H.D.S. Greenway

Interpreting Afghanistan

The way forward is through a maze of conflicting interests and worldviews

By H.D.S. Greenway
June 1, 2010

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READING CAREFULLY between the lines of President Obama’s speech at West Point last year, in which he laid out his war plans, I thought I heard an echo of Mikhail Gorbachev when he told his generals that they had a couple of years to turn things around in Afghanistan. If they couldn’t, Russia’s army would come home.

One saw ambiguity in Obama’s thoughts when he ordered a troop surge, only to say he would begin withdrawing in the summer of 2011. Oh, the caveats were quickly made that he had meant only the beginning of a withdrawal, and that circumstances would dictate its pace. But the damage was done for those careful listeners in Kabul, Islamabad, New Delhi, and the countries in the region. The United States might be surging, but the country wasn’t in for a hundred-year effort to establish a protectorate as the British had done more than a century before.

Negotiations with the Taliban are the agreed-upon end game, but ambiguity reigns. The operative words are “reintegration’’ and “reconciliation.’’ The former means a bottom-up attempt to get low-level insurgents to defect to the government side. The latter is a top-down approach, making a deal with the Taliban leaders to lay down their arms and join the Kabul government.

Richard Holbrooke, America’s special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, has said that the United States is “stressing’’ reintegration, and made it clear the United States is not involved with reconciliation at this point. The United States wants more time to beat up on the Taliban with its troop surge to persuade its leaders they are not winning before we discuss reconciliation.

Our British allies, however, are much more keen on reconciliation, and President Hamid Karzai is way out ahead of both in his desire to make a deal at the top. The Taliban, meanwhile, have shown little interest in either.

As for Pakistan, it has arrested Taliban leaders who have met with Karzai representatives abroad, never mind that the Taliban was partly created and trained by Pakistan, and never mind that it is based in Pakistan and that its leaders use Pakistani passports when they travel. Pakistan wanted to send a message that there will be no solution that ignores Pakistan’s interests. New Delhi, meanwhile, maintains consulates in Afghanistan that it doesn’t need and works to expand its influence to bedevil Pakistan.

There has been American ambiguity over Karzai, too. He was embraced by the Bush administration, publicly despised by the Obama team — especially after the flawed election — and re-embraced now that the White House sees it has no better alternative.

Holbrooke, having served his government in Vietnam, remembers well what happened in the case of Ngo Dinh Diem, our man in Saigon, whom President Eisenhower called the “miracle man’’ of Asia. His star fell when he did not perform to America’s satisfaction, and the Kennedy administration decided to get rid of him. But the subsequent coup opened a revolving door to South Vietnamese generals, none of whom performed satisfactorily, and the situation on the ground steadily worsened.

As Steve Coll has pointed out, occupiers always look at their man through the prism of their own societies. The Soviets judged their Afghans on the basis of Marxist-Leninist theory, just the way we judge ours by American standards.

And so we beat on, trying to soften up the Taliban by surging in their ancient capital of Kandahar. The recent campaign in Marja was the warm-up. First drive the Taliban out with military force, protect the population, and bring in a ready-made Afghan “government in a box,’’ or so goes the doctrine.

It seems, however, that the box arrived damaged, and, as a lake into which a spear is thrown, the Taliban at first gave way, but now flows back around the point and the shaft of the allied advance.

I have little doubt that General Stanley McChrystal has an excellent plan for Kandahar, just as did General Frederick Roberts, the first Earl of Kandahar, whose lightning march from Kabul to relieve the British garrison from hostile Afghans thrilled the British Empire in the summer of 1880.

Today the British, as well as Russia’s soldiers, are gone. Kandahar remains.

H.D.S. Greenway’s column appears regularly in the Globe.

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