How to get out of Afghanistan

By Hugh Gusterson | October 12, 2009

It’s nice to hear from readers of this column, even if they ask pointed questions. Anne Winterfield, a graduate student at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, read my recent article on the futility of counterinsurgency in Afghanistan and called me up with a question about the last sentence of that article: “Say our job is done now, Mr. President, and leave.” “Could you be more specific on how this would work?” she asked.

It’s a good question.

The key to getting out of Afghanistan relatively cleanly is to let go of our stubborn attachment to the corrupt Karzai regime, to seek other Afghan interlocutors, and to ask some searching questions about the Taliban.”

Any administration presumably would want to avoid an Afghanistan exit process that is a replay of the fall of Saigon in 1975. As the United States abandoned Vietnam, the Vietnam War (or, as the Vietnamese call it, the American War) ended in a burst of chaos that turned Washington’s South Vietnamese allies into desperate refugees and humiliated the United States. Painful images of Vietnamese begging to be evacuated with the retreating Americans and of Americans fleeing a falling city by helicopter from the U.S. embassy are seared into the minds of many senior U.S. decision makers.

It’s easy to imagine a replay of such a scenario in Kabul, with grizzled men in beards and turbans roaming the streets clutching rocket launchers and looking for traitors to behead as Americans evacuate. If this were to happen, not only would Obama’s hope for a second term evaporate, but we could expect years of debilitating recriminations over who lost Afghanistan and, maybe as a corollary, Pakistan, too.

The debate in Washington now is between those (led by Gen. Stanley McChrystal) who believe the loss of Afghanistan can be averted through an intensified counterinsurgency campaign involving more U.S. troops, and those (identified with Vice President Joe Biden and Democratic Michigan Sen. Carl Levin) who would prefer not to add U.S. troops and to rely more on Afghan troops and on aerial strikes against suspected Al Qaeda positions.

Neither strategy will work. The counterinsurgency strategy will fail because foreign troops, especially in a country such as Afghanistan, provoke nationalist resistance. Thus, counterinsurgency will be fuel for, not an antidote to, insurgency. The Biden-Levin strategy also will fail because Pashtuns don’t want to be policed by Uzbeks and Tajiks and because newly trained Afghan troops won’t fight hard in a war in which they see themselves as surrogates for Americans, deployed on behalf of an American cause for which Americans weren’t willing to give up their own sons. Did Washington learn nothing from the failure of the Vietnamization of the Vietnam War? Moreover, the aerial attacks on suspected Al Qaeda fighters advocated by Biden will, as counterinsurgency specialist David Kilcullen has argued, inevitably miss many insurgents while killing many innocent civilians. This will, in turn, produce further hatred of the United States among the Afghan population.

And while the McChrystal strategy and the Biden-Levin option are presented in Washington as opposed choices, they share a common and overwhelming liability: They are designed to protect the corrupt Karzai government. The paradox of the Obama Doctrine in Afghanistan is that it’s designed to construct the sinews of democracy around a regime that stole an election and has come to personify warlordism and corruption. Again, you would think U.S. national security planners would have learned their lesson in Vietnam, where the U.S. cause was further dragged down by its alliance with the corrupt and unpopular South Vietnamese government under President Nguyen Van Thieu.

The key to getting out of Afghanistan relatively cleanly is to let go of our stubborn attachment to the Karzai regime, to seek other Afghan interlocutors, and to ask some searching questions about the Taliban. Too often we speak of the Taliban and Al Qaeda as if they were the same entity: Thus, Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, articulating the conventional wisdom in Washington, recently was quoted in the Washington Post as saying, “We all know that if the Taliban comes back, then Al Qaeda will come back.” Meanwhile, the mainstream media present the Taliban as a homogeneous horde of barefoot religious fanatics itching to die on Allah’s behalf.

We won’t make good policy about Afghanistan if we allow ourselves to be taken in by our own propaganda about the Taliban. Reading independent journalists such as Nir Rosen who have actually spent time with the Taliban, it’s clear that, far from being a unitary horde of religious crazies, what we call “the Taliban” is a heterogeneous assemblage of groups and individuals who bring different motives to their fight. Undoubtedly, some are hard-line Islamists implacably opposed to the United States, hostile to secularism, and sympathetic to Al Qaeda. Some are simply nationalists opposed to the foreign occupation of their country. Others have little identification with Afghanistan as a country, but are opposed to the foreign occupation of their valley or ethnic region. They may be eager to kill U.S. soldiers roaming their valleys, but have no interest in blowing up skyscrapers in New York. Still others are helping the Taliban because their village elders have told them to, because they are being paid to, or because they fear for their lives if they don’t do so. According to Rosen and others who have spent time with insurgents, some Taliban fighters are discreetly enamored with aspects of American popular culture. (Patrick Graham, a reporter who spent a year with Sunni insurgents in Iraq, reports their fondness for the movie Braveheart.)

If the Taliban aren’t all Islamofanatics, as the media so often portrays them, this opens a path to negotiation; and if the Taliban is an alliance of different groupings, negotiations offer a possible way of dividing them. It’s easy to think of other insurgencies that have ended by a negotiation that divided the implacables from rebels with a cause to discuss. This is how the British ended the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, handing the country over to Jomo Kenyatta, formerly vilified as a fanatical radical. Kenyatta went on to become a dependable British ally. Similarly, think of Northern Ireland, where, after far too many years of stalemated insurgency and counterinsurgency, the IRA violence was ended by patient negotiation. The IRA leader, Gerry Adams, now is a reliable partner in the reconstruction of post-conflict Northern Ireland, while the die-hards of the “Real IRA” splinter group have been marginalized into a minor irritant.

If it is not already doing so, the Obama administration should be entering into discreet conversation with a range of insurgent leaders in Afghanistan, seeking an accommodation that would divide a majority of the insurgents from the hard-line sympathizers with Al Qaeda. Such an agreement might allow Afghanistan to be ruled by a more legitimate government that would incorporate elements of the Taliban into a central administration or devolve regional power to them. In exchange for this and for foreign reconstruction aid, the United States might receive an assurance that Al Qaeda wouldn’t be allowed to resume its former operations in Afghanistan. If Al Qaeda returned, the penalty would be the loss of foreign aid and return of the drones.

Those who find it hard to imagine an accommodation with the Taliban should remember that, in the 1980s, as portrayed in the book and film Charlie Wilson’s War, we funded and armed some of these people. They fought the Soviets as our allies and surrogates, and President Ronald Reagan welcomed them to the White House, calling them the Afghan equivalent of our founding fathers. While it would be too much to hope for a Taliban Thomas Jefferson, that doesn’t mean we cannot reach a modus vivendi that will enable Afghans to live without their country being full of U.S. bases or Al Qaeda training camps.

In February 1946, Ho Chi Minh wrote to President Harry S. Truman expressing admiration for the United States and requesting U.S. support for the Vietnamese struggle against European colonialism. Truman never wrote back, and Washington decided to make war on, rather than an alliance with, Ho Chi Minh. The U.S. decision to make war on the Vietcong cost two to three million Vietnamese lives and more than 50,000 U.S. lives, divided the United States from its allies, and eventually led to the humiliating spectacle of a superpower being defeated by a developing country. But now, after all that unnecessary bloodshed and misery, the United States and Vietnam enjoy a good relationship. Let’s not misread the Taliban the way we misread the Vietcong. Start talking to them now, Mr. President, so we can leave.

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