Today we begin the tenth year of warfare in Afghanistan. It is, of course, a day like any other, but benchmark dates like this are also a good opportunity to step back and take a look at where things are going.
According to some reports, things are going swell. Here’s a link to a report which says the Taliban are on the verge of collapse. Their best leaders are dead, their soldiers are outnumbered, poorly-equipped, and demoralized.
“The Taliban are getting an absolute arse-kicking,” said one top-level Westerner deeply involved with Operation Ham Kari, the latest big push by US and British forces in Kandahar, as reported in The Australian. “It’s been their worst year since 2001-02. We’re taking them off the battlefield in industrial numbers. We’re convinced that the initiative has really shifted.”
Maybe so. But here’s a report from U.S. Marines fighting in Marjah, and in their opinion the Taliban are still full of fight.
But as I said, it’s worth taking a step back from the platoon and company level battles and ask how the war is going. The answer, in my opinion, is it is not going well. It’s not that the fighting isn’t going our way; it’s that the fights we are winning are not securing war-winning objectives. They are not bringing the war to a successful conclusion.
We fight the Taliban in the countryside and beat them wherever we can find them, but the purpose of beating the Taliban in fire fights is to enable the Afghan government to come in behind us and establish secure, fair, and stable governance. If they cannot, all the fire fights do is spill blood. So far, the Afghan government has been unable to have much impact on the countryside outside the city limits of the provincial capitals, and sometimes much beyond the outskirts of Kabul.
If that government cannot deliver the goods at the village and town level, we need to bring our people home. All they are doing there is killing and being killed, and to no strategic purpose. We cannot win the war without the mechanism of a just peace, and right now we clearly do not have that mechanism.
Instead we continue the fight and escalate it, in hopes something will turn up, in hopes we will somehow “turn the corner.” We seem to believe doing the same thing we have been doing for going on ten years, but doing it harder, will change everything, as if by magic.
It is changing things, but not in the way we want.
Our reluctant but essential strategic partner in Afghanistan is Pakistan, the only Islamic state with a nuclear arsenal. Frustrated with Pakistan’s ability to police its tribal border regions, we have taken it upon ourselves to do so unilaterally, with cross-border special operations and drone aircraft missile strikes. The drone missile strikes kill key Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders. They also kill innocent civilians, and they enrage the Pakistanis who see these U.S. acts as the ultimate in arrogance. We routinely violate their sovereignty, without their permission, without even notifying them, and we do it because we choose to, and because we can.
Last week that growing national rage boiled over in Pakistan and the Pakistanis closed the main logistical route across the border into Afghanistan. Well, to be accurate, they closed it to NATO logistical convoys. It is still open to the Taliban. More ominously, reports have begun to emerge that the ISS, Pakistan’s security service, is encouraging Taliban groups negotiating with the Afghan government to break off their negotiations and continue to fight. Pakistan denies the charges, and it’s always hard to pin things like this down, but the fact that some U.S. officials consider the reports at least possible is a gauge to how really pissed off the Pakistanis are right now.
And here’s the kicker: Afghanistan is a landlocked country with sheep and rocks and not much prospect of getting anything better in the near future. They have the capacity to be an annoyance, but not much more.
Pakistan, however, is different. It has a large, modern army, access to the sea, and the capacity to be a regional or even global economic player of it can get out of its own way long enough to rebuild its educational system. And it has nukes, somewhere between 60 and 200 warheads.
Some writers are already noticing that the Afghan War is evolving into the Pakistan War.
Here is what I think we should recognize: the strategic prize in the region is Pakistan, not Afghanistan. If we undertake specific actions which give us a military advantage in Afghanistan at the price of destabilizing Pakistan, we are acting stupidly. We are risking dollars to win pennies.
If Pakistan begins to crumble, we will finally wake up, and we will scramble to do whatever we can to arrest the slide, and by then it will be too late.About the Author: The major landmarks in Frank's historical interests range from ancient Persia through the Crimean War, World War II, and the modern U.S. Armed Forces, with a lot of stops in between. Frank is fascinated by the unusual, the overlooked, and the surprising. He is the New York Times number one best-selling author of the Desert Shield Fact Book (1991) and he is currently writing an historical novel on Alexander's conquest of Persia – from the Persian point of view.