The Afghanistan Dilemma

  The Whisper of Sun Tzu


From July to October 2010, I wrote a series of 13 articles on the Afghanistan War. I am not going to repeat the whole series, but an updated review of some of the highlights is necessary for public understanding of past and potentially tragic current events.

wikipedia photo by Jim Kelly.

Afghanistan is a landlocked mountainous country at the crossroads of South and Central Asia. Its most important borders are with Iran and Pakistan, but it also borders Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and even has a small border with China.

After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the United States, which killed over 3,000 people, American, British, and Allied troops of 36 other nations became involved in defeating the radical Islamist allies of al-Qaeda and bringing peace and stability to Afghanistan.

The security of the United States and many nations depended on the success of their mission, but it would not be an easy one. Many empires, nations, and alliances in the past have found Afghanistan to be a hellish trial.

Once part of the Persian Empire, Afghanistan is a country of 32 million people, approximately 80 percent Sunni Muslim and 19 percent Shia Muslim. In addition, about 2.7 million Afghan refugees are in neighboring Pakistan.

The area that is now Afghanistan was a crossroad of trade, war, and empires in ancient times. Its temporary conquerors included Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan. It is a region of mountains and windswept plains, frigid in winter, and blazing hot in the summer. Water flows through the country from the melting winter snows in the mountains, but the climate is generally dry. It is a country rich in unexploited minerals, but its major products representing 35 percent of the economy are illicit drugs made from growing poppy and exported as opium, morphine, heroin, and hashish.

Afghanistan is a land of ethnic diversity and strong tribal loyalties. Approximately 49 percent speak Afghan Persian (Dari) as their first language, which is also widely spoken as a second language. It is the primary language of the second largest tribal group, the Tajiks, representing 27 percent of the Afghan population. Pashtun is the first language of about 37 percent, but the Pashtun tribes make up about 42 percent of Afghanistan’s population. Approximately eleven percent of Afghans speak Turkic languages, primarily Uzbek and Turkmen. The rest speak 30 different languages.

Modern Afghanistan began about 1709 with the rise of the Pashtun and became an established state in 1747. The cost-adjusted per capita income for Afghanistan was only $2,024 in 2018, 169th in the world. In 2010, two-thirds of the population lived on less than two U.S. dollars per day. In 2018, adult male literacy was about 56 percent and female literacy 30 percent. This is a major improvement from 2000, when male literacy was 43 percent and female literacy was only 13 percent.  Literacy courses are now mandatory for the Afghan National Security Forces.

The well-equipped Afghan National Security Forces number about 182,000, including 7,000 Air Force personnel. In addition, the National Police Force numbers about 119,000. Active Taliban forces are estimated at 60,000.

In the nineteenth century, the British and Russian empires vied for dominance of Afghanistan and Southwest Asia in what has been called the “Great Game.” The British occupied Afghanistan periodically from 1839 to 1919 and fought three Anglo-Afghan wars in 1839-1842, 1878-1880, and lastly in 1919, when the British halted an Afghan attempt to occupy the Khyber Pass on the then Indian border. The subsequent 1919 treaty resulted in Afghanistan’s sovereign independence under King Amanulla Khan. Afghanistan’s closest diplomatic relationship thereafter was the newly formed Soviet Union. Both the British and Russian experiences in Afghanistan are relevant to understanding current events.

In April 1978, a Communist takeover turned the Afghan monarchy into a Soviet sponsored Communist People’s Democratic Republic. By late 1979, Mujahideen (holy warrior) Islamic guerilla resistance was so great, Soviet leaders decided to invade Afghanistan to support its allied Communist regime. After a costly and futile experience and a change in Soviet leadership led by Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet Union withdrew its troops in 1989, leaving Afghanistan in civil wars, in which 400,000 were killed. The fanatical Islamist Taliban emerged as dominant over the more moderate Northern Alliance in 1996 after taking the capital at Kabul. The Taliban supported Osama Bin Laden and his al-Qaeda attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001.

The U.S. and UK began bombing al-Qaeda positions in October 2001, and by December 2001, with NATO assistance, the Taliban government in Kabul was overthrown and Northern Alliance leader Hamid Karzai became President of Afghanistan. But the ruthless and fanatically fundamentalist Taliban persisted in its control of about 50 percent of Afghan territory. NATO troop presence peaked in 2011 at 140,000. By 2018, U.S. and NATO forces had been reduced to 18,000. In 2006, a Washington Post survey indicated most Afghans strongly opposed the Taliban and appreciated U.S. and NATO presence. [This survey must have been in areas safe from the Taliban’s ruthless intolerance for dissent.]

Most American military leaders favored crushing or degrading the Taliban to the point that they would not be a serious threat to the Northern Alliance or effective protection for al-Qaeda or other international jihadist organizations.

President George W. Bush pulled off a great victory using the CIA, U.S. Special Forces, and the Afghanistan Northern Alliance to quickly overthrow the Taliban government and remove the immediate threat of al-Qaeda operations from Afghanistan. However, he had a serious misunderstanding of Islam that helped doom further success. Islam is not a religion close to Christianity or Judaism. Their mutual connection to Abraham is operationally irrelevant. Al-Qaeda terrorism was based on the teachings of the Koran and Muhammad. Jihad, holy unceasing war against all non-Muslims and the eventual triumph of Islam over all other religions and belief systems, is the dominant theme of the Koran and Sunna, the collected sayings and acts of Muhammad. The golden rule of Islam and Islamic Law (Sharia) is to follow the example of Muhammad, who was not a man of peace, but a warlord dedicated to war against all non-Muslims. But the official U.S. government narrative became that Islam was a religion of peace and tolerance.

There are many secularized or cultural Muslims and Muslim political leaders who do not embrace the strict Jihadism of Muhammad and Sharia Law, but the Taliban and many Muslim nations are not among them. The Northern Alliance and those who have helped us in Afghanistan are among the moderate minority in Islam, and we should feel obligated to honor their brave loyalty to us.

Bush also used Pakistan and Saudi Arabia for advice and help that was counterproductive to our objective to defeat the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Bush also thought he could remake Afghanistan into an American style democracy. That is a difficult and long-term goal in any case, but Muslim clergy believe democracy dishonors the rule of Allah.

President Obama also embraces the religion of peace and tolerance narrative on Islam. By 2010, President Obama’s plan was essentially the Pakistanization of the war. As the U.S. and NATO pulled out, Pakistan would take over the job of stabilizing Afghanistan. But Pakistan is one of the more fanatical Islamic nations and has had a cozy and ambiguous relationship with the Taliban that would probably result in a large part of Afghanistan remaining under Taliban control, opening up an opportunity again for al-Qaeda or other Islamic terrorist organizations to use Afghanistan for more terrorist attacks on the United States.

President Obama thoroughly jeopardized the possibility of peace and his own plan by announcing a July 2011 target date to leave Afghanistan. The primary strategy of guerilla warfare against stronger occupying forces is simply to outwait them. Guerillas avoid decisive battles but keep inflicting casualties and creating a climate of fear and political instability. Usually, it is the politicians on the home front of the occupying force who decide that the war is politically uncomfortable and start agitating to pull out. Encouraging guerillas by announcing an exit date signals weakness, lack of determination, and a pending “white flag.”  Obama also began replacing the older generation of generals with those more compatible to his thinking.

President Trump realized the enormous financial costs and futility of the war but intended to make withdrawal contingent on Taliban compliance with the terms and was willing to demonstrate overwhelming American airpower and other means to enforce it.

Meanwhile in 2021, the Biden Administration is applying pressure (pleading) for Pakistan to push for a negotiated settlement. But there are rallies and cheering in Pakistan for the Taliban. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan has not condemned recently reported Taliban atrocities or placed any restriction on Taliban rallies in Pakistan. Perhaps the Taliban are moving with such confidence and speed because they know they have a powerful ally in Pakistan.

Chinese General Sun Tzu (died 496 BC) advised that for victory it was necessary to know your enemies. Yet we insist on denying the well documented truth about potential enemies. We are following a dangerous false narrative.

Any U.S. exit from Afghanistan that can be construed by the Muslim world as a face saving American negotiated surrender will likely prove a huge and lasting encouragement to terrorists everywhere. In addition, Russia and China will probably see it as an opportunity to assert their power wherever in the world they choose. We are in a considerable dilemma, but we should not fall prey to accepting a false peace that will really mean continuous and ever-increasing war and destruction of global prosperity and freedom.




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