Perpetually conflicted over Afghanistan, it’s been difficult to “get there”; there are clearly defensible positions in conflict. I was unprepared to give up on the idea of wining. The definition of winning has, however, evolved; flexible to either the point of confusion or meaninglessness. Given time and space, wining may be a valid proposition; the odds are exceptionally long, the years many and the counter pressures immense.
The initial mission was to get rid of al Qaeda on a budget. We damaged them but elimination escaped us; literally and figuratively. The mere survival of al Qaeda strengthened al Qaeda. Survival against the American monolith was viewed as victory; “see we told you” said al Qaeda “the weak horse”! Mission creep: roads, hospitals, a constitution, political “guidance”, money and elections. We can do it! We can do what’s never been done; create a country in a place that is a country only in the sense that there are lines on a map and defining physical barriers.
“You can rent an Afghan, but you can’t buy one”. Afghans have no reason to believe any political or social construct is superior to their tribal structure. They have defeated each and every attempt at substitution. Tribes have survived; historically, little else has.
The Taliban worked just fine for Pakistan, a guarantee that no significant threat existed on the western border. Pakistan, from their point of view, had to concentrate on India; India, considered the existential threat. Pakistani collusion with al Qaeda is beyond reasonable doubt. Nothing’s changed, except that Americans are on Pakistan’s western border and radicalism in Pakistan grows. Americans are also on Russia’s southern flank, no joy in Russia over that, although some significant degree of schadenfreude prevails.
Mission creep created the motivation for Iran to engage in Afghanistan as they had in Iraq. Iranian engagement equals dead soldiers and undue political influence by way of cash and prizes. Another opportunity to tug at the tiger’s tail; another opportunity to support bin Laden’s contention that the U.S. tiger is a “paper tiger”. One wonders if, in bin Laden’s calculus, the true “paper tiger” is political leadership. Al Qaeda has specifically referenced the lessons learned from Vietnam, Beirut and a series of provocations left begging a response.
What should have happened? Go in, accomplish the mission, cut the head off the snake and get out. The departure message to the tribes being; “we’re leaving now, just like you want us to, however, connect with al Qaeda or terror networks and we’ll be back”. “You are now free to move about shifting tribal conflicts!”
We can still do that, if in fact that becomes the mission. Odds are that tribalism is exactly where things will end up. No matter what! The harsh reality may be just that simple. The cost and waste is a soul searing reality, the sacrifice prodigious; the sacrifice undertaken with skill, honor and commitment. Time has come to minimize the sacrifice.
The likelihood remains that all is for naught in any permanent sense. Perhaps a splintered, tribal Afghanistan is exactly the Afghanistan we want. Fractured tribalism may be the best, if not the only option. Addition by subtraction! Divide and control as the money Piñata swings back and forth.
Why attempt to strengthen yet another country so easily drawn to Islamism? The Taliban represents stark evidence of what controlling juntas in Afghanistan will look like. The Taliban’s “country” was only a piece of the “country” in the first place. We can send guns and money to the opposition in the event of a Taliban like reprise, we’ve done it before. Why is Afghanistan, on a continuing basis, and in the context of the significant threats we face; important?
The exit strategy, you ask? Declare victory, cite the statements of the Afghan President as justification and get the hell out of Dodge, accompanied by a final massive air campaign in the tribal areas regardless of the map lines. Parting gifts for all with the promise of repetition as necessary.
“You can rent an Afghan, but you can’t buy one”!