H.D.S. Greenway

What is good enough in Afghanistan?

By H.D.S. Greenway
December 7, 2010

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UNLIKE OTHER wars this country has fought, there is no commonly held agreement among friends or foes on what the war in Afghanistan is all about. Even among Americans there is confusion.

President Obama, who will soon conduct yet another Afghan review, once called it a war to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat’’ Al Qaeda. But with Al Qaeda to be found more in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia these days, and with terrorists to be found in the Connecticut suburbs, as in the case of the failed New York City car bombing, Obama told American troops last week that the purpose was not to allow Afghanistan “to become a safe haven for terrorists’’ again.

For George W. Bush, as Bob Woodward wrote, “it was all in, win at all costs.’’ But he let Afghanistan drift as he headed for Iraq. His adviser, Karl Rove, has complained that he doesn’t hear the word “win’’ any more. Yet David Petraeus, Bush’s favorite general and now Obama’s, has said there is no military solution to Afghanistan.

Is it necessary to defeat the Taliban? If so, why do Americans keep talking about “reintegration’’ and “reconciliation’’ with the Taliban?

Some say this is part of a long, generational war against Islamic extremism. Yet recent intelligence reports have described the Taliban as driven as much by wanting to control territory, mineral wealth, smuggling routes, and just plain money as they are by ideology.

The Taliban is increasingly wrapping itself in the nationalist flag, fighting a war to rid Afghanistan of foreigners and their puppets, as Afghans have always done against the British, Russians, and now us. A viceroy of India in 1867, John Lawrence, once said that the Afghan will put up with every deprivation, but “he will not tolerate foreign rule. The moment he has a chance he will rebel.’’

In countries in the region, some look at the Afghan war as a new “Great Game,’’ with India, Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United States, and its European allies all vying for control and influence in the heart of Central Asia. For them protecting the American homeland doesn’t enter into it.

Others say the war is all about ethnic rivalries, that by invading Afghanistan the United States simply took sides in a 20-year civil war backing a Northern Alliance coalition of Tajiks, Uzbecks, Hazaras, and other non-Pashtun minorities, against the Pashtuns, who make up the vast majority of the Taliban. A post-war assessment by the Soviets concluded that they had not sufficiently considered “the historic, religious, and national particularities of Afghanistan.’’

Still others say it is all about the tribes, that the Americans are failing because they never understood the importance of tribal affiliations. Petraeus has admitted to not having a “granular’’ feeling for tribal politics. According to Ahmed Rashid, a veteran journalist and Central Asian expert, a fatal flaw in the new Afghan National Army is that it lacks ethnic Pashtuns who traditionally made up the core of Afghanistan’s army, especially Ghilzai Pashtun tribes from the eastern Afghan provinces of Khost, Paktia, and Paktika.

General William Caldwell, who is in charge of training an Afghan army to take over from us, hopefully by 2014, recently confirmed to me that these regions along the border with Pakistan are under-represented in the army he is trying to build.

Others will say that this is a fight for Islamic law and Islamic values, which are under attack from the West, while those opposed to them say the fight is for freedom, women’s rights, civil liberties, and democracy.

The trouble is the Afghan war is about all these things, and more, and that’s what makes this war so confusing — “unique in American history,’’ in that the enemy is so fractured that we don’t have “a telephone number to call to end the war,’’ as a senior administration official told me.

So as our allies begin to slip away, are Americans fighting to “defeat the extremist insurgency,’’ as the White House commanded the military in 2009? Or do we fight for “Afghanistan good enough,’’ which you hear more and more around NATO headquarters in Kabul? If so, what is good enough?

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