Afghanistan

The middle path is the wrong path for Afghanistan

soldierdust

I am highly skeptical of the trend in US politics and policymaking of governing from a so-called “pragmatic” middle. This method involves taking two proposals from opposite ends of the political spectrum, watering them down into some kind of average of the two, and assuming that this is the most likely to succeed.  This kind of misguided thinking has brought us such winners as a residual force in Iraq and Blue Dog Democrats.

Ilan Goldenberg of the National Security Network offers a more thoughtful but ultimately flawed case for the “middle path” for Afghanistan policy. He acknowledges that the President has “no good options,” but concludes that the middle path is better than the alternatives, “all-in” or “minimalist.”

In order to have a real debate about the relative merits of these options, we need a solid understanding of what they entail, and this is where I take issue with Goldenberg’s characterizations of what he calls the “minimalist” approach:

The minimalist approach assumes that there is simply not that much that we can do in Afghanistan, but seems cavalier about our ability to prevent an Al Qaeda safe haven or the melt down of the Pakistani state as we withdraw and leave in place an even worse security vacuum than the one that exists today.  It also ignores any moral questions that might be tied to abandoning our Afghan allies to extremist elements.

The approach we advocate at Peace Action West is not based on the idea that there’s not much we can do in Afghanistan, but rather that there’s not much we can do through military force. It is “minimalist” from a military perspective, but is the approach likely to have the maximum positive impact on US and Afghan security and well being. I have yet to hear a compelling argument for how a relatively small increase in the US troop presence in Afghanistan can realistically advance security goals and meet humanitarian needs.  In fact, Gilles Dorronsoro, an expert on Afghanistan, writes, “The mere presence of foreign soldiers fighting a war in Afghanistan is probably the single most important factor in the resurgence of the Taliban. The best way to weaken, and perhaps divide, the armed opposition is to reduce military confrontations.”

In a recent poll, only 18% of Afghans said they support sending more US troops to Afghanistan. Afghans and Pakistanis are increasingly outraged at civilian casualties incurred during air strikes and night raids, including a recent case in which the US claimed to have killed five militants, while the local people insist they were civilians. Some proponents of the escalation will argue that more boots on the ground will mean fewer civilian casualties, but Human Rights Watch reports that most casualties occur when troops call in additional air support while they are engaged with insurgents, so more soldiers wouldn’t necessarily mean fewer of these incidents. Fomenting resentment of the US in Afghanistan and Pakistan is more likely to drive people to extremism, not decrease the threat from terrorism.

There is momentum around intensifying the military strategy because that is what we have been doing, despite that fact that it hasn’t netted positive results.  There are myriad tools at the US’s disposal that would help us address our security needs and the moral obligations Goldenberg highlights. Regional diplomacy, effective nonmilitary counterterrorism efforts, humanitarian aid and development are far more likely to create stability and goodwill than more soldiers.

As far as the concern about terrorist groups, is it “cavalier” to base your thinking on years of historical data about eradicating terrorism rather than a continuation of a failed strategy?  The RAND Corporation’s report “How Terrorist Groups End” notes than since 1968, only 7% of terrorist groups that ended were defeated through military force. Forty percent were “penetrated and eliminated by local police and intelligence agencies,” and 43% reached a “peaceful political accommodation with their government.”  I would be interested to hear proponents of the escalation explain why they think this situation will fall in that narrow 7%. After examining the historical data and applying it to US efforts against Al Qaeda, RAND concluded:

A more effective U.S. approach would involve a two-front strategy:
•    Make policing and intelligence the backbone of U.S. efforts. Al Qa’ida consists of a network of individuals who need to be tracked and arrested. This requires careful involvement of the Central Intelligence Agency and Federal Bureau of Investigation as well as their cooperation with foreign police and intelligence agencies.
•    Minimize the use of U.S. military force. In most operations against al Qa’ida, local military forces frequently have more legitimacy to operate and a better understanding of the operating environment than U.S. forces have. This means a light U.S. military footprint or none at all.

Many of us who oppose the military strategy in Afghanistan do so both because of our despair at the devastation caused to the people of Afghanistan, and the fact that the current strategy isn’t making Afghans or Americans safer. We don’t want the “middle” path we want the best path. Progressive and pragmatic are not mutually exclusive, and hopefully more of our policymakers will realize that sooner than they did about the war in Iraq.

To his credit, Goldenberg acknowledges that the middle path may not work, and if it doesn’t appear to be successful within 12-18 months, the US should shift to a minimalist approach. But with little compelling evidence that the middle path will work, and ample evidence that it will exacerbate the situation on the ground, why risk more American and Afghan lives and billions of taxpayer dollars?

President Obama said some encouraging things in his recent interview with 60 Minutes:

But what we can’t do is think that just a military approach in Afghanistan is gonna be able to solve our problems. One of the things that we have never done is ramped up the civilian side of the equation with agricultural specialists who can help farmers replace poppy as a crop with people who are able to electrify villages that have never seen electricity. We haven’t done some of the diplomatic spade work that needs to be done. So what we’re looking for is a comprehensive strategy. And there’s got to be an exit strategy. There, there’s got to be a sense that this is not perpetual drift and stalemate but in fact that we are making measurable progress with benchmarks in order to achieve our central goal.

I am inclined to believe President Obama when he says that sending more troops was a difficult decision, and that he is thinking carefully about US strategy in Afghanistan.  That doesn’t change my opposition to his plan
ned military escalation, and my concern is that the voices that support alternatives to the military strategy are not being heard by the administration, the media, or Congress. As President Obama prepares to release his strategy, this is a critical time to raise awareness about alternatives and start a real debate. The Congressional Progressive Caucus is helping by hosting a series of forums on Afghanistan for Hill staff, members of Congress, the media and the public. You can help by keeping the pressure on and letting our government know you want to see a better strategy.  Click here to become an Afghanistan Witness.

Right now, the voices in support of the “middle path” are strong, but as we did with the war in Iraq, we can ultimately make our voices stronger.

Flickr photo courtesy of startledrabbit III.

6 replies »

  1. Part of the reason that your arguments are not carrying weight in the national conversation is that you are too strident and too simplistic. Very few people who have been in Afghanistan and have seen the challenges there, other than those who already hold your agenda, can find agreement with your assertions.
    As a veteran of Afghanistan who worked closely with Afghans as a mentor to the Afghan National Police, I disagree fundamentally with many of your assertions. However, I agree that civil efforts, particularly in the areas of good governance, the eradication of corruption, judicial reform and economic development are absolutely key to the success of the IRoA.
    I believe that a moderation of your stance on military commitment, along with a strong position towards “grass-roots” organizing of efforts to recruit and deploy civilian experts and financial capital to assist in development in the IRoA would bring a greater credibility to your organization.
    In short, don’t just sit and point the finger. Do something. Get people on the ground in Afghanistan and assist the people there in rebuilding their country, establishing an accountable and responsible government as free of corruption as possible and in finding ways to establish businesses with export potential to bring foreign capital into Afghanistan. Organize venture capitalists to assist Afghans in the exploitation of their natural resources to create durable jobs for Afghans. Assist in developing a national water management strategy and making it work. Assist villages in the provision of electricity through the use of micro-hydro devices and other strategies. Assist the IRoA in making the lives of the Afghan citizens better, don’t just sit and cry out that the current strategy is wrong… do something significant to make a difference. Sitting around at coffees making pronouncements about how the current strategy is too violent is easy. Get your boots, Nikes, Birkenstocks or whatever on the ground and physically do something.
    Go and look at the FabLab projects being done in Jalalabad. See how those people are making a difference. Take some of the people who want to run for office in their (relatively well-off) American towns and go and show an Afghan Sub-governor how to run a county-sized area effectively and provide basic services to his constituents.
    Then, perhaps, you will be taken seriously. You will also gain a sense of perspective on what a well-rounded effort (including military) is needed to provide hope in Afghanistan.
    Be well,
    ~Blue

  2. It’s not clear to be how offering a policy argument based on historical fact is strident. Now that more attention is being focused on Afghanistan, we are starting to see an increasing number of people question a military strategy, and I suspect that number will continue to grow as it did with the war in Iraq.
    As in the US, there will obviously be different ideas within Afghanistan, but much of our position is based on what people who have been in Afghanistan are calling for, including members of the Afghan parliament and civilians, whose voices are being marginalized in the debate in the US.
    What we are doing at Peace Action West is not merely pointing the finger. We are offering alternatives to the current strategy. We are actively organizing the public and communicating with Congress to advocate for a better policy that will make us all safer. Our role is not to go to Afghanistan and implement the services. As an advocacy organization, we work to change the policy that we feel is endangering US security and unnecessarily costing lives and taxpayer dollars.

  3. Rebecca, I have been on the ground in Afghanistan, and I have spoken with people in the villages and heard what they have asked for. I have also read and listened to full statements made by Afghans such as Ambassador Maliha Zulfacar (Afghan Ambassador to Germany.) Rebecca, these people would have a heart attack if we told them that we (troops) were leaving.
    The extremity of your naivete is nearly overwhelming. While you are truly on to something with your proponency of civil development, education and good governance, your advocating of a totally demilitarized approach is completely agenda driven and devoid of real logic. You can cherrypick those from nearly any crowd who will feed your narrative, but I am personally intimately familiar with the situation on the ground there. Based on this, your position is completely idealistic and inadequate.
    I have lived out in the countryside in two separate provinces for upwards of a month at a time. I know the responses I personally got from Afghan villagers when I asked them, in a relaxed situation, what they needed. Their number 1 answer was security, and their deep belief was that as long as I and the Afghans I advised were near, their lives were more peaceful. It was when we, with our weapons, went away that the Taliban and/or HiG came and threatened them.
    Rebecca, I listened to Robert Greenwald call for 17,000 teachers instead of 17,000 troops. This would be lovely, except you would wind up with a lot of dead teachers. Because of these ridiculously simplistic calls, based more on some private belief than on any objective analysis of the situation on the ground, or any real understanding of human conflict, that you are marginalized. Again, you are a marginal group; a fringe element. The more I get to hear from you and your organization, the more grateful I am that you are such.
    You state that your role is not to actually do anything, but to advocate against something, rather than to actually helping to implement anything positive. I would like to invite you to go with me to Afghanistan and I will take you out into the villages and have you speak to the people, average people, and hear what I have heard, see what I have seen, and experience what I have experienced. I have literally held hands in friendship and fellowship with Afghans who have a dream for their country. If you were to explain your position to those people, they would simply quit listening to you, as they do anyone who wastes their time by not understanding reality. They would recognize your childish outlook for what it is, and they don’t have time for your lovely childish dreams.
    Your voices are being marginalized because you are a marginal organization. You could add so much to the dialogue, but instead of adding what you could add that would bring considerable value, and organizing to do actual work in Afghanistan, what you are is organizing opposition to a well-rounded approach. You are not being helpful.
    I am disappointed in you.

  4. Old Blue,
    I have no doubt that you report accurately what you were told by the villagers with whom you were in contact. I am particularly interested in your statements quoted below.
    = = = = = = = = = = =
    Rebecca, I have been on the ground in Afghanistan, and I have spoken with people in the villages and heard what they have asked for. I have also read and listened to full statements made by Afghans such as Ambassador Maliha Zulfacar (Afghan Ambassador to Germany.) Rebecca, these people would have a heart attack if we told them that we (troops) were leaving.
    The extremity of your naivete is nearly overwhelming. While you are truly on to something with your proponency of civil development, education and good governance, your advocating of a totally demilitarized approach is completely agenda driven and devoid of real logic. You can cherrypick those from nearly any crowd who will feed your narrative, but I am personally intimately familiar with the situation on the ground there. Based on this, your position is completely idealistic and inadequate.
    I have lived out in the countryside in two separate provinces for upwards of a month at a time. I know the responses I personally got from Afghan villagers when I asked them, in a relaxed situation, what they needed. Their number 1 answer was security, and their deep belief was that as long as I and the Afghans I advised were near, their lives were more peaceful. It was when we, with our weapons, went away that the Taliban and/or HiG came and threatened them.
    = = = = = = = = =
    Perhaps you are correct in stating that Rebecca’s views are naïve and driven by an agenda. But before you are too strident in that assessment, you might ask yourself under what conditions you were in those villages. What was your agenda while in the villages? Were you there as a teacher working with Greg Mortenson (Three Cups of Tea)? Were you working as a reporter like Dexter Filkins of the New York Times? I suggest you read the book, “The Forever War,” by Dexter Filkins. Bear in mind that this area has seen many foreign occupations over the last 5000 years and the people of this region have survival responses almost built into their genetic code. If you could clone yourself into a Taliban fighter and talk to these same villagers while the Taliban was in control, what do you think they would have told you? I suggest you read Dexter Filkins’ book and notice how quickly allegiances can make a 180 degree turn. Then read “Three Cups of Tea” to get a sense of how a non-military agenda can change the lives of people who have been touched by Greg Mortenson who has worked for years in some of these areas in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.
    Again, I don’t question your observations. I just want you to be aware that your interpretation of events are deeply affected by where you stand based on your agenda and your cultural conditioning as well as the cultural conditioning of the villagers you spoke with.

  5. Hank, in response to your questions, I would suggest that you read what I have written about Afghanistan, both during my tour there and since I returned nearly a year ago. You can do this easily by clicking on my name. What you will find on my blog is very little “blood and guts” kinetic activity descriptions. You will find that I was deeply engaged in the Afghan culture and the complexity of the Afghan experience and how allegiances sway based on who has the rifle.
    Again, your organization has some valuable observations and an apparent caring for the Afghan citizen. These are valuable; incredibly so, because many times our efforts to stabilize and move Afghanistan forward are questioned with the basic premise seemingly, “do they deserve our efforts, our blood, and our treasure?” One of the attractive things about your organization is that it seems to recognize that what happens in little valleys halfway around the world sends ripples across the globe that reach us here. Just like the global ecological environment, there is a global human environment, and it is in our best interests for the Afghans and Pakistanis to have a way forward.
    However, I would call for either substantive effort or for more interface with or the beginning of organizations that seek to actually do work on the ground. I would also call for an acknowledgment that there is a role and a need for military assistance.
    I will share with you a story from my blog, where, in a Shura in the Afghanya Valley, Nijrab District, Kapisa Province, a teacher was the one who stood and threw the BS flag as the elders from the surrounding villages circle-talked about the Taliban. This teacher had had Taliban show up at his school and demand to speak to his students, basically a recruiting speech, at gunpoint. While the elders dissembled about the Taliban, this teacher stood up and said, “Yes! They are here, and look at what they have done in my school!”
    Three of those elders had sons in the Taliban. Those sons were willing to kill anyone who opposed them or who, while unprotected, would do something that damaged their agenda or diminished their power. Often, when asked who they support, the villagers in an infrequently visited village with little ANP or ANA presence will respond, “Who do I have to support? You are not here when they are here. When you are here, they will not come. But you are only here once a month and they are here every other night.”
    Teachers will not keep the Taliban away. Since we are comparing reading lists, why don’t you read Mao’s works on revolutionary (insurgent) warfare. The Taliban are following the Maoist recipe very well. The part that people like Rebecca, and apparently your organization, fails to recognize is that in Afghanistan if you come bearing schoolbooks and flowers, before long someone will kill you. It’s what insurgents do to maintain control of the population.
    Since Rebecca cleared up any illusion on my part that your organization was willing to go and do anything real and of value on the ground there, it is easy to quote books like “Three Cups of Tea” (which is about Pashtun areas in Pakistan) and so on.
    Hank, I have spoken directly with a teacher, an Afghan, who was threatened at gunpoint by the Taliban. That is an experience that none of you have had. I am trying to share this experience with you to help you to understand what exactly you are seeking to do and perhaps to open your eyes to a reality that your organization is denying.
    Read what I have written on my blog, and you will see that I have tremendous respect for the Afghans, that I advocate a balanced approach in Afghanistan, and that I am not enamored of the kinetic, or violent, aspect of the war. Then perhaps you will understand a little of what I bring to conversations such as this.
    Thank you very much for your thoughtful reply.

  6. http://www.terraplexic.org/review/2008/12/2/fence-sitting-in-afghanistan-theory-and-practise.html
    Here is a posting on the Complex Terrain Laboratory reviewing a book about civil wars and insurgencies. The posting is written by Christian Bleuer, the author of “Eastern Campaign.” Christian is an academic and makes interesting observations about Afghanistan and human tendencies in general. Christian is also very familiar with the culture, tribes, customs, history and other human aspects of Afghanistan from an academic standpoint. I enjoy his writing.
    Perhaps a review of some of this information will help inform your opinion regarding the way forward in Afghanistan.
    If any of you cannot grasp that you cannot oppose armed subjugation of a people without any use of arms yourself, then you are irretrievably simplistic; lost in dysfunctional idealism.