I have talked with soldiers from Afghanistan both American
and British, both in the ranks and field-grade officers in an effort at
making sense of what we are doing there. The White House and Pentagon
publicly say they are reassessing policy in Afghanistan. It is well that
they should. So far, both means and goals are confused.
The initial phase of the war, which started Oct. 7, 2001, had a
clear and necessary purpose: to destroy the Taliban regime that gave succor
to those who attacked us Sept. 11. That promptly was accomplished in a
shrewdly designed operation that combined a light American presence with a
maximum effort at working with local and regional forces hostile to the
regime. However, as the Taliban continue the fight (with their Pakistan
redoubts), short of permanent American occupation, what is our plan?
In a partially public, partially hush-hush review of policy
between the administration and the new commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal,
the commander has said the Taliban has gained the upper hand, extended their
fighting to formerly stable areas and increased their technological
sophistication. The general has said publicly that he still is considering a
request for more troops above the current number, 68,000 American
troops which itself reflects the earlier administration decision to
increase troop levels by 21,000 military souls.
Gen. McChrystal also has said publicly already that he would
almost double the size of the Afghan military and police. According to The
Wall Street Journal, the Afghan army would increase from 135,000 to 240,000,
and the police would increase from 82,000 to 160,000. That alone implies a
substantial increase in American troop levels both to train all those new
Afghans and to lead and support them in heightened levels of fighting
which, the general says, is necessary.
But last week, the general was called to a previously
unscheduled private meeting in Belgium with Secretary of Defense Robert
Gates and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, after
which it was announced that McChrystal's new war plans would be postponed.
Last week, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell seemed to be
undercutting the significance of Gen. McChrystal's review, stating: "This is
not akin to the much-anticipated Gen. (David) Petraeus assessments that we
got in … 2007. … The assessment will not be, despite some erroneous
reporting that I've seen, a work product that includes specific resource
requests, if indeed there will be additional resource requests. … The
assessment will focus … on the situation on the ground and the way ahead,
but it will not offer specific resource requests or recommendations."
Some important experts are concerned that those words and
that rushed private meeting in Belgium suggest that the administration is
politicizing war policy and not giving sufficient respect to military
While I agree with that assessment, I don't chastise the
administration for it. Ultimately, high war policy is a political decision
for which the president is responsible. Consider the very proper roles of
Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill and David Ben-Gurion in the wars they
actively led in strategic and even tactical decision-making.
At the highest levels, war-fighting policy often becomes
historical and political judgment and thus presidential. For example, it
would appear that a policy that calls for substantially increased troop
strengths for both the American and Afghan forces implies a policy that
aspires to build a strong central government in Kabul capable of permanently
suppressing the Taliban. But the long history of Afghanistan suggests that,
unlike Iraq (or Japan and Germany after World War II), Afghanistan is not
likely to accept a strong central government.
According to several of the troops with whom I talked, a policy
that merely wants permanently to suppress the Taliban could be more surely
gained by fully empowering the local tribal chiefs and warlords to go after
the Taliban who, though of the same Pashtun tribe as many Afghans, are
considered different subsets of the tribe and thus foreigners worthy of
Afghans hate foreigners, whether Macedonian, British, Russian,
American or Pakistani Pashtun. I am told that America's tendency to want to
get the military job done ourselves is offending the local friendly
fighters. We have trouble letting go of responsibility. We are not hated
quite yet. But we need to leave soon, or we will be.
Also, we cannot deny the locals the revenue from the poppy
fields and hope to befriend and empower the local tribal chiefs and farmers.
It would be better if we simply bought the whole yearly crop (approximate
cost $2 billion to 3 billion but far cheaper in both dollars and American
lives than the alternative) and directed it to the legal pharmaceutical
market. Thus, the Afghans would keep their desperately needed money (and
their traditional tribal relations and culture); the Taliban wouldn't get
its cut; and we would keep the heroin off the streets of Europe and America.
If we insist on our current policy of trying to prop up an
inevitably corrupt and feeble Kabul central government and supplant the
traditional tribal leaders with a national army and 100,000 American troops
in the field, it all will end in tears.
We should support the tribes that have cheerfully and
courageously driven out all foreign intruders for thousands of years, not
try to build a national government that they will equally cheerfully
massacre as they have for thousands of years.