The creeping Vietnamization of Afghanistan

US President Barack Obama deserves credit for candidly admitting that he is clueless about the war strategy in Afghanistan. Responding to additional troops request from the top US and NATO commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, Obama told the CBS program, Face the Nation on September 20, “Whatever decisions I make are going to be based first on a strategy to keep us safe, then we’ll figure out how to resource it.” He went on, “We’re not going to put the cart before the horse and just think by sending more troops we’re automatically going to make Americans safe.” He had done just that when he assumed office last January by sending 30,000 additional troops to fight the “good war” in Afghanistan but the harsh reality of the Hindu Kush mountains has forced him to think through this issue more carefully that is fast turning into a disaster.

McChrystal’s 66-page report, submitted to Obama on August 30, was leaked to the Washington Post that published extracts from it on September 19. The report warns of looming failure and the growing strength and effectiveness of the insurgency. While Obama may have temporarily put the brakes on sending more troops immediately, observers believe he will find it difficult to deny McChrystal’s request. NBC reporter Andrea Mitchell said on MSNBC’s Morning Joe program on September 23 that McChrystal had asked for 500,000 troops and five years to do the job in Afghanistan. “The numbers are really pretty horrifying. What they say, embedded in this report by McChrystal, is they would need 500,000 troops — boots on the ground — and five years to do the job. No one expects that the Afghan Army could step up to that. Are we gonna put even half that of US troops there, and NATO forces? No way.”

Other powerful voices too are clamoring for more troops among them chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen who appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee on September 15. He also called for more time to stabilize the situation, a prescription described by some commentators as the creeping Vietnamization of Afghanistan. Even a seasoned observer like Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former US national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, warned that Western powers run the risk of suffering the fate of the Soviet Union there if they did not halt the growing insurgency and an Afghan perception that they were foreign invaders. Brzezinski made the remarks on September 11 during a conference of Western military and foreign policy experts in Geneva. But instead of proposing the immediate removal of foreign military forces, he called for a new international conference to help “devise a more refined strategy.”

The insurgency is spreading rapidly as the latest survey conducted by the International Council of Security and Development (ICOS) shows. Its latest research indicates that 80 percent of the country has a permanent Taliban presence, up from 72 percent in 2008, and that 97 percent of the country has “substantial Taliban activity.” The organization has tracked Taliban movement throughout Afghanistan since 2007. Even with such alarming figures, the organization’s president, Ms. Norine McDonald QC told the internet website, Huffington Post that she believed the figure was “conservative” (September 11). “It’s bad numbers and bad news,” she said. “They [the Taliban] have the momentum, their strategies and tactics are working, and ours are not… It’s not a question of where they are operating; it’s more a question of where they are not.”

Increased resistance activity has led to more occupation soldiers dying and an alarming escalation in air strikes that have caused massive civilian casualties. On September 4, an air strike on two fuel tankers hijacked by the Taliban who were dispensing fuel to locals in Kunduz resulted in more than 90 civilian deaths. Villagers were able to retrieve only fragments of their loved ones’ body parts after the Americans deployed one of their favorite strategies of winning heart-and-minds by dropping 1,000-pound bombs from the air. Combined with instability arising from the August 20 presidential elections in which allegations of widespread electoral fraud were made and the country even more deeply divided between the majority Pashtuns and the minority Tajiks, this is a sure recipe for disaster. Hitherto, northern Afghanistan was relatively calm and there was little resistance activity there but as the Kunduz episode shows, this has now spread much further. The only thing the Americans can think of is sending more troops as if the 100,000 already there are not enough.

The conventional wisdom in Washington is that the “success” in Iraq achieved through a troop surge can be repeated in Afghanistan. There was no success in Iraq; it is a massive lie; all that happened was the disgruntled Sunnis were bribed into stopping their attacks but unless the Americans have an endless supply of dollars, which they do not, Iraq is not going to be pacified even if American troops have withdrawn to the relative safety of their fortified compounds away from the main cities. Afghanistan is even more complicated than Iraq. First, mobility of troops is severely constrained. Afghanistan has few passable roads, especially in the countryside where the insurgency is strongest. This is where American and other NATO forces have acted with mind-boggling brutality blowing ordinary villagers to pieces. This has been the most powerful recruiting tool for the Taliban. Afghan government incompetence, corruption and a widespread feeling among the majority Pashtuns that most resources are consumed by the minority Tajiks and Uzbeks have further fuelled insurgency.

To create and deepen ethnic divisions in Afghanistan may well be the real American strategy. If the Afghans can be made to fight among themselves, it is hoped this will reduce attacks against foreign occupation troops. Regardless of how long the Americans and their NATO allies stay, ultimately they will have to leave. The civil war will then begin in earnest. There is no doubt that the Pashtuns will prevail. How bloody the civil war will turn out will depend on how much resentment is built up among the Pashtuns but if their reported successes in such northern provinces as Kunduz are any indication, the Pashtuns are well on their way to achieving their objective of driving the foreign troops out and confronting their local agents effectively. They will also have the support of the Pashtuns from Pakistan. It can be further surmised that after fierce fighting, all Afghans will get together in a loya jirga to hammer out a deal. This, however, will not occur until the foreign troops leave.

If Obama is smart, he will take a page from the approach adopted by Alexander the Great more than 2,000 years ago. His generals told him the Afghans were such ferocious fighters that they will maul his forces. It was best to leave them alone. Alexander bypassed Afghanistan to take on the much easier prey in the Indus plains. Whether Obama suffers the fate of the Russians or achieve Alexander’s greatness will depend on what he decides to do next. Current thinking in Washington does not allow for much optimism.