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Afghanistan: Some Eerie Parallels with the Soviet Era

donsutherland1

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The current state of affairs in Afghanistan provides a fresh example of the importance of understanding a state’s history and structure in designing policy and military strategies. The following excerpts from November 2009 (http://www.debatepolitics.com/break...his-war-options-changed-2.html#post1058360373) offer a starting point:

… a full discussion needs to examine, among other things, the past experiences concerning Czarist, British, and Soviet forces in Afghanistan, the failure of earlier "surges" to bring about a stable outcome, and Afghanistan's historically decentralized framework in which tribal leaders/local institutions play a larger role than its central government. Former Soviet President Gorbachev's warning, while unpleasant, goes to the heart of the convergence of Afghanistan's history and lack of governance structure. The Soviets had much greater manpower and much freer operating constraints and still failed to pacify Afghanistan.

Currently, Kabul is defined by corruption, cronyism, and incompetence, if not leadership that may not adequately represent all of Afghanistan's various ethnic or tribal groups. Afghanistan remains closer to a failed state than a viable national unit. The leadership issue is one that the military planners need to address. In the wake of previous failed strategies, they have a genuine burden to address the issues as to why the previous troop surges in Afghanistan, including one from earlier this year, proved ineffective, why their earlier plans failed to foresee how events unfolded to date, why one should have confidence that the outcome this time around will be different given Afghanistan's historic experience and current dynamics. They need to identify who specifically will be the key tribal leaders whose efforts will be leveraged in implementing the plan and how reliable have they been in the past. They need to identify what local institutions will be relied upon to complement the efforts of the additional troops, among others.

The historic experience, failure of earlier troop surges, and, arguably worst of all, previous strategies' failure to come close to anticipating the overall evolution of events does not inspire much confidence. Neither do the realities associated with failed or failing states.


With the passage of time since then, the eerie parallels between the Soviet debacle and U.S./NATO experience in Afghanistan have increased. Initially, the Soviets pointed to development that they believed were indications of progress. As those hopes of progress proved illusory and the pace of deterioration quickened, the Soviets engaged in an increasingly desperate battle to shape international perceptions so as to avoid the outcome’s being viewed as a failure. At the end of their withdrawal, they took particular pains to differentiate the outcome from the U.S. outcome in Vietnam.

At a June 26, 1986 Politburo session, President Gorbachev hailed indications of progress. “The Afghan society has…come through a whole stage, gained some experience, the processes will get straighter,” he told the Politburo. Exaggerating the competence and capabilities of the Afghan central government, Gorbachev added, “The road is open for them to act independently, and the new leadership there is ready and willing to do just that. They have shown themselves to be both wise and skillful and able to shoulder these important political decisions.”

In a January 21, 1987 Politburo session, Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze declared, “Many [rebel] bands—although they are not big—stopped armed struggle. Najib [Mohammed Najibullah, who had been elected Afghanistan’s President in November 1986] leaves a very good impression… I think that the leaders of the mojahadeen made a miscalculation having declined reconciliation.”

On May 12, 2010, President Obama pointed to progress in Afghanistan in joint remarks with Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai. He observed, “There is no denying the progress that the Afghan people have made in recent years -- in education, in health care and economic development, as I saw in the lights across Kabul when I landed -- lights that would not have been visible just a few years earlier.” He also suggested that the Karzai government was making progress declaring, “In his inaugural address, and at the London Conference, President Karzai committed to making good governance a top priority. And I want to acknowledge the progress that has been made, including strengthening anti-corruption efforts…”

Recently, CIA Director Leon Panetta stated that he had seen no evidence that hardline Taliban elements “are truly interested in reconciliation, where they would surrender their arms, where they would denounce al Qaeda, where they would truly try to become part of that society."

Public support for the war was declining among the Soviet people. Remarkable for a government that paid little heed to popular opinion, Soviet Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov told the Politburo in that January 1987 session, “Our people do not understand what we are doing there [Afghanistan]. Why are we sitting there for seven years.”

Over the past three years, U.S. public sentiment has swung against the Afghanistan war. A February 2007 ABC News/Washington Post poll showed that respondents felt that the war was “worth fighting” by a 56%-41% margin. In contrast, a June 2010 poll showed that respondents said the war was “not worth fighting” by a 53%-44% margin. A June 23-24, 2010 Newsweek poll indicated that 26% of respondents believed that the U.S. was winning the war in Afghanistan and 46% believed it was losing. Reflecting those increasingly pessimistic sentiments, a June 25-26, 2010 USA Today/Gallup Poll showed that Americans favored the July 2011 timetable for troop withdrawals by a 58%-38% margin.

At the June 1986 Politburo meeting, Gorbachev also worried about perceptions. “We just need to be sure that the final result does not look like a humiliating defeat: to have lost so many men and now abandoned it all.” At the January 1987 session, even as the Soviet foreign minister highlighted what he had seen as progress, Soviet military leaders were painting a dramatically different picture, all the while complaining about the Soviets’ rules of engagement that were being exploited against them “The military situation has deteriorated recently. The number of shelling of our garrisons has doubled,” Marshal Sergei Sokolov informed the Politburo, “They are mainly shooting from the hamlets, calculating that we would not fire at the settlements in response.” In addition, Sokolov bluntly told the Politburo, “This war cannot be won militarily. He warned that unless the Afghan government reached out under a program of national reconciliation, “the army will not achieve anything” in Afghanistan.

Things continued to worsen for the Soviets. Finally, on April 7, 1988 the USSR Defense Minister signed an order to bring about the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan. The Defense Ministry then issued a statement on February 14, 1989 after the last Soviet soldier had left Afghanistan. That statement was aimed at framing history in a desperate bid to avoid the withdrawal’s having been seen as a defeat along the lines of the Vietnam withdrawal. In part, the statement proclaimed:

It is important to note that some people are trying to create an analogy between the presence of Soviet troops in Afghanistan and the American actions in Vietnam. It is not only unfair but even absurd to draw such parallels. There cannot be any comparison here, because these two missions are diametrically opposite both in their objectives and tasks as well as in their content and results. Starting with the fact that nobody had invited the Americans in Vietnam, whereas the Soviet troops were sent to Afghanistan after numerous requests from the legitimate Afghan government. Completely different forms and methods were used [in Afghanistan]. We came in not with the goal to occupy and split the country, as it happened as a result of American actions, not with the goal [of] capturing foreign territory, but with the goal of providing internationalist assistance in the defense of sovereignty and territorial integrity of Afghanistan. We never pursued any selfish goals or set any conditions.

The recent Rolling Stone article depicted U.S./NATO Afghanistan commander General Stanley McChrystal’s senior staff as being very much concerned about perceptions. The article stated:

Even those who support McChrystal and his strategy of counterinsurgency know that whatever the general manages to accomplish in Afghanistan, it's going to look more like Vietnam than Desert Storm. "It's not going to look like a win, smell like a win or taste like a win," says Maj. Gen. Bill Mayville, who serves as chief of operations for McChrystal. "This is going to end in an argument."

In terms of the rules of engagement, the June 22, 2010 edition of The New York Times reported:

But the new rules have also come with costs, including a perception now frequently heard among troops that the effort to limit risks to civilians has swung too far, and endangers the lives of Afghan and Western soldiers caught in firefights with insurgents who need not observe any rules at all.

Young officers and enlisted soldiers and Marines, typically speaking on the condition of anonymity to protect their jobs, speak of “being handcuffed,” of not being trusted by their bosses and of being asked to battle a canny and vicious insurgency “in a fair fight.”


Often, in situations of decline, leaders confronted with a host of ever worse alternatives and psychologically unprepared to ignore the high costs (money and manpower) poured into the endeavor hesitate. They vacillate hoping that some breakthrough brought about by their persistence or unforeseen development alters the trajectory of their project. In February 1987, senior Soviet leaders took such a course. Former Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko criticized the Afghan government wagering, “I would not bet a dime that they can create their own Afghan army, no matter how much resources we invest in it.” At the same time, confronted with the alternative of abandoning the effort, he complained, “And yet, we have no alternatives but to supply it.” President Gorbachev added, “And [let us] not rush with pulling back the advisers, otherwise everybody will think that we are running away.”

Why then did the Soviets ultimately fail?

In a sometimes blunt assessment, Soviet senior leaders pointed to a failure to understand Afghanistan. Shevardnadze explained, “t is a fact that we went there absolutely not knowing the psychology of the people, or the real situation in the country.” A month later, he reiterated, “Once again we made a mistake [in intervening]—did not foresee what was in store for us.” Soviet Prime Minister Nikolai Ryzhkov complained, “The past information [provided to the Soviet leadership] was not objective… The society is illiterate. The revolution resulted in the deterioration of the situation for the people.” President Gorbachev noted that the USSR intervened with idealistic assumptions. “When we went into Afghanistan…we assumed that is was possible to jump up three stages at once—from feudalism to socialism.”

At this time, even as I do not believe that the U.S./NATO have reached a pivotal turning point where the only likely outcome is a decisive failure, I do believe that the risk of such an outcome has increased on account of the present Kabul/Karzai-centric strategy. Not unlike the Soviets, the U.S. appeared to assume that Afghanistan could make a revolutionary leap in governance, from Taliban-led feudalism to democracy. Like the Soviets, the U.S. centered its strategy around a central government, rather than the all-important and still influential tribal leaders who have a better chance at making a difference. As had been the case in the Soviet Union, public opinion has now turned against the war. In a democratic society, that raises genuine questions about sustainability, especially if significant progress is not achieved and costs mount, particularly in an increasingly hostile fiscal environment.

Continued...
 
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donsutherland1

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Going forward key questions include:

• Will the U.S. make a fundamental strategy adjustment away from the deeply flawed, corrupt, and incompetent Karzai regime or will the U.S. double-down with additional resources (even manpower) to try to strengthen that government? The former could lead to progress. The latter could lead to a muddled outcome or worse. Yet, given emotional ties, personalities and personal affinities might well take precedence over concrete interests and cold objectivity.

• Will the U.S. step up efforts to push the Karzai government to reconcile with the Taliban, much as the Soviets increasingly pushed the Najibullah government toward reconciliation, even as the power of that central government eroded? In general, when the on-the-ground situation deteriorates, enemies’ "asking prices" increase. Hence, increased concessions would be required to bring about such reconciliation. Should the Karzai government be viewed as weaker and more widely illegitimate among Afghans than is the case today, the already weak prospects for national reconciliation centered around Kabul would likely diminish.

• Will the U.S. engage in an increasingly aggressive public relations strategy aimed at shaping public perceptions?

• If the U.S. outcome heads toward a muddled outcome or worse (not the only scenario), will the U.S. initiate an agreement or series of agreements with the Karzai government under which it withdraws its forces under an agreed framework so as to avoid the perception that circumstances compelled the decision? Would it perhaps pursue a new loya jirga under international auspices to produce such a framework? Would key regional players ranging from Pakistan to Iran particpate and what terms would they demand? Would the Biden plan that would strictly limit U.S. involvement in Afghanistan to targeting Al Qaeda replace the more ambitious objectives that currently prevail?

In conclusion, inattention to history can be perilous. While I believe a reasonably satisfactory outcome in Afghanistan centered around the tribal leaders that limits the Taliban's/Al Qaeda's prospects to regain a safe haven in Afghanistan can still be salvaged, doing so will require tough strategic adjustments that better reflect that country’s history and structure. Such a shift would require replacing the Kabul/Karzai-centric focus to the nation’s myriad tribal leaders. Under such a strategic change, Afghanistan’s tribal leaders would be charged with allocating resources that would be furnished for reconstruction, economic development, education, within their jurisdictions. Security operations would be coordinated with the tribal leaders. Local security forces would be developed and trained. Those forces would be charged with maintaining security in areas under the jurisdiction of each tribal leader. They would be developed with attention to maintaining a careful balance of power so that no local area would be in a position to try to gain preeminence at the expense of others. Only truly national issues--those that impact the entire country--would be financed through and coordinated with the central government. Those efforts would immediately be focused on developing an adequate legal and constitutional framework, financial system, central army that would complement local security forces when needed (including a "balancing" role), not serve as a substitute for them, and ultimately an election that would create a government that Afgans would widely view as legitimate.
 
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Demon of Light

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In conclusion, inattention to history can be perilous. While I believe a reasonably satisfactory outcome in Afghanistan centered around the tribal leaders that limits the Taliban's/Al Qaeda's prospects to regain a safe haven in Afghanistan can still be salvaged, doing so will require tough strategic adjustments that better reflect that country’s history and structure. Such a shift would require replacing the Kabul/Karzai-centric focus to the nation’s myriad tribal leaders. Under such a strategic change, Afghanistan’s tribal leaders would be charged with allocating resources that would be furnished for reconstruction, economic development, education, within their jurisdictions. Security operations would be coordinated with the tribal leaders. Local security forces would be developed and trained. Those forces would be charged with maintaining security in areas under the jurisdiction of each tribal leader. They would be developed with attention to maintaining a careful balance of power so that no local area would be in a position to try to gain preeminence at the expense of others. Only truly national issues--those that impact the entire country--would be financed through and coordinated with the central government. Those efforts would immediately be focused on developing an adequate legal and constitutional framework, financial system, central army that would complement local security forces when needed (including a "balancing" role), not serve as a substitute for them, and ultimately an election that would create a government that Afgans would widely view as legitimate.
Sounds like a recipe for complete collapse of the country.
 
G

Gertwenger

Peace be to you.

I would agree, sort of like breaking it into tiny little bits........ with a warlord sitting on each bit, skirmishing with his neighbours. To make this work i.e. to keep the warlord in line, you'd need a strong central army, a LOCAL army, not a foreign one... and that ain't happenin'!

You've very rightly said that one should delve into history to understand one's present. The last periods of stability and of prosperity for Afghanistan have been during the Durrani dynasty, and the rule of Zahir Shah. During this period they had a form of administration called "Misaak-e-Mili". Where the tribes were indigenous, but owed allegiance to the monarch in the capital. The monarch had an army formed from bits from each tribe. BUT the monarch was a popular figure, who had acceptance from each individual tribe. Karzai is not that man. You need someone who is acceptable to everyone inside the country, and that's going to be difficult due to the pashtun - non-pashtun divide. So, for me, the trick here is to find THE GUY, and restoring "Misaak-e-Mili". Then comes Pakistan, you have to have someone who is approved by Pakistan. Because the only outlet for Sunni Afghanistan is Sunni Pakistan. Unfair I know, but that's the way it is.

As far as the similarities between the state of the US and Soviet Union in Afghanistan are concerned, I'll give you a few more examples, Alexander and Porus, Britain's three invasions during the great game.... Afghanistan is not a land to be a conquered.

And Allah knows best!
 

Korimyr the Rat

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Afghanistan is the anvil of empires. It was arrogant of us to believe that we could accomplish easily what the British and the Soviets before us could not do at all. At the same time, the Taliban harbored our enemies after they struck at us; this could not be tolerated, and now we cannot allow Afghanistan to once again be used as a safe harbor for those who would strike at us again. Failure in Afghanistan would be a decisive blow against our credibility as a superpower and would send a signal to our enemies that we are vulnerable-- that we do not have the power or the will to protect ourselves.
 

donsutherland1

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Afghanistan is the anvil of empires. It was arrogant of us to believe that we could accomplish easily what the British and the Soviets before us could not do at all. At the same time, the Taliban harbored our enemies after they struck at us; this could not be tolerated, and now we cannot allow Afghanistan to once again be used as a safe harbor for those who would strike at us again. Failure in Afghanistan would be a decisive blow against our credibility as a superpower and would send a signal to our enemies that we are vulnerable-- that we do not have the power or the will to protect ourselves.
I agree. The war was necessary. It is in the U.S. interest to have a successful outcome. Unfortunately, there was a glaring failure by the planners to learn from history. Now, it has been revealed that many of the earlier tactics, including use of heat-seeking missiles, are being repeated against NATO forces. History has always mattered.

IMO, the U.S. can still salvage a reasonable outcome, but to do so, it will need to significantly de-emphasize Kabul/Karzai, difficult psychologically as such a move would be given the resources and hope initially placed in Karzai/Kabul, and increase the role played by the tribal leaders who maintain the Afghan public's respect and who are reliable. The situation could well come down to a choice as to whether it is more important to sustain the Karzai regime or achieve core U.S. interests. As a Realist (foreign policy school), I'd argue for the latter if such a situation arises. De-emphasis on Kabul, confining it to truly national issues and symbolic ones, can avoid having to face such a stark choice.

But de-emphasis on Kabul is not yet being pursued to any large extent, though General Petraeus took a modest step in that direction with respect to organizing local Afghan security forces. IMO, the combination of corruption and incompetence in Kabul will likely continue to drain U.S. efforts of their potential positive impact. At the same time, the Taliban will continue to exploit their asymmetric competitive advantage over the U.S. in an exhausting war of attrition. Ultimately, public sentiments, lack of significant and sustained gains, and fiscal challenges will converge to compel the U.S. to seek either an early exit or a substantial downgrade of its objectives.
 
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donsutherland1

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In today's edition of The New York Times, there is an article that highlights anew how a corrupt Kabul regime's failure to provide services to parts of Afghanistan are being exploited by the Taliban, allowing the Taliban to make gains. Excerpts:

A corrupt judiciary and the lack of government services have made it easy for the Taliban to gain a foothold in rural areas. At least the Taliban judicial system is swift and free of bribes, said Nuria Hamidi, a provincial council member. “They are solving issues quicker than the government, and people in the bazaar say, ‘I had this problem or that problem and the Taliban solved it,’ ” she said...

There is little electricity, and rutted roads are common even in the cities. Resentments were fueled when a group of investors that included one of President Hamid Karzai’s brothers, Mahmoud Karzai, bought a local cement factory, then cut many of its jobs and paid those who remained lower salaries, according to provincial council members.


As is commonplace with respect to events in the South, there is also the example of a Karzai family member buying local assets. It remains highly likely that much of the Karzai family's wealth, particularly that of his half-brother Ahmad Wali Karzai, has been gained through a combination of cronyism in Kabul, the diversion of international assistance, and narcotics-related activities in an environment in which up to $1 billion per year in international assistance is being transferred by Dubai, among other places, by corrupt individuals. Last year, The Guardian revealed:

The president's brothers, Mahmoud and Ahmed Wali, are accused of having amassed millions of pounds since Mr Karzai took office even as most of Afghanistan remains poverty stricken. The development has fuelled a popular disillusionment and anger with the leadership that the Taliban has exploited.

Ahmed Wali Karzai has been dogged by allegations, which he denies, of involvement in the country's $3 billion opium trade, while Mahmoud Karzai has been accused of using his brother's influence to build a business empire that has made him one of the country's wealthiest men.


In the end, the need to de-emphasize the Karzai regime remains both urgent and critical. Failure to do so is contributing to Taliban gains and increasingly making it unlikely that the U.S. will meet its key timelines concerning the ongoing troop surge.
 

donsutherland1

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As noted previously, I believe that the U.S. can still salvage a reasonable outcome in Afghanistan, but to do so, it will need to significantly de-emphasize Kabul/Karzai, difficult psychologically as such a move would be given the resources and hope initially placed in Karzai/Kabul, and increase the role played by the tribal leaders who maintain the Afghan public's respect and who are reliable.

Indeed, Henry Kissinger has also expressed support for a provincial-centered approach rather than the current Kabul-centric one coupled with regional diplomacy. In the June 25, 2010 edition of The International Herald Tribune he wrote:


Afghanistan is a nation, not a state in the conventional sense. The writ of the Afghan government is likely to run in Kabul and its environs, not uniformly in the rest of the country. Some “soft power” project may be carried out on a national basis. In other respects, the attainable outcome is likely to be a confederation of semi-autonomous, feudal regions configured largely on an ethnic basis, dealing with one another by tacit or explicit understandings. American counterinsurgency strategy — no matter how creatively applied — cannot alter this reality...

Afghan strategy needs to be modified in four ways: The military effort should be conducted substantially on a provincial basis rather than in pursuit of a Western-style central government. The time scale for a political effort exceeds by a wide margin that available for military operations. We need a regional diplomatic framework for the next stage of Afghan strategy, whatever the military outcome. Artificial deadlines should be abandoned.
 
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rathi

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I agree that Karzai is unworkable as a leader, and that any successful means of accomplishing our goals in Afghanistan will require replacing him. Aside from the political issues with replacing him, exactly who is better qualified to take his place? How can we find a strong leader capable of stabilizing Afghanistan who shares our political goals?

Another option would be to forget actually trying to build a stable nation state and simply focus purely on denying Afghanistan as a base. Suppose we remove all forces from Afghanistan except a few isolated airbases supplied from the air surrounded by free-fire zones. We give carte-blanche to the local warlords and Taliban to do whatever they please except for harbor enemies of the U.S. Terrorist camps we find can simply be destroyed from the air without giving the enemy any ability to fight back. Although unable to completely suppress such activity with air power alone, the low cost and zero-casualty approach could be sustained indefinitely.
 

donsutherland1

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I agree that Karzai is unworkable as a leader, and that any successful means of accomplishing our goals in Afghanistan will require replacing him. Aside from the political issues with replacing him, exactly who is better qualified to take his place? How can we find a strong leader capable of stabilizing Afghanistan who shares our political goals?

Another option would be to forget actually trying to build a stable nation state and simply focus purely on denying Afghanistan as a base. Suppose we remove all forces from Afghanistan except a few isolated airbases supplied from the air surrounded by free-fire zones. We give carte-blanche to the local warlords and Taliban to do whatever they please except for harbor enemies of the U.S. Terrorist camps we find can simply be destroyed from the air without giving the enemy any ability to fight back. Although unable to completely suppress such activity with air power alone, the low cost and zero-casualty approach could be sustained indefinitely.
IMO, if the U.S. works with the various reliable tribal leaders, it will find it easier to make progress. In the end, it will be those tribal leaders who will have to decide whether to build a unified state or some other kind of arrangement. But the important thing is that a corrupt and impotent regime in Kabul won't be in a position to undermine the effort via widespread and legitimate public dissatisfaction that the Taliban exploits.
 

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I agree that Karzai is unworkable as a leader, and that any successful means of accomplishing our goals in Afghanistan will require replacing him. Aside from the political issues with replacing him, exactly who is better qualified to take his place? How can we find a strong leader capable of stabilizing Afghanistan who shares our political goals?
I apologize. If you follow the principles of democracy,..... the people of Afghanistan must himself choose his leader. Why did you decide that the U.S., EU, UN, NATO needs to do it for them?
 

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Another option would be to forget actually trying to build a stable nation state and simply focus purely on denying Afghanistan as a base. Suppose we remove all forces from Afghanistan except a few isolated airbases supplied from the air surrounded by free-fire zones. We give carte-blanche to the local warlords and Taliban to do whatever they please except for harbor enemies of the U.S. Terrorist camps we find can simply be destroyed from the air without giving the enemy any ability to fight back. Although unable to completely suppress such activity with air power alone, the low cost and zero-casualty approach could be sustained indefinitely.
In this case, the war drags on for another 100 years.
 

donsutherland1

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In what has been a bad few weeks for the U.S. highlighted by a possible breakdown of CIA-ISI cooperation in Pakistan and the White House's being caught unprepared by developments in Libya, there is now bad news from Afghanistan. The New York Times reports that in a troubling parallel to the Soviet experience there, the U.S. is poised to pull back from the Pech Valley that it previously considered critical to success in Afghanistan. The newspaper reported:

The Taliban and other Afghan insurgent groups are all but certain to label the withdrawal a victory in the Pech Valley, where they could point to the Soviet Army’s withdrawal from the same area in 1988. Many Afghans remember that withdrawal as a symbolic moment when the Kremlin’s military campaign began to visibly fall apart.

Within six months, the Soviet-backed Afghan Army of the time ceded the territory to mujahedeen groups, according to Afghan military officials.
 

donsutherland1

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Some four years later, one can revisit some of the points made at the beginning of this thread. Although the final outcome is still not a foregone conclusion, the direction of affairs is not encouraging. Briefly, four key questions were involved:

• Will the U.S. make a fundamental strategy adjustment away from the deeply flawed, corrupt, and incompetent Karzai regime or will the U.S. double-down with additional resources (even manpower) to try to strengthen that government? The former could lead to progress. The latter could lead to a muddled outcome or worse. Yet, given emotional ties, personalities and personal affinities might well take precedence over concrete interests and cold objectivity.

• Will the U.S. step up efforts to push the Karzai government to reconcile with the Taliban, much as the Soviets increasingly pushed the Najibullah government toward reconciliation, even as the power of that central government eroded? In general, when the on-the-ground situation deteriorates, enemies’ "asking prices" increase. Hence, increased concessions would be required to bring about such reconciliation. Should the Karzai government be viewed as weaker and more widely illegitimate among Afghans than is the case today, the already weak prospects for national reconciliation centered around Kabul would likely diminish.

• Will the U.S. engage in an increasingly aggressive public relations strategy aimed at shaping public perceptions?

• If the U.S. outcome heads toward a muddled outcome or worse (not the only scenario), will the U.S. initiate an agreement or series of agreements with the Karzai government under which it withdraws its forces under an agreed framework so as to avoid the perception that circumstances compelled the decision? Would it perhaps pursue a new loya jirga under international auspices to produce such a framework? Would key regional players ranging from Pakistan to Iran participate and what terms would they demand? Would the Biden plan that would strictly limit U.S. involvement in Afghanistan to targeting Al Qaeda replace the more ambitious objectives that currently prevail?

Very clearly, even through its troop surge, which peeled back the Taliban while it lasted, the U.S. threw its weight behind the Kabul/Karzai approach. A strategic political shift toward a greater role for the tribes and lesser role for the corrupt Kabul government was not made.

The U.S. also encouraged reconciliation with the Taliban, albeit with some conditions e.g., those involved in reconciliation would commit to supporting the Karzai government. Little reconciliation was achieved, as the Taliban resisted the even modest conditions that were required. Instead, the Taliban believed that its current approach offered more rewards in the long-term than reconciliation did.

U.S. public reports from Afghanistan have typically been more positive than independent media accounts. Part of the gap can be explained by the U.S. focus on surge successes while the media focused on political and social matters beyond the narrower emphasis on the results of the troop surge.

For the fourth issue, U.S. forces are now in the process of withdrawing. A timeline is in place. Even as the U.S. has tried to conclude a status of forces agreement, the Karzai government has resisted, hoping to reap the benefits of U.S. forces' presence without actually having to commit to anything. That position highlights anew the strategic blunder of maintaining a Kabul/Karzai-centric focus.

In the end, a muddled outcome appears increasingly likely. It may be the most likely outcome in the short-term. Such a situation would see the Taliban gain effective control over a larger part of Afghanistan and hold swathes of territory. The Taliban could potentially pose an existential threat in the medium- or longer-term, if it makes the decision to try to regain control of Afghanistan.

Today, The New York Times reported that the Taliban has been expanding its area of control in Afghanistan. The newspaper reported:

Taliban fighters are scoring early gains in several strategic areas near the capital this summer, inflicting heavy casualties and casting new doubt on the ability of Afghan forces to contain the insurgency as the United States moves to complete its withdrawal of combat troops, according to Afghan officials and local elders.

The Taliban have found success beyond their traditional strongholds in the rural south and are now dominating territory near crucial highways and cities that surround Kabul, the capital, in strategic provinces like Kapisa and Nangarhar.


The U.S. still has time to make corrections. However, with the public mood in the U.S. having soured greatly, such a move would be deeply unpopular. Moreover, with a government that has shown surprisingly little strategic capacity in large areas of foreign affairs and has instead been overly ad hoc and reactive in its approach, the posture adopted might well fall short of what would be required (structural and political changes, along with troop levels). By default, the U.S. is now moving toward the Biden plan where its focus becomes limiting Al Qaeda's capacity to regain influence and capacity in Afghanistan.
 
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