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. 

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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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