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Please begin with an informative title:

With respect to Afghanistan and Pakistan, I am extremely dubious that the Administration will be able to accomplish what it wants to accomplish. The problem is not the Administration’s policy or its goals. The problem is that I doubt that we have the tools there that we need to implement virtually any policy in that region.
Rep. David Obey (D-WI, 7th), Chairman, House Appropriations Committee, May 4, 2009

I have opposed the game we've been playing in Afghanistan-Iran-Pakistan-Iraq since the Carter administration. Recently, after disagreeing with the most recent supplemental appropriations bill authorizing another $84 billion for, primarily, war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, I was challenged by a colleague on another site to lay out a better strategy for our involvement in those two countries than the non-strategy attributed to (and inherited from) Bush. So here goes.


You must enter an Intro for your Diary Entry between 300 and 1150 characters long (that's approximately 50-175 words without any html or formatting markup).


Our "strategy" in Afghanistan is unclear but it is not simply "Bush's." The US went into Afghanistan weeks after 9/11 following a near-unanimous bipartisan resolution giving Bush enormous discretion to pursue those responsible and anyone harboring or "aiding" those responsible. We have been in Afghanistan ever since, at least nominally with backing of the United Nations Security Council which authorized an International Security Assistance Force to assist the Afghan Interim Authority in maintaining security (a mission subsequently turned over to NATO). U.S. funds have been appropriated repeatedly by bipartisan vote, with another, H.R. 2346, currently on the table in the Senate.

If there was a strategy in the invasion, it was not articulated; it was framed as more of a reaction or police action, although, by the time it took place, the Taliban was recognized by no other government except Pakistan. Critics would also argue that the military action and overthrow of the Taliban regime conveniently served a larger neo-con agenda of re-shaping the Middle East and Central Asia. That the Bush strategy has been continued in the first months of this administration should not be surprising:  among those who generally supported the incursion into Afghanistan and the past "strategy" include the current Vice President, Secretary of State, White House Chief of Staff, and of course the Secretary of Defense.

To envision something new requires looking at old context. Afghanistan was created/used as a buffer between the British and Russian empires for about a century and serves similar strategic functions today as a crossroads between US/NATO and the SCO, only with a larger overlay of (especially energy) resources. If there is a strategic purpose in being the world's biggest opium producer, it serves that purpose as well.

The core of a better strategic vision for Afghanistan is to help it extricate itself from the unfortunate role of geopolitical pawn and poppy exporter to the world. I too have no interest in a failed state being used as a Petri dish for terrorists, but let's look at what has actually happened. We invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. In 2002, the total number of terrorism fatalities in the world was 725.  In 2008, over 4,000 people were killed in Afghanistan and Pakistan alone, as a result of over 3000 terrorist attacks. Worldwide deaths from terrorism eclipsed 15,000. Does that sound like a strategy that's working?

Britain's Afghanistan commander, Brigadier Mark Carleton-Smith, said that the war in Afghanistan is unlikely to be won militarily, and Britain's Afghanistan ambassador, Sherard Cowper-Coles, stated that escalation is likely to be counter-productive and that more troops creates more targets, and more resentment of foreign occupation. I disagree with Robert Gates that the British are "defeatist."

As a general principle, foreign occupation breeds resentment and resistance, and prolonged occupation tends to breed more violent resistance.

In an Internet age, reports and pictures of civilian casualties inflicted by the US or its allies can be instantly disseminated around the globe. U.S. strategy since 9/11 in many respects makes no sense unless the strategic vision was to become much more unpopular around the planet, in particular with the 1.5 billion adherents to Islam.

Former Taliban diplomat and Guantanamo detainee Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef said last fall that the Taliban will continue to fight until all foreign troops have left Afghanistan.

In furtherance of a strategy of defusing hostility and empowering an independent and neutral Afghanistan, I and others would begin by immediately halting "military activities that indiscriminately impact civilians, such as air and drone strikes."

I oppose the formula of the repeated supplemental appropriations bills because money spent to escalate the military presence would be better spent on reconstruction that provides work for Afghanis and improves the quality of life for the average Afghan. Escalation has the potential to create more problems than it solves, including undermining moderates and allies.

I would fund institution-building efforts, but with particular attention to local, decentralized government. There is a reason Afghanistan does not have a powerful central government, and rather than try to impose that model on a country that's never had it, I would work with what exists. If there is a place where bottom-up change is truly the prescription, it's Afghanistan.

Rather than unwanted troops I would look to increase the number of Peace Corps-type personnel. A promising tactic would be to greatly increase support for community-based agricultural projects that empower local villagers. Such projects have a track record of success and have the opposite impact of, say, drone strikes on a village.

Afghanistan faces serious environmental problems as a result of war and poverty, and I would also fund environmental restoration, both for its own sake but with the attendant benefit of creating greater infrastructure for agriculture.

To the extent that the central government needs repair, an immediate target would be the establishment of a mechanism to identify and address legitimate grievances of marginalized groups. Almost none of President Karzai's 2004 Action Plan for Peace, Reconciliation and Justice has been implemented, and so corrupt and even criminal elements still maintain power in the government, undermining its support among the population. Instead, the government voted itself broad amnesty, about as popular with the average Afghan as a pardon for torture-endorsers would be with the American left.

Any such model of national reconciliation needs to be specifically designed for Afghanistan and not perceived as imposed by foreign forces.

Distasteful as it might seem, any longlasting peace requires involvement of Taliban leadership in any peace talks. This requires dropping impossible preconditions such as "renunciation of violence." As a general principle, demanding renunciation of violence by militants as a precondition to peace talks is equivalent to saying, "Let's not have peace talks." The U.S. does not renounce violence, it asserts its right to employ it, as do most countries. The reason to have peace talks is because both sides are combatants. Demanding surrender before talks commence is no more than a prescription for continued hostilities.

In short, rather than grossly increasing troop deployments and military operations designed to fight the Taliban, I would employ a diplomatic, humanitarian, and economic surge, understanding that reconstruction still might take years and that any "solution" still might leave Afghanistan with areas more loosely-governed and more highly-armed than we accept in Western countries. I would also also seek to work with other nations in the region, recognizing the importance of Afghanistan in Pakistani-Indian relations, and would seek broader agreement with the SCO nations to let Afghanistan be Afghanistan rather than the object of perpetual tug-of-war.


Pakistan presents a far more complex picture than Afghanistan. What the U.S. has done in the past fits into no rational strategy, as Hillary Clinton recently observed, in large part because of parties playing multiple sides of the street. And so Obama now faces an awful combination of "terrorism, nuclear weapons, religious extremism, economic instability, and political volatility."

Here too history offers some guidance. A significant problem is our role in creating the beast that now confronts us. The anti-Soviet Afghan mujahideen were funded by the U.S. through the Pakistan intelligence agency, such that CIA and ISI are given credit, by Pakistan's Zardari among others, for helping to create the Taliban.

The U.S. apparently helped fund and establish the large network of Pakistani madrasses, the majority of which are primarily religious and peaceful, but a significant minority of which teach jihad, including from U.S.-printed texts.

After 9/11 Pakistan came under pressure to become our "ally" in the GWOT but even today the ISI, or at least sectors of it, are reported as still linked to the Taliban.

Zardari is being portrayed as leaning on the ISI and threatening to take over the madrasses themselves, which on its face would seem to be a risky move. Critics such as Michel Chossudovsky see this all as part of a broader campaign/game of destabilization, with the tactics bearing more resemblance to deals with international mafia-like groups than to any legitimate American strategy.

A broader strategy would have some similarity to that for Afghanistan, but with recognition that most of Pakistan is significantly more developed, and that both the nuclear capacity of Pakistan, and the militarized border area shared with India and China, pose special complications and urgencies.

In support of a strategy of enabling a friendlier, more stable, less volatile nation, here too my first principle would be to "first do no harm." Thus I would cease bombing, or executing regime-requested bombing, in Pakistan. Nor should U.S troops be deployed in Pakistan.

I agree with a study done for the Joint Chiefs of Staff by Lt. Col. Mark Roberts, cited above, the full text of which is posted online, that

Military aid should be taken off the table, as it will only find its way into the hands of the militants... As the nonmilitary instruments of statecraft have many potent combinations that can be attempted, even though the efforts may ultimately be unsuccessful, the United States must try and try again.
Again, a diplomatic rather than U.S. military surge is indicated. Pakistan as opposed to Afghanistan has a large legal structure and community -- the lawyers played an important part in ending the strongman rule of Musharraf. Unlike Afghanistan, institutions in Pakistan are longer-lived and much stronger, and offer a much better base upon which to build.

This bears on the fears being stoked of chaos and nukes. Some ofthat fear is understandable because there's been an apparent increase in Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. However, the Pakistan army is nearly the size of the U.S. Army and its total military strength has been a sufficient deterrent to a shooting war with its much-larger direct neighbor, India. The MSM meme we saw in April, that Pakistan -- a nation of 170 million with a military of over 600,000 -- was about to be "overrun" by insurgents, who at most number in the few tens of thousands even counting an unverified number of foreign fighters, and who do not act in concert, is false. The greater risk of chaos in Pakistan comes from large numbers of civilian casualties and creating a large, permanent refugee population as a result of goading the government into greater violence than is necessary.

We should also be working hard for regional de-nuclearization. Our turning a blind eye to the acquiring of nuclear arms by Pakistan and Israel, and our unprecedented deal with India that arguably guts the nonproliferation treaty, undercut efforts to stop Iran from also becoming nuclear. Getting India, Pakistan, and Israel to join the NPT would be a positive first step, but the strategy needs to be much more ambitious: a nuclear-free world.

There you have it. Stop escalating war. Stop drone attacks. Stop funding spooks who fund terrorists. Draw down troops, send teachers and engineers instead. Build on institutions that work. Build trust. Build farms. Talk to the neighbors as well as all the inhabitants. Let the locals handle the outsiders; don't become the hated outsider. Get rid of the nukes, all of them.

Any questions?

Extended (Optional)

Originally posted to Jeff in Evanston on Wed May 20, 2009 at 07:05 AM PDT.

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