Beyond Victory

Afghanistan al Qaeda Pakistan Politics War

Did you know that there are 45 million Pashtuns? I did not either until I saw Frontline’s documentary about the Taliban last week. Watch it here.

The Pashtun tribes provide the ethnic base for the Taliban insurgency. Their demographics matter. According to Mao Zedong’s dictum, guerilla fighters move in the population like fish in the water. The larger the host population, the harder it becomes to suppress irregular fighters.

Iraq only has some 22 million inhabitants.

The sheer number of Pashtuns means that we could redeploy every soldier and contractor from Iraq to Afghanistan and we still would not have enough troops to prevail militarily. Likewise, Europeans could double and triple their forces in Afghanistan, which they won’t unless the new administration can formulate a strategy promising success, and we would still be short handed.

While British commanders have been talking about the futility of the Afghanistan mission, to Americans Afghanistan is still the good war. But there may be no road to victory.

Of course, we can hope that Afghan and Pakistani forces might be able to pacify the Pashtun regions. To date, the Afghan army only numbers 76,000 troops, which is a good help but insufficient to establish control. Pakistan’s armed forces, seventh largest in the world, field an army of 619,000 active troops and 528,000 reservists but has nonetheless been unable to assert the sovereignty of Pakistan in the tribal areas.

Despite indiscriminate violence and human rights abuses, the Red Army has had similar problems in Chechnya. With 1.1 million people, Chechnya’s population is relatively small.

It appears then that we will not be able to achieve the destruction of al Qaeda by imposing our will on the Taliban militarily. Rather, we will have to come to some sort of accommodation with Pashtuns and the Taliban, their de facto rulers. At the very least, we must divide the Taliban.

Judging by my own ignorance, it is probably safe to assume that too few of us know enough to appreciate the war in Afghanistan even remotely.

8 thoughts on “Beyond Victory

  1. I hate to say this the day before the election, but this is one point where I disagree with the foreign policy that Obama has proposed. From what I understand, he favors exactly the redeployment you describe: moving the U.S. forces from Iraq to Afghanistan to try to at least capture Bin Laden, even if it means invading Pakistan.

    I think this is the type of fight that can’t be won through brute force alone (for the reasons you point out), and Pakistan’s stability is already precarious. And Pakistan has nukes and a festering quarrel with India, which also has nukes. If Pakistan’s government were to fall to a Taliban-like theocracy, it would be a far bigger and deadlier disaster for the whole world than the current situation in Iraq.

    I’ve voted for Obama anyway, though, because Obama would listen to reason before going through with an ill-advised invasion whereas Palin is a wild card who might do just about anything…

  2. Yes, Obama isn’t there yet. A troop increase can certainly be helpful if it happens within the context of the proper strategy.

    A potentially successful strategy would aim for cooperation with Pashtuns. That’s key.

  3. I’m not entirely certain that all Pashtuns are really potential Taliban fighters. The Taliban is certainly ethnically Pashtun, but just because Taliban = Pashtun does not necessarily mean that Pashtun = Taliban.

  4. Yes, that’s the opportunity, Kullervo. Hamid Karzai, for example, is a Pashtun as well.

    The other distasteful but useful distinction is that the Taliban is not the same as al Qaeda.

    On the other hand, the Pashtuns have sustained fighting the Soviet Union for decades (after prevailing against the British, the Iranians, and the moguls of India). Like anyone else, the Pashtuns do not like foreign occupiers and they know what to do about it.

    The Frontline documentary also reports that Taliban militias have established a large degree of control in both Pakistan and Afghanistan.

    There was a fascinating analysis by two former Petraeus staff members in The Atlantic a few weeks ago. They argued that Afghanistan is that our efforts ought to focus on tribal elders rather than the Kabul government and its provincial governors. May be, such an effort can limit or transform the nature of Taliban influence.

  5. Kullervo — Exactly, various people in Afghanistan (Pashtun or not) undoubtedly have mixed feelings towards the Taliban. That’s why strategies like negotiating with tribal elders may work better than just sending in soldiers with guns.

  6. In fact, the tribal elders might be the main beneficiaries of limiting the Taliban’s power. The elders would become more powerful themselves.

  7. True, which provides them with a strong motivation.

    I don’t want to romanticize this solution and claim that this solution is democratic or that the tribal elders are 100% benevolent and motivated 100% by concern for their people’s safety and well-being. But the ordinary people of Afghanistan are more likely to trust and listen to their own elders than to trust foreign soldiers, and with good reason. Even if their elders are motivated by their own status or wealth, they’re still more likely to have their people’s interests at heart than the foreign invaders would, even if the foreign invaders mean to bring democracy.

    This is related to what I was saying in my post Stand by your home-grown tyrant…?.

  8. Right. It would require distasteful compromises with traditionalists.

    It is important to keep in mind that we can live with a backward Afghanistan. We cannot live with a refuge for al Qaeda.

    Politics is the art of the possible. When the desirable gets in the way of necessity then something needs to give.

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