Dispatches From the Edge: The Afghan Rubik’s Cube

By Conn Hallinan
Wednesday April 08, 2009 - 06:59:00 PM

Afghanistan is a gatherer of metaphors: “crossroads of Asia,” “graveyard of empires,” and the “Great Game,” to name a few, although it might be more accurate to think of it as a Rubik’s Cube, that frustrating puzzle of intersecting blocks that only works when everything fits perfectly. The trick for the Obama administration is to figure out how to solve the puzzle in a time frame rapidly squeezed by events both internal and external to that war-torn central Asian nation. 

At first glance, the decision to send 21,000 more U.S. troops into a conflict that has dragged on for almost 30 years seems to combine equal parts illusion and amnesia—illusion that the soldiers could make a difference, amnesia in trying something that already failed disastrously in 2005. But then, Afghanistan seems to have a deranging effect on its occupiers.  

Way back in the spring of 2005, British Lt. Gen. David Richards, then commander of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces in southern Afghanistan, told a press conference in Khandahar that quadrupling the number of allied troops in Helmand Province would spell the end for the Taliban. Three years later Helmand is unarguably the most dangerous province in the country. 

As former British Foreign Service officer Rory Stewart argues, “when the decision to increase the number of troops in 2005 was made, there was no insurgency.” Indeed, it was the surge—and the civilian casualties which accompanied it—that ignited the current resistance movement. Back then the Taliban controlled 54 percent of the country. Today that figure is 72 percent and rising. In February, Taliban soldiers attacked Kabul, killing scores of people and besieging several government buildings. 

The illusion is that adding 21,000 troops to the 38,000 U.S. soldiers and 50,000 NATO soldiers could possibly make a difference. The United States, with 500,000 soldiers, could not prevail in Vietnam, a country of 67,000 square miles and 19 million people. Afghanistan has half again that population and 250,000 square miles of some of the planet’s most unforgiving terrain.  

As Brig. Gen. Mark Carleton-Smith, Britain’s top military officer in Afghanistan, bluntly told the Sunday Times, “We’re not going to win this war.” 

So, has the madness that seems to seize Afghanistan’s invaders infected the White House? Maybe not. 

First, if Obama were serious about a military victory in Afghanistan he would have sent 40,000 troops, not 17,000 combat troops and 4,000 trainers. The former figure—which the administration initially discussed—would fulfill the Pentagon’s formula of soldiers-to-population counterinsurgency strategy, although that is an illusion in its own way.  

Second, unlike the Bush administration, the White House has invited Iran to join a regional conference on the war, and the president has hinted that he is open to talking with the Taliban. Neither of these moves suggests the administration is only thinking in terms of a military “victory” in Afghanistan. 

In a sense the administration has little choice.  

The price tag alone should give the White House pause. According to the Congressional Research Service, Afghanistan has cost $173 billion and is on track to eventually cost $1 trillion.  

And, increasingly, the United States is on its own. In recent NATO meetings in Krakow, Poland, the Europeans made it clear that they would not join a “surge,” despite pleas by British Defense Secretary John Hutton and U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Polls show a substantial majority of Germans, British, French and Italians are opposed to sending any more troops to Afghanistan. 

The United States is also facing trouble among its regional allies.  

The 2005 surge not only revitalized the Taliban, it spread the war to Pakistan and created the Pakistani Taliban that has driven the Pakistan Army out of the Swat Valley and most of the Northwest Territory and Tribal Regions. This border war has killed some 1,500 Pakistani soldiers, innumerable civilians, and cost Islamabad at least $34 billion. With the country’s economic system collapsing—inflation is rampant, unemployment skyrocketing, and the International Monetary Fund is currently keeping Pakistan afloat—aiding the U.S. war on terrorism is deeply unpopular. According to polls, 89 percent of the Pakistani population opposes it. 

The war has also ratcheted up tensions between Pakistan and India. India has deployed its paramilitary Indo-Tibetan Border Patrol in Afghanistan to protect its road-building projects from Taliban attacks. But for the Pakistanis, their traditional enemy now has troops on both borders. Indian and Pakistan have fought three wars since the 1947 partition of the two countries, and India is currently in the middle of a major expansion of its military.  

An agreement with the Bush administration allowing New Delhi to bypass the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty may ignite a nuclear arms race between the two countries, a race which neither can afford and which will measurably increase the possibility of nuclear war in South Asia. Both countries came perilously close to one in 1999.  

The right-wing Hindu fundamentalist BJP, jockeying for position in the upcoming Indian elections, has called for a military retaliation, including the blockade of the port of Karachi, for the recent attack on Mumbai by Pakistan-based militants.  

In the meantime, the political situation within Afghanistan is growing increasingly unstable. President Harmid Karzai, once the darling of Western powers, has come under intense criticism for his regime’s widespread corruption, and there is open talk by the United States and NATO about not backing him in upcoming elections. Karzai has responded by blaming the U.S. and NATO for a 40 percent increases in civilian casualties and is threatening direct talks with the Taliban. Elections are set for August. 

And, ominously for the allies, a poll of Afghans shows a significant rise in anti-occupation sentiment, with a majority now supporting a negotiated end to the war, even if that means a coalition government that includes the Taliban. 

While Afghanistan looks increasingly unstable, the Taliban appear to be getting their act together. According to Saeed Shah of the McClatchy newspapers, Mullah Omar, the leader of the Afghan Taliban, has forged an alliance with the fractious Pakistan Taliban that will direct the power of both organizations toward fighting “the occupation forces inside of Afghanistan.” 

The pact declares a truce on attacks against “the Pakistan security forces” and “fellow Muslims in the tribal areas and elsewhere in Pakistan,” which Omar says are “harming the war against the United States and NATO forces.” 

According to retired Pakistani General Talat Masood, the pact is the reason for the recent truce in the Swat Valley and an end to the fighting in Bajaur Province in the Tribal Territories. In turn, the Pakistani Army has made it clear it has no intention of invading Waziristan, generally thought of as ground zero for the Taliban. 

However, recent attacks in Lahore and other parts of Pakistan indicate that not all of the Pakistani Taliban are on board. 

With NATO falling away, regional allies at each other’s throats, growing turmoil inside of Afghanistan, and the Taliban uniting, it is truly a “lions, and tigers and bears, oh my” moment for the Obama administration.  

But manipulated just right, the puzzle is solvable. 

For instance, while the Taliban have united to fight, Mullah Omar—through Saudi Arabian King Abdullah—also made a peace offering that no longer requires the western forces to withdraw before opening talks. The plan proposes setting a timetable for withdrawal, forming a “consensus government,” and consolidating the Taliban forces into a national army. 

The inclusion of Iran in an upcoming conference on Afghanistan draws in a key regional player that the Bush administration deliberately kept out of the process.  

To make all the cubes fit together, the Obama administration will have to recognize that the United States is only one player at the table, and that the interests of other parties, both inside and outside Afghanistan, must be given equal weight. It will also need to revisit the Bush administration’s ill-advised nuclear agreement with New Delhi, which not only increases tensions in the region, but also threatens to unravel a critically important international nuclear treaty. 

What it must avoid are an aggressive military surge like the one in 2005 that will only further destabilize Afghanistan and the dead-end tactic of refusing to talk to people you don’t agree with.