, tried to build up national forces to hold off the Taliban, but splits within the Kabul coalitions caused important militias and sections of the security forces to defect to the Taliban. The Taliban took Kabul in 1996 as much by exploiting Kabul's political disarray as by military conquest. The history of the Afghan Army since 1970 is one in which the Army has never actually been defeated in the field, but has literally dissolved for lack of political glue on several occasions...

This emphasis on political stability through continuous Afghan-led negotiation and national reintegration, as opposed to grandiose state-building or policies premised on the pursuit of military victory by external forces, should not be seen as an adjunct wing of U.S. policy in Afghanistan, but as fundamental. It is clear that no realistic level of American and Afghan forces deployable in the foreseeable future can provide security to the population in every village of Afghanistan. Accepting this reality and developing a political-military strategy that best accounts for it will lead, inevitably, to support for Afghan-led political approaches at the national, provincial, district and sub-district level. This is how the late Gorbachev-backed government in Kabul achieved a modicum of stability in far less favorable circumstances...
My quick thoughts on Indo/Pak. I think he's rather over-optimistic about Pakistan, the army after all being the only thing that holds it together--other than fear of India which Mr Coll seems just to wish away. And I believe from all I've learned about the subcontinent that Indians still want Pakistan to go away (most recently, how would you like a fractious, semi-Islamist state with nuclear weapons next door? makes the Cold War look like a piece of cake by comparison). A split up of Pakistan, de-nuked so oder so, into bits under an Indian "sphere of influence" being the ultimate Indian goal, remember Bangladesh.

The Indo/Pak enmity (at the level of Pakistani national consciousness, where that exists) is fundamental and simply not appreciated as such in the West.

Grand schemes of regional settlement seem to me pipedreams (the Chinese taking a serious Afghan role?). Somehow the Afghans will have to deal with their own insurgents and the Paks with theirs, with any effective cooperation between those two countries, also at odds, being pretty limited. An independent Pathanistan would be a regional disaster.

Mr Coll I think over-reaches and does not have a realistic overall answer. But what is...? In any event, Mr Coll avoids the ultimate, and to me most important, thing at stake in terms of US (and Western) policy:
...when people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse...
Update: Another strong horse type, one assumes (an intentional irony in the link source, there are many similar stories):
Mr. Awlaki is a leading light among militant Sunni preachers seeking to reach out to English-speaking Muslims and encourage them to engage in jihad in the West. He’s at the forefront of the effort to create more “homegrown” jihadis, whose language skills and passports help them operate in the US and Europe.

Awlaki maintained a website presented in impeccable English until Tuesday, when its contents were deleted. The site had a an “Ask the Sheikh” button in which users could email him with questions. It devoted much of its contents to the glories of jihad. Awlaki even authored a treatise urging Muslims to violence called the “44 Ways to Support Jihad” which begins with a hadith, or story about the life of the Prophet Mohammed, that encapsulates his view of faith and conflict. “The Messenger of Allah says: ‘Whoever dies and has not fought or intended to fight has died on a branch of hypocrisy.’ ”..

On Monday [Nov. 9], a post attributed to the preacher praised Hasan as “a hero [more on the major here]. He is a man of conscience who could not bear living the contradiction of being a Muslim and serving in an army that is fighting against his own people.”..
One did however find this from the fellow:

Allah is Preparing us for Victory - Part I (49.5MB) Allah is Preparing us for Victory - Part II (25.7MB)
Allah is Preparing us for Victory - E-Book (0.5MB)

All Allah is Preparing us for Victory Files (75.9MB)
Relevant, I think, to the Afghan miltary effort.


Blogger David M said...

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 11/13/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

11:17 a.m., November 13, 2009  

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