Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

13 June 2010

Five Conditions for Taliban Rule

Raise another glass to Bob Herbert, America’s conscience. While we’ve been obsessing over the tea party’s senile mutterings, South Carolina’s electroral farce, oil-coated birds and lost Gulf jobs, he reminds us that fellow Americans are still dying, day after day, in far-off Afghanistan.

The adjective “far-off” applies in every sense. Not only is Afghanistan impossibly distant. It is far from everyone’s mind.

No one here wants to think about it―not the deaths of our young men and women, not the strategy vacuum, not the increasingly enormous costs, and certainly not what damage we may be doing to a society that, largely due to our own neglect, has suffered horribly over thirty years of war. Everyone from the President to his most persistent critics appears to be hoping that the whole country will just go away by the time our troops are scheduled to begin their drawdown next year.

Unfortunately, events make that impossible. There is now a critical mass of evidence that Hamid Karzai doesn’t have a clue how to hold his country together, let alone defeat the Taliban. So our job there will become exponentially harder, and chaotic popular discontent here at home will continue to erode the last vestiges of competence and sense in our domestic politics.

Since last year’s fraudulent election, whispers have become shouts. Karzai won’t accept international norms of legitimacy and honesty. He protects his corrupt brother in Kandahar who, as far as I can tell, is a significant part of the problem in the south. His administration is either corrupt itself or turns a blind eye to corruption. His “support” for reforms that might increase his own popularity is at worst counterproductive, at best lukewarm. He has made awkward and pathetically naïve public appeals to the Taliban, plus some secret attempts at negotiation that may be more promising. And now a superb piece of reporting suggests that he lacks confidence in the West’s ability to win, while he continues to take our money and our people’s blood to support his corrupt regime.

The evidence is beyond disturbing. Karzai apparently refused to consider evidence of the Taliban’s participation in attacks on the recent jirga. Then he publicly speculated that Americans might be behind the attacks. Finally, he forced out two of his most senior and experienced security officials, or they resigned in disgust. Both had analyzed the evidence of Taliban involvement in the attacks, and both just happened to be Tajiks. (Karzai and his family, like most of the Taliban, are Pashtuns.)

There are only three ways to interpret this evidence. First, Karzai may have concluded that a Western defeat and retreat are just a matter of time. So he wants to continue to suck away our blood and treasure while creating a coalition government to save his skin, his corrupt family, and some role for himself, perhaps as figurehead, in the eventual government of Afghanistan.

Second, Karzai may have concluded that Central Asia is the next Yugoslavia: an ethnic time-bomb about to undergo a delayed explosion two decades after the stabilizing Soviet force disappeared. The recent ethnic/political unrest in Kyrgyzstan, which the Russians wisely decided to watch from a distance, may be another precursor of this explosion. So Karzai instinctively rallies to his tribe, the Pashtun, which includes Taliban on both sides of the AfPak border.

Finally, this former restauranteur, who has never shown any aptitude for politics or governance besides a good command of English, may have a credible master plan for stabilizing his country that we foreigners just don’t understand. This last alternative is possible, but I give it a probability of less than 10%.

So is seems, with 90% probability, that Karzai is about to cave in to Taliban through sheer fear and ineptitude, or that he is going to throw his lot with theirs because he is a Pashtun, too. Neither outcome bodes well for the future of Afghanistan or our interests there. And either would be an insult to the sacrifices our troops have already made and are still making every day.

In order to salvage something from this mess, we first have to accept reality. The Taliban will probably rule Afghanistan (or most of it) some day. The Karzai government is hopelessly and irretrievably corrupt and inept. Even today, it has little hope of governing all of Afghanistan.

In contrast, the Taliban appear to be the only native force fighting for a vision of the future, something beyond personal power, wealth or subsistence. Their rule is harsh, but many local people appear to like the order and Islamic justice they bring to a region that has known nothing but corruption, war and warlordism for as long as anyone can remember.

More important, as they have already demonstrated, the Taliban have staying power. They have already persevered for nearly a decade since Dubya issued his ultimatum to hand over bin Laden, and they appear ready to fight for another decade or two. There is no sign that our people have similar patience. In this respect if no other, we are in Vietnam redux.

If this be the case, the most important question is not whether the Taliban will rule, but which Taliban will rule. The “Taliban” is a common name for a loose assortment of religious, tribal and local leaders, including some warlords. They are not all the same. Nor do they all have the same view of jihad―especially global jihad―which is what most worries us.

So our task in the year we have left is to do our utmost to give the “right” Taliban the upper hand, through military, political and humanitarian operations, including direct negotiation where possible. Following are five principles we should use to differentiate the “good” Taliban from the “bad” Taliban and give Afghanistan (and our national interests there) a reasonable chance for survival:

1. Cut back the global jihad. The Afghani Taliban and their predecessors are Afghans. Many of them are illiterate and uneducated. (What would you expect after thirty years of war?) They know nothing about New York, Washington, or London. What they want is to control their own communities and make things “better,” as they see them, in their own way. In other words, they are after self-determination, not global domination or our destruction.

By now Al Qaeda may have convinced some Taliban that global jihad is the best means to these ends, maybe the only means. But the Taliban are quintessentially local, the more so because they know little about the outside world. They are descendants of people who have repelled and assimilated foreigners ever since the invasion of Alexander the Great.

In contrast, Al Qaeda’s jihadists are foreigners and dangerous guests. No doubt many of the Taliban are skeptical and suspicious of them. There is a good chance, although far from a certainty, that the Taliban might expel Al Qaeda, or at least vastly cut back its domestic operations, soon after consolidating their own control. Proper incentives might increase the likelihood of this happening.

2. Let girls go to school. In the long run, female education is probably the single most important goal of our policy in Afghanistan. It doesn’t matter if girls have to go to school covered up from head to foot, as long as they learn. If they learn, so will boys. Educating girls can secure a modern and peaceful Afghanistan quicker―and with far less pain―than any foreign invasion.

If we had taken this tack in the anti-Soviet jihad beginning thirty years ago, the girls we would have educated would now be wives and mothers with powerful local influence, if only at home. Likely many would have gone further and today would be helping to drain the cesspool of perpetual war and corruption into which Afghan men have fallen.

Some Afghans and many Taliban are opposed to girls’ education. They are the extremists. But many are not. Many more could be convinced in a more peaceful setting. Many Afghans neglect their daughters’ education not for religious or ideological reasons, but just for lack of money and schools.

No one wants his daughter to be useless and a burden, and rural Afghans are nothing if not practical people. We could make real progress on this vital goal if we exercised some patience and diplomatic skill.

3. Let peaceful, civilian foreigners continue their good work. I call this the “Greg Mortenson” rule, to applaud his superb work, of which our military commanders are well aware. (If you are not, read “Three Cups of Tea,” or watch this review of his extraordinary effort.)

Mortenson is not alone. There are many others like him, trying to make change in Afghanistan one family and one village at a time. Some Taliban oppose this work; others do not. So far Mortenson has survived and achieved superb results by wits and cultural sensitivity alone. We should assist the Taliban who aid this work, or at least don’t hinder it, and oppose the others.

4. Promote ethnic tolerance and equality. The most troubling thing I have read about Karzai in the last two years is evidence that he may be ejecting Tajiks and other ethnic minorities from his government. The last thing Central Asia needs is to become another Yugoslavia, mired in bitter inter-ethnic conflict, with nuclear weapons just across the border in Pakistan. It is worth recalling that Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai's only serious rival in the recent fraudulent elections, is a Tajik.

Virtually every one of the “Stans” is like a Rorschach blot. Its ethnic areas are so complex and intertwined as to permit no reasonable unwinding or partitioning. Ethnic conflict can quickly flare out of control, as the recent troubles in Kyrgyzstan show. Letting that happen is in no one’s interest―not Afghanistan’s, not NATO’s, not ours, not the broader international community’s, not Russia’s, and not the Taliban’s.

The Taliban are mainly religious and ideological. Although many (if not most) are Pashtun, I have seen no evidence that their ideology or goals require ethnic discrimination. We can give the whole area a big boost by supporting egalitarians and opposing bigots, just as we do at home.

5. Give real schools equal time. In the long run, madrassas are among the world’s most dangerous institutions. These Islamist schools teach religion and hate, but no useful skills except Quran reading. Through Saudi and other “charities,” our oil money goes to fund these non-schools. They are a principal reason for exponentially increasing extremism in Central Asia.

Until the Western world shakes its addiction to oil, it will be impossible to eliminate these centers of extremist brainwashing entirely. Poor people prefer any school, even a bad one, to no school at all, and most of Central Asia is dirt poor. But we can certainly support Taliban who are willing to give real schools a try, if only as an alternative. Among a practical people, real schools will win this competition every time.

The age-old rule of war is “know thy enemy.” In Afghanistan, we don’t even know our ally. Hamid Karzai, whom we thought we knew, is increasingly an enigma, perhaps a saboteur.

Fortunately, our military has been smarter than our politicians and diplomats. Since the beginning of the “surge” it has made every effort to get to know the local people, who know the Taliban. The resulting “on the ground” knowledge can be invaluable in distinguishing Taliban who can live with these five principles from those that can’t.

With that knowledge, we can tilt the scale of Afghanistan’s future toward the brighter side. Our and NATO troops on the ground will know best how to do that, using all the techniques of soft and hard power that they have learned so well there and in Iraq.

Doing this will not be easy. Most of the effort will be invisible and unsung. There will be no victory parades.

But this is about the best we can do. The American people cannot and will not support another year (beyond 2011) in this endless, ultimately unwinnable war. And no matter how much the military or right wing insist, the President will not endorse another “surge,” because he would lose his entire base by so doing.

And rightly so. I and others supported this limited surge for three reasons. First, at that time I thought Karzai was an effective leader with a good plan and the support of his people. Second, I wanted to give our superb military, whose new leadership had pulled our irons out of the fire in Iraq, a chance to work similar miracles in Afghanistan. Third, I thought (and still think, given the alternatives) that a successful Obama presidency is the only chance we Americans have to arrest our national decline. Obama’s success at home and abroad required a projection of toughness that simultaneous retreat from Iraq and Afghanistan could not have provided.

Today, a mere nine months later, none of these reasons applies. The first has proved false. Karzai is a weak, corrupt and ineffective leader. He is no Al-Maliki. He’s not even an Al-Jaafri. It is impossible to foresee him continuing to lead Afghanistan (outside Kabul) much beyond next year, except perhaps as a figurehead for Taliban rule.

Our military still seems to be doing a superb job under the circumstances. But not even geniuses can perform impossible missions. Afghanistan will not be a functioning democracy anytime soon. It won’t even resemble Iraq. The best we can do in the time we have left is to arrange conditions so the Afghans have a chance at a decent future after we leave. The five principles above may help give them that chance.

As for domestic politics, it is clear now that about a third of Americans will oppose the President adamantly whatever he does. His continuing to waste blood and treasure on a pointless and unwinnable war will alienate both his base and still-wavering independents.

If the President must lose his mandate or his presidency due to irreconcilable political opposition, better that he lose it for doing the right thing, rather than for continuing a failing policy and a tragic, losing war that he didn’t start. Ending this useless war could revitalize his political fortunes by renewing the hope of 2008 and convincing past and present supporters that his election really made a difference.

As for toughness, the charade is over. It is increasingly obvious abroad, as at home, that we are a society collapsing into itself economically, competitively, politically and militarily. Extending the pretense of global empire and world domination would fool no one except our own least informed and most gullible voters.

Allies and rivals alike would respect us more if we accepted reality and made a sensible strategic retreat to get out own house in order, just as George Washington did at our Founding. It’s perseverance and resolve in the long run that count, and Islamist terrorism is here for the long run. However hateful a symbol bin Laden may be to us, Afghanistan is just one battle in what threatens to be a century-long global conflict. Leaders who insist on winning every battle lose wars.

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