Unraveling Afghanistan

A veteran correspondent details what’s going wrong, and why.

George Kenney

Jonathan Landay and an Afghan soldier at the Afghan National Army base in the Jalez Valley in Wardak Province.

The Unit­ed States has two abid­ing nation­al secu­ri­ty inter­ests in South Asia: pre­vent­ing a nuclear war between Pak­istan and India, and avert­ing the pro­lif­er­a­tion of atom­ic weapons. The Unit­ed States should work towards South Asian nuclear arms reduc­tions, or even disarmament. 

But it must also find inno­v­a­tive ways to help Pak­istan main­tain inter­nal polit­i­cal sta­bil­i­ty. Cur­rent U.S. pol­i­cy approach­es the chal­lenge ass-back­wards. Instead of acknowl­edg­ing a nuclear threat, we’ve propped up an ille­git­i­mate, cor­rupt gov­ern­ment in Kab­ul and picked a fight with the Pash­tun peo­ple that fun­da­men­tal­ly desta­bi­lizes Pak­istan. Approx­i­mate­ly 40 mil­lion Pash­tuns, an East­ern Iran­ian peo­ple that have suc­cess­ful­ly resist­ed British and Russ­ian con­trol in the past, live on either side of the Afghanistan-Pak­istan bor­der. The longer we stay this course, the worse things will get. How can we change the mis­sion with­out a domi­no effect of polit­i­cal col­lapse that adds to the nuclear risk?

Jonathan Lan­day, the senior nation­al secu­ri­ty and intel­li­gence cor­re­spon­dent for McClatchey News­pa­pers, per­forms an invalu­able ser­vice in report­ing on var­i­ous dimen­sions of this quandary. It’s impos­si­ble to sec­ond-guess his con­clu­sion that a pre­cip­i­tous U.S. with­draw­al would be cat­a­stroph­ic. Less clear is whether we have the time, or intel­li­gence, to come up with a work­able plan. I spoke with Lan­day in March, short­ly after his return from a month in Afghanistan.

You spoke to many Afghans who shared their frus­tra­tions with you. Can local U.S. and NATO units suc­cess­ful­ly address any of their complaints?

About a year and a half ago, there was a rec­om­men­da­tion by some Amer­i­can com­man­ders that they would not be able to, as some U.S. offi­cials are now say­ing, kill their way to vic­to­ry.” Yet the guid­ance under the Bush admin­is­tra­tion was, essen­tial­ly, to go after al Qae­da, the Tal­iban and asso­ci­at­ed mil­i­tants. There was real­ly no coun­terin­sur­gency strat­e­gy despite the fact that the Unit­ed States had prac­ticed coun­terin­sur­gency in oth­er places, par­tic­u­lar­ly in Viet­nam, and was well aware of what that strat­e­gy entails.

Amer­i­can com­man­ders rec­og­nized this and began try­ing to address that prob­lem at a local lev­el, pri­mar­i­ly, using funds they had avail­able – quick-fix projects. But it wasn’t suf­fi­cient, and I think the new admin­is­tra­tion rec­og­nizes that. You cer­tain­ly hear more will­ing­ness to speak frankly about what’s hap­pen­ing in Afghanistan. As Pres­i­dent Oba­ma and oth­ers, includ­ing Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Advi­sor James Jones, have acknowl­edged, the Unit­ed States is not win­ning there. And now there are pret­ty intense efforts to turn that around – to address it and bring about recon­struc­tion projects at the local lev­el to try and gain con­fi­dence among ordi­nary Afghans who, eight years since the U.S. inter­ven­tion, have not seen its promised ben­e­fits. The Bush admin­is­tra­tion promised a Mar­shall Plan for Afghanistan that it did not deliver.

Anoth­er thing con­tribut­ing to this sense of betray­al is the absolute­ly epi­dem­ic, record-break­ing cor­rup­tion tak­ing place­-fueled by an unprece­dent­ed amount of for­eign cur­ren­cy float­ing around Afghanistan. And this cor­rup­tion goes from the cop on the beat right up to the high­est lev­els of the Afghan gov­ern­ment. It is eat­ing the heart out of the U.S.-led enterprise.

A fur­ther major fac­tor is civil­ian casu­al­ties caused by U.S.-led mil­i­tary oper­a­tions, despite the fact that the Tal­iban is respon­si­ble for far more civil­ian deaths than the Unit­ed States and its allies are. The Unit­ed States is los­ing the infor­ma­tion bat­tle in that regard. 

Richard Hol­brooke, Pres­i­dent Obama’s Spe­cial Rep­re­sen­ta­tive to Afghanistan and Pak­istan, recent­ly talked about try­ing to enlist Iran­ian help on Afghanistan. Is there a pro­duc­tive way to bring Iran into U.S. policy-making?

Absolute­ly. Iran has a huge inter­est in Afghanistan. The Ira­ni­ans do not want to see the Tal­iban return – the Tal­iban are Sun­ni fun­da­men­tal­ists, as opposed to the Shi­ite branch of Islam that is prac­ticed in Iran. The Ira­ni­ans also have an enor­mous inter­est in see­ing an end to the world’s largest opi­um pro­duc­tion, which takes place in Afghanistan, because they are wrestling with nar­cotics smug­gling and the vio­lence that comes with it. And they want sta­bil­i­ty because they prob­a­bly would like to sell their oil and nat­ur­al gas to Pak­istan and India. Afghanistan is also a major mar­ket­place for Iran­ian goods.

Is there a way to make a con­tin­u­ing U.S. pres­ence pos­i­tive for Afghanistan?

There is, but my ques­tion is whether or not the Unit­ed States has time to do that. A senior NATO offi­cer said to me, Afghanistan is a nation of fence-sit­ters.” The U.S. mil­i­tary was the first for­eign mil­i­tary in his­to­ry that the Afghans, for the most part, wel­comed into their coun­try. That good­will has been wast­ed by the pre­vi­ous admin­is­tra­tion. The Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion rec­og­nizes that, but after eight years, the ques­tion is: Is there still time left to reas­sure Afghans that the Unit­ed States is not in their coun­try as part of a war against Islam? This is the view that was cre­at­ed in the Mus­lim world based on the Bush admin­is­tra­tion – who were care­less and arro­gant in the exe­cu­tion of their poli­cies, par­tic­u­lar­ly in Afghanistan. Their pol­i­cy was: Let’s patron­ize the war­lords as our proxy to hold this place as we take our troops, mon­ey and time and invade Iraq. By doing that, they rein­stat­ed many of the hat­ed ele­ments whose mis­be­hav­ior, exploita­tion and repres­sion were what gave rise to the Tal­iban, who in turn allowed al Qae­da to use Afghanistan as its sanctuary.

You said you’re unsure how much time we have left. In talk­ing with U.S. mil­i­tary per­son­nel, is that a sub­ject on their minds?

They’re aware they are in a race against time. The Unit­ed States has to regain the con­fi­dence of the Afghan peo­ple if it hopes to con­tain the Tal­iban insur­gency because the insur­gents need the people­-they’re fish that swim among the peo­ple. But if you drain the sea, they have nowhere to swim. Whether by choice or out of anger at their gov­ern­ment or the Unit­ed States, there are peo­ple who are will­ing to pro­vide the Tal­iban with sanc­tu­ary, shel­ter, food, and recruits. That’s the sea that’s got to be drained, and that hasn’t hap­pened in the last eight years. 

Is there still time to do that before this becomes more than the Tal­iban insur­gency – before it turns into a gen­er­al insur­gency out of anger at the occu­pi­er”? We haven’t reached that stage yet because the Tal­iban are enor­mous­ly unpop­u­lar. Afghans don’t want to revert back, but the more they become con­vinced that the U.S. and NATO pres­ence is an occu­pa­tion rather than a lib­er­a­tion, the more chance that you’ll see peo­ple sup­port­ing the Taliban.

If we do run out of time and the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion decides on an order­ly with­draw­al, leav­ing Afghanistan to its own devices, what would be the consequences?

Failed state. Very quick­ly. At this stage, despite the progress made in build­ing the Afghan army, there are very few peo­ple who believe that the Tal­iban could be held back from tak­ing Kab­ul for very long. And then you have the implo­sion of Afghanistan, you have a new civ­il war, and you have a new sanc­tu­ary for al Qae­da. There would be a new base for these Islam­ic mil­i­tants. This would be a gigan­tic boost for them, and their next tar­get would be Islamabad.

What is your bot­tom line?

That, at this point, there are two major rea­sons why things are going wrong. One is the cor­rup­tion that the Amer­i­cans are doing noth­ing to stop. Cor­rup­tion is under­min­ing and help­ing to accel­er­ate the lack of con­fi­dence and the frus­tra­tion and anger of the Afghan people. 

The sec­ond prob­lem is one of mis­per­cep­tion. As I said, a NATO offi­cial remarked to me on how Afghanistan is a nation of fence sit­ters – one rea­son why peo­ple have been unable to make their minds up about which side to join is because of the infil­tra­tion of the Tal­iban into their areas and the inabil­i­ty of the gov­ern­ment and the Unit­ed States to stop it. If you’re an ordi­nary Afghan and you think the Tal­iban is win­ning, which side are you going to go to? 

The Unit­ed States has a very seri­ous prob­lem with try­ing to cor­rect mis­per­cep­tions. I don’t think there’s any ques­tion that the Tal­iban would lose in a mil­i­tary con­flict with the Unit­ed States, but this abil­i­ty to infil­trate has cre­at­ed the impres­sion that they can win. As long as the Unit­ed States and its allies are there, the Tal­iban is not an exis­ten­tial mil­i­tary threat to the Afghan gov­ern­ment. What is an exis­ten­tial threat is the per­cep­tion that they are winning. 

George Ken­ney, a for­mer career U.S. for­eign ser­vice offi­cer, resigned in 1991 over U.S. pol­i­cy toward the Yugoslav con­flict. He is now a writer in Wash­ing­ton, and host and pro­duc­er of the pod­cast Elec­tric Pol­i­tics.
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