How to win a Losing Game?
Daily Times, September 16, 2008
Admiral Mike Mullen has made this frank evaluation after almost seven years of unending, no-holds-barred, brutal war in Afghanistan: “I’m not convinced we are winning it [the war] in Afghanistan”. But to revive hopes and lift the morale of his country’s political leadership and his troops, he added, “I am convinced that we can”.
How? Some reflection on what are emerging as the contours of his war-winning strategy is in order.
Historically, Afghanistan has been a graveyard of foreign armies. It will be a first in history if the Americans, a foreign power, are able to subdue the Afghans and impose their brand of nationalism, statehood and political leadership on them. It is a hazardous and ambitious task.
Perhaps the American strategist derives his optimism from the changed times and calculus of regional and global power. But on previous occasions, when the other two great powers invaded Afghanistan, the operational environment was not the same.
The myths, traditions and heroic folklore of Afghan history remain the same, no matter who the new friends and invaders are, or however noble their mission might appear to themselves. The current power imbalance in Afghanistan has perhaps not been witnessed anywhere in the world at any time: a superpower equipped with the most destructive military technology looking to ‘right the wrongs’ versus the insurgents in the Pashtun regions of Afghanistan.
I have deliberately avoided mentioning the Taliban, because the label is a narrow and unreal characterisation of the ethos that has shaped the insurgency in the Pashtun-dominated regions of Afghanistan. ‘Taliban’ is a convenient term, and makes the adversary identifiable, portraying him as anti-everything that stands for civilised and humane notions of social organisation. The portrayal is not entirely untrue in view of the conduct of the Taliban in the border regions of Pakistan or in Afghanistan during their regime.
But that is not the point. What I want to suggest is that the Taliban couldn’t operate on the Pakistani or Afghan side of the border without a significant degree of support from the Pashtun population. It is good propaganda to say that the population has been taken hostage, but a concrete analysis of the situation must take into account the sympathies of the locals in areas where insurgents operate and seek sustenance.
If the battle for hearts and minds in Afghanistan’s Pashtun areas has not entirely been lost, it has been messed up big time. Many observers of Afghanistan, both journalists and scholars, have for a long time argued that American strategy in Afghanistan has been badly handled from the very beginning. Three things stand out very clearly.
First, the Afghan-Americans in high advisory and ambassadorial roles played traditional Afghan factional politics in smoothing the way for Hamid Karzai and the shift of power to the Northern Alliance, as if they and not the American forces had dislodged the Taliban. Instead of seeking national reconciliation, the new power group went for the politics of vengeance. Yes, Pashtuns were present in the corridors of power, but in small numbers and on the margins.
Since the parliamentary elections, things have improved for the Pashtuns. But the residual resentment has continued to fuel unease. There is an almost unanimous view that Hamid Karzai has delivered very little on governance, and state- and nation-building.
The second important reason for unrest in the Pashtun regions is that development assistance has been too little and arrived too late. This failure has turned Afghanistan into a narco-state. Even if a small share of the billions that opium production and trade generate ends up in Taliban hands — which it does — it would be enough to keep ISAF and NATO forces tied down for decades.
Finally, the insensitivity to civilian casualties has taken a heavy toll on the American image in Afghanistan. NATO forces entered Afghanistan amid the deafening thunder of strategic bombing and daisycutters, and declared that their mission was to free Afghanistan from the scourge of the Taliban and rebuild the Afghan state and nation. At least in the Pashtun parts of Afghanistan, this mission is now seen very differently.
There is no greater loss in war than losing the sympathy and support of the people you think you are helping. When they see your presence in adversarial terms, it means more than half the battle has been lost.
This is the dilemma the Americans and the international community face in Afghanistan. There is definitely great distress and war fatigue among the American political and military ranks, with acknowledgement of the bitter truth that the war on terror has not gone right. But getting it back on the right track would require a better grasp of the complex region they have landed in, by fate or misfortune, or under illusion of a grand strategic design.
Extending the war effort to the tribal areas of Pakistan is not a great idea. At best, it will destroy Taliban and Al Qaeda hideouts, keep them on the run and cut their control and communication lines. It is uncertain if these missions can be accomplished without too much collateral damage and also without severely damaging the political standing of the new Pakistani government and the public prestige of the armed forces of Pakistan.
Pakistan has done a better job of destroying Al Qaeda in the region than the United States and Afghanistan or other allies. As stated in the Daily Times editorial of last Saturday (“US Strategy: excessive and unnecessary”, September 13), 90 percent of Al Qaeda arrests have been made by Pakistani intelligence and security forces. Pakistani state and society have clearly drawn the battle lines against Al Qaeda and the Taliban and fought with greater resolve than any other country.
American raids inside Pakistan will only play into the hands of Taliban and Al Qaeda sympathisers and place the Pakistan army in a nutcracker situation. This cannot be a winnable strategy in the war against terrorism.
The war against terror is also our war. We have been the first line of defence for the world — has anybody counted the victims of suicide bombing in Pakistan, or the number of our brave troops slaughtered by terrorists? This war is going to be long and difficult but we all have a stake in winning it. It will require patience, better understanding of the complexities of the region, and the respect and trust of partners like Pakistan. All else will be only a strategy of defeat.
Dr Rasul Bakhsh Rais is author of Recovering the Frontier State: War, Ethnicity and State in Afghanistan (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books 2008) and a professor of Political Science at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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