Afghanistan war: lessons and fallacies

Masood Aziz outlines six fallacies they perpetuate about the US engagement in Afghanistan.

Brennan Linsley / AP Photo

The U.S. engagement in Afghanistan is now in its ninth year. It is also without any doubt the highest foreign policy priority for the U.S. administration. Yet understanding our engagement there seems to have become more convoluted as time goes by. Part of this confusion comes from the political leadership both in Washington and in the European capitals where strategies remain opaque and doubtful to the common person.

However, increasingly, the jumble and haze about Afghanistan is now created by the so-called experts. These experts, or pundits, use words like “nation-building," “exit-strategy," “people-centric," “non-kinetic," “pashtunwali," “shuras," “Sharia," “tribal," “sub-tribal," etc. By stringing them together, experts believe they will achieve insight and clarity. However, the scale, gravity, and intensity of the conflict in Afghanistan and the region certainly require a much broader debate than just among experts. Surely, the American public deserves better. They need to understand how and why their country is so deeply involved in this conflict. However, they also should be wary of certain experts clouding the debate.

If the U.S. loses in Afghanistan, setting aside national security, its image may never recover.

First, one thing is clear—the Afghanistan engagement is not going very well and there is much to say about our failings, both in Afghanistan and the region. We are doing many things wrong in Afghanistan—most things, in my opinion. Here are a few of the most critical weaknesses in the strategies pursued there.

The Afghanistan Strategy - What’s Wrong, in Short:

• We know that a military strategy is not enough—the military brass itself has been nothing short of eloquent on this—yet, we continue to pursue a strategy primarily based on a military approach, so much so that it is dominating everything we are undertaking there now.

• We have devised a counterinsurgency strategy of “clear, hold and build” but we are only good (very good) at the clearing part. On the other hand, we are quite bad at the holding and especially deficient at the building part of the strategy. So we have now embedded a de facto “self-destruct mode” in our current strategies.

• We advocate that what we are doing is "creating a space” so that development and governance can occur—yet we have no plans for development and reconstruction, at least no plans on par with the prominence of the military counterinsurgency strategy pursued by General McChrystal and supported by CENTCOM and the NSC.

• This is a conflict with a very definitive regional character. While we talk about a “regional approach,” we are not engaged in significant rapprochements with China, Russia, India, and Saudi Arabia so that they can be major allies in helping resolve this conflict. This is another area where U.S. leadership has both the ability and the resources to actually make a lasting difference. Yet, we are nowhere close to pursuing an actual regional approach in diplomacy, development or reconstruction with the scale and scope matching the reach and breadth of the American nation.

• We are sending young soldiers to sit with Afghan elders in villages and teach them governance and notions of democracy—the elders are too smart and too weary of war and conflict to pay attention to some 24-year-old solider (however skilled) carrying orders and telling them how to behave. As the U.S. has broadcasted its troops' withdrawal to take place by July 2011, these Afghans also realize that soon enough the “foreigners” will be out and they will be left behind as in the past and that they will have to deal—once again—with forces out of their control and understanding.

• We are not addressing the heart of the matter—which is attainable, contrary to some experts advocating against it: taking away the underlying reasons for the existence of institutionalized sanctuaries in Pakistan. Certain elements of the Pakistani army have justified the need to maintain an “asymmetric warfare” capability for “national security” reasons because they say that India may invade Pakistan any day. This tactic is used to defend the need to extend support to extremist groups like the Taliban or Panjabi groups like Lashkar-e-Taiba, the alleged perpetuators of the Mumbai attacks in 2008. Without removing the reasons for such a perceived need, the existence of the Taliban or other extremist groups will never end. The U.S. has neglected this core aspect of the conflict for far too long and is now attempting to catch up to decades of inattention and lack of action.

As much as the strategies pursued by the U.S./NATO have serious shortcomings and are not commensurate with the gravity and magnitude of the situation, pundits continue to cloud our ability to see things as they are. Here are a few fallacies and misconceptions:

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Fallacy #1: The Cost of War

• The actual cost of the conflict in Afghanistan is not the simple adding of military spending in Afghanistan. Wars are indeed costly, including long lasting post-war effects. But these are not the true costs of this particular conflict.

• Instead, the true costs relate to the costs which come from sheer neglect and from letting a conflict fester. These are real costs, measureable in many ways. In this respect, the Sept. 11th attacks turned out to be much more costly than realized. If we are to have the full picture, we would have to count the price tag associated with the global economic downturn that followed 9/11, the spending on new security measures imposed around the globe, the establishment of new Homeland Security infrastructures in the U.S., the 2001 initial Afghanistan intervention, the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 (a mistaken decision, but a direct cost nevertheless), the post-Iraq costs, new costs in Afghanistan due to the current buildup, costs directly related to Pakistan, nuclear-proliferation costs related to the regional conflict, costs pertaining to losing allies over both Iraq and Afghanistan, costs affecting America’s image on the global stage, etc.

• Yet, all of the above costs might have been avoided if we had not neglected Afghanistan after ousting the Soviet Union from the country in 1989. And the Taliban might have never existed if we had not turned our attention away after a decade of supporting the fight against the Red Army.

• The cost of neglecting Afghanistan when we had the chance to make a difference turned out to be indeed incalculable. This is indeed the true cost we must now face. Let us not make the same mistake again.

Fallacy #2: Nation-Building

• The word “nation-building” has garnered a bad reputation for the wrong reasons. Many analysts are fast promoting the idea that nation-building is a bad thing and we need to immediately stop doing it in Afghanistan.

• The reality is quite different: Actually, we have never done “nation-building” in Afghanistan. It is hard to stop something we've never started and never will.

• However, if we had done even a “little” reconstruction after ousting the Taliban in 2001, we would not have ended up where we are today. Yet we did nothing in the south—a couple of years later, the Taliban, emboldened in Pakistan, came back to the regions of Helmand and Kandahar and confronted the local population with the reality, i.e., a complete absence of both the Afghan government and the international community. The locals had no choice but to accept the Taliban’s coercion.

• If we had pursued even small scale projects (as attempted successfully for a period by the National Solidarity Program), and if we had sustained these over the first several years, we would have perhaps avoided the current precarious situation.

• This would have cost us relatively little compared with the doubling-up today. We lost the security in the south and are now quadrupling the number of soldiers and paying dearly for it in both lives and treasure.

• Paradoxically, the same experts who ring the alarms of “nation-building” in one breath, want us to help build an effective Afghan government in the other. Perhaps unknowingly, they are correct on the issue of state-building. Indeed, if an effective government or state is not built in Afghanistan, it will never stand on its own or carry out its own nation-building efforts—but if the state is successful, it might be the U.S.’ only effective exit strategy.

• The experts can panic about it, but instead we should not fear what we have not done or seen, i.e., “nation-building.” Road building, school building, training judges and the police is not nation-building. Even if it was, we have not pursued it in Afghanistan with any success or effectiveness—that might help explain why we now have a much deeper conflict on our hands.

Fallacy #3: Spending Too Much Money in Afghanistan Is Destroying Its Economy

• Some say we are spending hundreds of billions of dollars in Afghanistan—and that’s a waste as Afghanistan’s own GDP is only less than $12 billion. This is another fallacy: We are not spending billions to get the Afghan economy going or pouring money into sustainable development projects. The “hundreds of billions” are spent on drones, aircraft carriers, fuel, expensive bombs, and on huge compounds isolating everyone. Only a fraction of this money is going to support the Afghan economy.

• Why is this important? Because if the Afghan economy cannot generate sufficient revenue, Afghans cannot maintain the large army that the U.S. is now helping to build; and the Afghan government will not generate enough revenue to pay government employees and be accountable to its own people, let alone create jobs and spur infrastructure development.

• The U.S. has utterly neglected economic development. Nine years into the Afghan conflict, it is shocking that no one has articulated a strategy of any significance. We cannot wait for military operations to resolve it by slight of hand. The U.S. in particular needs to structure an economic development strategy and implement it urgently. A strategy that is supported at the same scale and scope than the military strategies now pursued.

Fallacy #4: Afghanistan Spells America’s End…

• Some have advocated that Afghanistan is “sapping” or trapping the U.S. and its image and thus the solution is to leave as soon as possible now.

• However, the U.S. is not in Afghanistan simply because it likes the Afghans or is supporting Afghan women—although Americans have demonstrated much sympathy for the Afghans.

• The U.S. is there because its presence represents its highest national-security concern. We can attempt to argue that President Obama, Robert Gates, Admiral Michael Mullen, General David Petraeus, Secretary of State Clinton, and even John McCain are all wrong about saying that being in Afghanistan is indeed the highest national-security concern—as much as that may be the case, ignoring Afghanistan and getting out has always been very costly to the U.S.

• In fact, much more is at stake: If the U.S. loses in Afghanistan, setting aside national security, its image may never recover. Letting the Taliban come back and win will aid in recruiting and engendering Islamic extremism from around the globe (not to speak of what that will do to Afghans); and a destabilized Afghanistan and emboldened groups of extremists threatening Pakistan’s own stability will push India and Pakistan to a possible nuclear conflict. If not addressed, all of this might make the Middle East or even Iran look like tame matters.

• The U.S. (and to some extent, Europe) bears responsibility in creating the conflict in the region, i.e. supporting the mujahideen against the Soviet Union and paying Pakistan billions to be a surrogate in the conflict, and in the process helping create, mostly by neglecting its aftermath, an entire infrastructure of unholy alliances among shady characters.

• In fact, failing in Afghanistan now is what would surely sap America’s image, perhaps for the long term.

Fallacy #5: Al Qaeda Is Not in Afghanistan, So What Are We Doing There?

• This is an argument often made by those convinced that because al Qaeda seems to be in Pakistan, we are wasting time in Afghanistan. Some are even arguing that since al Qaeda can go anywhere else, they do not need safe havens in Pakistan. The same analysts also argue that the Afghan Taliban are just an inward-looking bunch and therefore have nothing to do with global jihadism, so let’s leave them alone.

• This argument ignores how bin Laden had built his network and was able to attack the U.S. from such a remote location. Bin Laden allied himself in the '80s with Mullah Omar, funded and then used the Taliban, and brought global jihad to Afghanistan all because he needed a base of operations and had bigger ambitions in mind. Bin Laden used the Taliban to gain unwavering support after the 9/11 attacks because he knew he would be protected by his long-term alliance with Mullah Omar and the Taliban and the Taliban’s connections in Pakistan, where he would ultimately benefit from an institutionalized protection and sanctuary. In addition, today’s Taliban are not the same. They have indeed been quite savvy international operatives and have developed broader objectives during the years of close cooperation with a Qaeda.

Not Understanding “Safe Haven”: Those advancing the above fallacy lack a full understanding of the confluence of forces that allow for groups like the Taliban and al Qaeda to exist and strengthen. These forces only exist in Pakistan. Elements of the Pakistani army (and ISI) have a clear national-security priority, which has been reported to extend protection (whether covert or overt) to extremist groups.

Institutional Support: This particular dynamic, i.e., the nexus of the “elements of the Pakistani intelligence—extremist groups—need for asymmetric warfare” does not exist anywhere else. Al Qaeda will never find such a dynamic from which to benefit. And nowhere else can al Qaeda duplicate it.

Abandoning Afghanistan is a sure way of strengthening al Qaeda. The U.S. needs to be in Afghanistan to also exert its influence over the existence of such forces in Pakistan. However, we are not doing enough here. The solution needs to be broader, i.e., dialogue between India and Pakistan. This is not impossible. Even Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has made some headway here.

Fallacy #6: Let’s Get Out of Afghanistan Now

• Although we have been in Afghanistan for more than nine years—not counting the decade-long involvement in the '80s—in suggesting an “exit strategy,” a number of analysts now advocate for getting out of Afghanistan. This fallacy ignores history in such a blatant manner that it borders on the dangerously unwise if not the unconscionable.

Can History Teach Us Anything? We have already tried to “get out of Afghanistan” on two prominent occasions in recent memory. And in both cases, history has given us such a clear lesson that we should never repeat it: ­

Getting Out – 1st Try: When the Red Army withdrew in defeat in April 1989 and when there was a chance to rebuild Afghanistan after 10 years of conflict and after intense support by the U.S. in the fight against the Soviet Union during the entire decade, what did the U.S. do? It withdrew all of its aid and attention almost overnight. This epic lapse of judgment led to the rise of the Taliban, the marriage with al Qaeda, training camps for extremists and the 9/11 attacks. This was not an effective exit strategy. It was the opposite as it allowed the beginning of a new era of a worsening regional conflict and the spawning of a new kind of threaten, global terrorism. ­

Getting Out – 2nd Try: After 9/11, in October 2001, the U.S. went to Afghanistan to oust the Taliban, which it succeeded in doing in record time. The country was free of the scourge of extremism and global jihadism. Again, what did the U.S. do then? It got out again, lost focus and went to Iraq full force. The U.S. pulled its intelligence capabilities, its manpower, and resources out of Afghanistan to focus on the Iraq theater. It did no development of any significance in Afghanistan and did not pursue helping with basic governance efforts. If done right at the time, it would have been much less costly. This was yet another disastrous call for an exit strategy which brought us to today’s more treacherous conflict.

• The Getting Out Fallacy: Saying that we need to get out is easy. However, we have seen this movie too many times. History is crystal clear: Every time we ignore Afghanistan, every time we leave without building anything lasting, and every time we “get out,” it comes back to bite us and ultimately becomes exceedingly costly. It is time to pay heed to history’s lessons and to stop advocating for a demonstratively failed strategy.

The U.S., allied with Afghans, helped defeat the advance of the Red Army in Afghanistan spurring the end of the Cold War. The U.S. ousted the Taliban in 2001 and is now attempting to address a wider conflict involving extremism in Pakistan. These are serious times requiring serious solutions. Uninformed experts create smoke where fire is needed. Paying less attention to them may just help us see through the challenges more clearly and more lucidly and help us better understand the gravity and urgency of the moment.