America's timeline, and the Taliban's

America's timeline, and the Taliban's

It is hard to be optimistic about the outcome of President Obama’s troop ‘surge’ in Afghanistan. The additional forces sound large in headlines, but shrink small in the mountains.

The commitment is intended as an earnest indication of America’s will. But neither the number of troops nor the timeline that mandates a drawdown in less than two years is likely to impress the Taliban, who think in decades, or for that matter the Afghan people.

Most decision-makers on both sides of the Atlantic now privately believe we are in the business of managing failure, and that is how the surge looks. The president allowed himself to be convinced that a refusal to reinforce NATO’s mission in Afghanistan would fatally weaken the resolve of Pakistan in resisting Islamic militancy.

Meanwhile at home, refusal to meet the American generals’ demands threatened to brand him as the man who lost the Afghan war. Thus the surge lies in the realm of politics, not warfare.

As the president said, the usual comparisons with Vietnam are mistaken. Today’s US army and marine corps are skilled counterinsurgency fighters. Their commanders, especially Gen Stanley McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, are officers of the highest gifts. Combat and casualties are on a much smaller scale than in southeast Asia four decades ago.

The critical fact, however, is that military operations are meaningless unless in support of a sustainable political system. One Indochina parallel seems valid: that war was lost chiefly because America’s Vietnamese allies were unviable.

If we lose in Afghanistan, it will not be because American soldiers are defeated, but because ‘our’ Afghans — the regime of Hamid Karzai — cannot deliver to the people honest policing, acceptable administration and visible quality of life improvements.

I’m hardly the first to say this. Yet the yawning hole in Obama’s speech at West Point, and in American policy, is the absence of a credible Afghan domestic and regional strategy.

It would be hard to overstate the cultural chasm separating Afghans from their foreign allies and expatriate returnees. Scarcely a single western soldier speaks their languages. In the entire country there are only a few hundred competent administrators, and most of them are corrupt. Last year, I met an Afghan minister who had spent more than half his young life as an exile. He spoke and acted like a Californian. To Pashtun tribesmen, he must seem like a Martian.

“Democracy has been a disaster for our country,” an Afghan businessman once told me, in tones of withering scorn. Like most of his kind, he may live in Kabul, but he has one eye on the airport.

In Pakistan, there is great uncertainty about the impact of the surge. The West’s purpose is not to remake Afghanistan, an impossible task, but to promote regional stability and encourage the Pakistanis in their struggle against militants.


The strategic importance of these objectives is not in doubt. The question is whether they are attainable, and whether an increased troop commitment in Afghanistan will do much to advance them. The Islamabad government sincerely, even passionately, wants the United States and its allies to continue their Afghan campaign. But among Pakistan’s vast population, the West is much more unpopular — indeed, hated — than it was in 2006 or, for that matter, 2001. There is a danger that the surge will intensify that popular alienation, further fuelling Islamic extremism and thus terrorism.

Little progress can be made toward regional stability without reducing tensions between Pakistan and India. India’s dalliance with the Afghan government, which has been given hundreds of millions of dollars in Indian aid, has increased the deep paranoia of the Pakistani army and intelligence service. The status quo will only lead powerful elements of Pakistan’s security forces to continue to support Islamic militants as proxies against India.

Few responsible participants in the Afghan drama, even the most pessimistic, urge a precipitate withdrawal. We are too deeply committed for that. What seems important is to recognise that politics and diplomacy are the fundamentals, though they cannot progress unless security improves. Even the most limited stabilisation programme will founder unless all the regional powers, including Iran, become parties to it. It is difficult to imagine that the Karzai administration can raise its game sufficiently to gain a popular mandate strong enough to stop the Taliban.

President Obama said on Tuesday, “Unlike Vietnam, we are not facing a broad-based popular insurgency.” Yes, the Taliban command limited support, and have relatively few hard-core fighters. But many Afghans, especially Pashtuns, unite in dislike both for the Western ‘occupiers’ and the Kabul regime.

Progress depends, as General McChrystal seems to recognise, on reaching accommodations with the tribes from the bottom up, not the top down. The smartest surge will be one of cash payments to local leaders. You can buy a lot of Afghans for a small fraction of the cost of deploying a Marine company.

Perhaps the greatest problem for western policymakers is that Taliban leaders watch CNN and al-Jazeera. They know that the British public has turned against the war, probably irrevocably, and that American opinion is deeply divided. They believe they have more patience than us, and they may be right.

The president’s troop surge was perhaps politically inescapable. But any chance of salvaging a minimally acceptable outcome hinges not on what American and allied soldiers can do on the battlefield, but on putting together a coherent political strategy. Obama’s speech represented a gesture to his generals rather than a convincing path to success in Afghanistan.