News that the US ambassador to Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, has sent classified messages to Washington in the last few days, advising President Obama not to send more troops to Afghanistan, is dramatic both in its timing and substance. It came just as Obama was to hold further deliberations with his advisers on a new strategy for what is now described in Washington as the AfPak front. The substance of Eikenberry’s advice went directly against the plan the military commander in Afghanistan, General McChrystal, has been pushing for in recent months. Eikenberry’s intervention is highly significant. A Harvard and Stanford-educated general, he had served in Afghanistan twice before retiring and was immediately appointed America’s envoy in that country in April 2009. He has strong military credentials and President Obama’s ear–an effective counter to the Pentagon lobbying for ever-increasing military commitment to the war.
The contrary advice from Eikenberry may have annoyed General McChrystal. But it represents an established pattern by now: well orchestrated media reports originating from advocates of greater American involvement before every new strategy session, apparently intended to bounce the president into sending more troops; and President Obama finding a way to resist that pressure. Whatever criticisms are leveled against Obama over his perceived hesitation or dithering, these maneuvers within the administration point to his dilemmas at this juncture. For unlike George W Bush, an instinctive demolisher, Obama is a man of intellect, averse to war and more in tune with history.
The last two decades of the twentieth century were a period of exceptional savagery in Afghanistan. First, it was committed during Soviet occupation and the US-Soviet proxy war in the 1980s. Then came the West’s neglect of Afghanistan and the outbreak of a ‘war of all against all’ following the collapse of Soviet and Afghan communism. The culture of violence to which powers great and small, and Afghan factions themselves, contributed got deeply ingrained in Afghan society. Violent human behavior was revealed in more frightening ways than before.
The opening decade of the new century brought the horror of 9/11 early. Its conclusion reminds us of the Soviet decade in Afghanistan and the American military era in Vietnam before the 1975 withdrawal. In 2009, the total strength of American and allied troops is more than 100,000, nearly as high as the number of Soviet troops in Afghanistan twenty years before. Already, it has become the bloodiest year for the US-led international forces, with numerous civilian deaths in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And General McChrystal wants 40,000 extra soldiers, warning his commander-in-chief that otherwise the mission would fail.
In his August 2009 report, General McChrystal presented to the Obama administration a list of ‘new objectives’ in Afghanistan. Among them are: ‘discredit and diminish insurgent and their extremist allies’ capability’; ‘promote the capability of, and confidence in, the Afghan National Security Forces’; and ‘maintain and increase international and public support for ISAF goal and policies’ in Afghanistan. Those keeping a keen eye on the conflict might ask what has the international occupation force been doing for eight years and what is new in McChrystal’s objectives? His assessment further says that the international force has not adequately been executing the basics of counterinsurgency warfare. So more military (with civilian) resources must be committed.
General McChrystal’s remedy bears a striking resemblance to a letter written by Colonel K Tsagolov of the Soviet military to his defense minister Dmitry Yazov in August 1987. At a time when Soviet leader Gorbachev had decided to withdraw from Afghanistan after a failed invasion and occupation, Colonel Tsagolov, using Marxist jargon, wrote: “A deep political crisis of the Afghan society is obvious…The coalition of social forces continues to change in favor of the counter-revolution. The state regime is not capable of stopping the counter-revolution on its own.”
Colonel Tsagolov criticized the policy of national reconciliation being pursued by then president, Najibullah, at the Kremlin’s behest. Tsagolov observed that ‘our efforts over the last 8 years have not led to the expected results’; national reconciliation ‘has not led to a breakthrough in the military-political situation, and will not lead to one’. The ‘counter-revolution will not be satisfied with partial power today, knowing that tomorrow it can have it all’. Colonel Tsagolov’s recommended solution was to ‘help the progressive political forces’ to preserve the ‘democratic content’ of the country; and to ‘ensure future development of social processes’ in Afghanistan ‘in the direction of our long-term interests’.
How did the US/ NATO war in Afghanistan become so brutal, falsifying the first impressions in the wake of an ‘easy victory’ in overthrowing the Taliban regime? From the outset, one side in the new Afghan conflict has had overwhelming power and acquired impudence. But the underdog has had strength in numbers, prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice. Fear has lost its deterrent quality. Death is no more an unwelcome prospect. Life has to be endured, not enjoyed. And the rationality in martyrdom has replaced the rationality in survival among those who fight the occupation forces. Human beings are at their most dangerous when they no longer fear death. It explains the conduct of the suicide bomber.
The Afghanistan crisis has deteriorated in the absence of a credible strategy. Eight years after the US-led invasion of 2001, the futility of counterinsurgency resulting in the loss of more innocent lives than those of ‘terrorists’ is plain to see. To succeed, a strategy must be not about killing, but about rebuilding. It should attract support rather than cause alienation. Its foundations must be based on a thorough understanding of the cultures and sensitivities of others and reasons of human pride.
There are choices other than McChrystal’s counterinsurgency plan to guide the international efforts: to persuade Pakistan’s military to relax its hold; to allow the democratic institutions and processes to develop; to fight corruption; and to encourage the rule of law. Above all, to save both Afghanistan and Pakistan from future generations of militants; to build effective systems of education that provide modern schools instead of religious madrasahs. The United States has a responsibility to play a vital role in all this. But it may only be possible if there is an acceptance in Washington that a coercive enterprise to remake a traditional society rarely succeeds.
The above comment appeared on Informed Comment, weblog of Juan Cole, Professor of History at the University of Michigan, on November 13, 2009.