Today, as a follow up to my post about the need for a new strategic focus in Afghanistan, I lay out the two crucial strategic goals of the War in Afghanistan.
The most important goal of the war has already largely been successful, namely the removal of al-Queda from Aghanistan. However, any acclaim for accomplishing the initial primary goal of the war in Afghanistan was lost as al-Queda was allowed to retrench on the other side of the Pakistani border while NATO continued to fight and die in Afghanistan against the Taliban. I think a primary strategic objective is to no longer treat the Taliban as the main enemy in Afghanistan, even if that is who we are fighting. The Taliban are a significant segment of the Afghan citizenry, they ran the entire country for a decade, and still run more effective local governments than Kabul does. Thus, they are not an military enemy that can be defeated but a hostile population must be fragmented, placated and won over.
I’m not suggesting that will be easy to split the Taliban from al-Queda, in fact most reports suggest that their alliance is closer than ever, but it should be vigorously attempted. Bribery might be very effective to that end, but fundamentally the problem stems from viewing the Taliban as a unified threat, rather than an alliance of convenience among many disparate regional warlords. Some of them would certainly be receptive to changing sides on the right terms, and even if that was not the case, attempting to defeat all of the warlords in Pashtunistan militarily is a fool’s errand- they don’t call it the “graveyard of empires” for nothing. Refocusing the war as primarily about al-Queda instead of about the Taliban allows even the possibility of leaving successfully.
Not fighting the Taliban, or even in some cases allying with them is distasteful both because they have been killing innocents and NATO troops and because their political views are frankly disgusting from a Western point of view. However, we do not have the right or ability to impose our Western point of view on the least developed countries in the world and the attempt will be result in bitter failure- homosexuals are still executed in Iraq after all. Asking for some basic compromises on their punitive sharia laws, like allowing female students, should be a prerequisite for Taliban warlords to start collecting American paychecks, but in the end Afghanistan is still going to look a lot like Afghanistan. Which is fine, because Afghanistan is not an immediate threat to us.
The initial goal of the war has been sucessfully executed, however, in the course of conducting the war a new perhaps far more pressing threat has emerged. Afghanistan is strategically unimportant in an of itself (apart of course from the tens of thousands of NATO troops there), but it borders some of the most strategically important areas of the world. It shares a long border with Pakistan to the South, Iran to the West, and Russian client Central Asian countries to the North, reaches out to China to the East and shares a border with disputed Pakistan-Indian Kashmir. These are countries of crucial importance, Pakistan and Iran especially are the biggest trouble spots that the U.S. hasn’t already invaded. Preventing Afghanistan from playing regional trouble maker should be remaining goal of NATO’s mission there.
The most publized problem caused by Afghanistan, for good reason, is the destabilization of Pakistan due to the cross border war with the Taliban and the relocation of al-Qaeda there. It is unlikely that Pakistan would ever fall to the Taliban, but (correct me if I’m wrong) this is the first time a nuclear power has had to fight on it’s own contiguous soil. The nuclear peace theory still holds because it is not an invasion, but it is still shocking. A good argument could be made that our presence there has much to do with Pakistan’s current predictament, but what effect our leaving would have on Pakistan is unknown and could be dire. Perhaps leaving would envigorate the Taliban and allow them to reverse their current strike in Afghanistan, refuge in Pakistan strategy and successfully fight the war in Pakistan from Afghanistan. I am skeptical that the Taliban could ever retake all of Afghanistan, NATO could probably prevent it immediately just from the air with the support of the non-Pashtun population of Afghanistan, but their conquest of all of “Pashtunistan” and holding it would seem probable. The U.S. should make it a priority to both support Pakistan in its fight against the Taliban, and by attempting to co-opt the Taliban in Afghanistan take pressure off the border.
The threat of Taliban controlled nukes is generally overblown, but perhaps a greater threat that is drastically underreported is effect of the war in Afghanistan on Indian-Pakistani relations. Josh Foust points out how the two are related and even goes even further by suggesting that Pakistan actually benefits from having the Taliban around:
Pakistan has not lost its fundamental strategic rationale for supporting the original Taliban: a hedge against Iran, “strategic depth” against India, and a training ground for Kashmiri insurgents. In fact, it could be easily argued that a big reason Kashmir has calmed down is that all the crazies were too busy fighting in Miram Shah and Kandahar and Khost and Ghazni to go plant bombs in Srinagar.
It seems incredible that most of the Pakistani military is still massed at the Indian border, even while there is a hostile force taking provinces in the country; but, the India-Pakistan conflict is every bit as intractible as Israel-Palestine, only both sides have nukes. Any withdrawl from Afghanistan will have to be accomplished in such a way that it does not enflame that conflict.
On the other hand, our continued presence in Afghanistan does present us with one interesting opportunity: to use a common purpose to soften relations with Iran. After 9/11 Iran was actually crucial in pacifying Western Afghanistan, a role that has traditionally played and has a continuing interest in. It is unfortunate that the U.S. has few overlapping interests with a country it needs dramatic concessions from. Allowing Iran to participate constructively in Afghanistan could allow Tehran to productively excercise its long sought after regional influence, while opening lines of communication between the our two governments.
So the two objectives of our continued fight in Afghanistan could be summed up as prevent it from ever becoming a terrorist safe haven again, while also ensuring that whatever internal conflict it has does not spillover into the surrounding areas. Strongly communicating the success of the first objective might allow leeway to only partially succeed on the far more complicated second. If the war was sold on those terms it would be far easier to stomach, instead of conflating impossible short-term tactical goals (stability, democracy, economic growth) with strategic ends.