07.13.11

The Taliban's Propaganda Victory

The murder of Hamid Karzai’s half brother may not mean anything strategically, but it signaled to Afghans that the Taliban still holds a lot of power. Stephen Carter on what it means for American withdrawal.

The assassination of Ahmed Wali Karzai, the half brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai and a political power in his own right, is without strategic or tactical significance in the war. But its propaganda value for the Taliban, who at once claimed responsibility, is immense. The propaganda victory would have been greater still had the group succeeded in its effort to assassinate Interior Minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, a plot broken up just days ago by Afghan intelligence services.

One has the sense that the Taliban, while awaiting the promised American withdrawal, is fighting mainly to burnish its reputation with the Afghan people. So, for example, when the last Canadian combat forces departed Afghanistan recently, the Taliban cited its much-ballyhooed policy of targeting Canadians specially—an approach that Taliban leaders imagined would strengthen the hand of antiwar activists back home. Never mind that experts by and large dismiss the campaign against Canada as a military failure. Never mind that Canadian forces, despite their small numbers, were crucial in holding onto large chunks of Southern Afghanistan until President Obama’s surge helped roll back the Taliban forces there. The point is that lots of ordinary Afghans likely believe that the Taliban chased the Canadians out.

Similarly, although the Taliban’s annual spring offensive failed spectacularly this year, the group’s propaganda arm insisted that great victories had been won. As the Obama administration prepares to withdraw most American forces, the Taliban is telling all who will listen that the coalition is losing the war.

If, as seems plausible, the Karzai government proves too weak to survive, let’s hope there is a Plan B.

None of this might matter were there reason to be confident that the Kabul regime will be able to resist the likely Taliban resurgence once the Americans are gone. Here the administration’s political needs and its own description of the mission seem at odds. The war is unpopular at home, and one way or another must be wound down; and yet the president and his advisers have repeatedly insisted that the Taliban will not be allowed to return to power. And here we hit upon the fundamental contradiction of the war: the coalition overthrew the Taliban government that harbored Al Qaeda but established in its place a regime that may be too weak to hold the country together.

The responsibility of an occupying power to restore and then keep order is well established in international law. Many scholars have also argued for a corollary: that an occupying power, having overthrown a regime, must not withdraw until a government capable of keeping order is in place.

The coalition led by the United States may no longer, as a formal matter, be an occupying power. The Afghan Army and security forces are supposed to number 300,000 by the end of the year. But nobody seriously believes that these troops are ready to carry out the role assigned them. Fairly or unfairly, the Afghan forces are maligned by experts as ill-trained and ill-disciplined, to say nothing of potentially corrupt and beset by tribal faction and favoritism.

According to one fashionable Western view, this result is inevitable, because Afghanistan is not a country in the modern sense of the word. Max Weber famously remarked that a nation begins with a group of people of sentiments so similar that we would naturally expect them to become one. But Afghanistan—say the critics—is instead an informal association of tribes and warlords and cultures, each possessed of its own distinct interests and sentiments.

Certainly Afghanistan has trouble controlling its borders. Clashes along the Pakistan border have increased. Many of these battles seem unrelated to the overall conflict. Some suggest that what is going on is a settling of tribal scores. At the same time, it appears that radical Pakistani groups, chased out of their own country by the Army, have set up shop on the Afghan side of the border, and are launching attacks back the other way.

The ability to control one’s borders is a practical necessity of sovereignty. If the Karzai regime is as weak as it appears, it is entirely plausible that the Afghan government is not ready to keep order. If this is so, then the coalition is withdrawing its forces without leaving behind the sort of government that international law envisions.

But what is the alternative? The coalition forces cannot wait forever. Put aside international law and domestic political considerations, and even the mounting cost in lives or dollars. Moral issues are at stake. In the ethics of war, every use of armed force requires a just cause. Justifying an invasion, however, is not the same as justifying a prolonged occupation.

Preventing the return of the Taliban might be a just cause for continued occupation. But we have no stomach for turning Afghanistan into Korea. Privately, American negotiators are meeting with Taliban representatives, although few are so optimistic as to think the talks will bear fruit. The previous administration entered Afghanistan with no clear idea of how to get out. The current administration is determined to get out but has no clear idea of the consequences.

The German poet Friedrich Schiller described the artist as one who unites the possible with the necessary to bring out the ideal. In the case of Afghanistan, the solution that is possible and necessary is anything but ideal; it is not even very good. The Obama administration’s current plan is to hand the battle against the Taliban to a regime manifestly not prepared to undertake it. If, as seems plausible, the Karzai government proves too weak to survive, let’s hope there is a Plan B.