H.D.S. Greenway

An unlikely exit from Afghanistan

By H.D.S. Greenway
January 4, 2011

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THIS NEW YEAR will mark the second decade of America’s war in Afghanistan — already longer than Russia’s war, and longer than any of the three the British fought in the previous two centuries trying to bend Afghanistan to their will.

Following a catastrophic defeat during the first Afghan war 170 years ago, the British sent another army, calling it the “Army of Retribution.’’ We don’t label our war aims quite so frankly these days, but, in effect, that was America’s goal a decade ago: to inflict retribution on Al Qaeda and its enablers, the Taliban, in the wake of 9/11.

The goals have shifted many times since, but we now seem to have settled on our war aims: Not to create a “21st century Afghanistan,’’ said Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, nor a country “free of corruption,’’ but simply to reduce the Taliban so that Afghan forces can deal with them, hopefully by 2014.

What are the prospects of achieving this goal? First the bad news. The Taliban has, as Richard Holbrooke told me late last year, matched General David Petraeus “surge for surge.’’ Its tactics and organization have become much more sophisticated, and more and more, it has wrapped itself in the flag of national resistance to foreigners, rather than religious extremism. It has made impressive gains in northern Afghanistan, far away from its traditional bases in the south and east along the Pakistan border.

The gains that the US military keeps trumpeting may be ephemeral, because the problem has never been an inability to control territory on which 100,000 US troops are standing. It is the nature of guerrilla warfare to fade away when faced with superior firepower. The problem is how to create something lasting that can stand up after Americans have left. On this front there is little sign of progress. The problems of massive corruption and governmental inefficiencies continue to drag down hopes for a successful counterinsurgency strategy.

No matter how hard it has been hit, there isn’t any sign that the Taliban is ready to cry “uncle.’’ Former Taliban leaders living in Kabul say that there might be room for compromise, according to the region’s well-informed journalist, Ahmed Rashid, but the Taliban is made up of allied groups not under a single command. As Holbrooke put it, in previous conflicts “you knew the phone to pick up to end the war.’’ Not this one.

America’s ticket out of Afghanistan, as Gates has said, is training the Afghan army and police to take over security. Serious training, however, began only a year ago, and it is unlikely that the Kabul government alone will be able to take on the Taliban by 2014. Given how long it takes to build a competent army, especially in a population that is 80 percent illiterate, the betting has to be that Americans will be engaged in combat well beyond 2014.

Pakistan may or may not change its mind about harboring the Taliban, but if it is impossible to win the war if the Taliban can enjoy sanctuary, eliminating Pakistani safe havens will not guarantee success either. The Taliban is not without resources within Afghanistan itself.

The good news is that the Taliban, with few exceptions, has not extended its base significantly beyond the Pashtun population, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group. Tajiks and Afghan Uzbeks have largely stayed out, and still fear and resent historical Pashtun domination.

The memory of Taliban misrule is still a powerful factor, and most Afghan’s don’t want the Taliban to rule again.

Also, there is a tradition of tribes and armed groups suddenly switching sides. As author Thomas Barfield has put it, opportunism can trump all the other “isms’’ in Afghanistan. Peeling away Taliban groups is not necessarily a hopeless goal.

So the race is on. Will the unpopularity of the government and foreign troops convince enough Afghans to support the Taliban to make the country ungovernable, as the mujahideen did to the Soviets? Or will enough Afghans rally to the government to create some modicum of stability before America starts to leave in earnest? The latter is unlikely before the target date of 2014.

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