Stalemate Sounds About Right
I got to listen to a talk about Afghanistan the other day from Anand Ghopal, a writer for the Christian Science Monitor, and soon, the Wall Street Journal. He offered a really detailed, comprehensive take about the challenges we face in Afghanistan, clearing up some misconceptions about the country. The Taliban, he said, cannot take over the country. They are confined to their ethnic Pashtun base, which represents maybe 40% of the population. The other ethnicities, perhaps because of lingering effects of past civil wars and repression, still hate the Taliban and want the American presence. However, the Americans have little ability to successfully remove the Taliban insurgency from those Pashtun areas, because they are deeply embedded there. It's basically a stalemate, and only a political reconciliation can resolve it. In the meantime, airstrikes and house raids make the US less and less welcomed in the region. And then there's the sticky problem of Pakistan, fighting the indigenous Taliban presence in their own country while continuing to offer aid and comfort to the Afghan Taliban. Ghopal had much, much more, but I think the word "mess" came to mind several times during the talk.
And that shines through in recent coverage of the war. The British launched a major offensive against Taliban forces, using just 350 troops and an enormous amount of air superiority. This is the precise OPPOSITE of what escalation would facilitate - and end to relying on airstrikes. As a result people just left the area and melted away. There was nothing left to hit, except the IEDs that the insurgents laid for the incoming troops. We actually got Kyrgyzstan to reverse their decision to deny air basing rights to US troops, albeit with higher rent (read: bribes), but the very fact that we continue to rely on air bases to resolve this conflict shows the dichotomy between trying to win hearts and minds while dropping bombs on the heads of villagers. In Pakistan, this is more intense, as a drone attack killed 60 mourners at a funeral for a Pakistani Taliban leader, in an effort to strike at Baitullah Mehsud, who earlier killed a key rival and the kind of moderate Taliban with whom a settlement could be reached. Clearly other rivals to Mehsud will be scared off from siding with the West after this incident.
Through all of this, the question of why we continue in Afghanistan persists. The country is desperately poor and we've exhausted practically all of our goodwill by the Bush Administration failing to follow through on any of their promises to the people. The country has never known a central government and shouldn't be expected to suddenly sprout a durable one. And the question of "denying safe havens to Al Qaeda" seems to me to be moot, considering that the current insurgency does not have the same radical view of Islam as the previous Taliban, and even Gen. Petraeus has acknowledged that Al Qaeda holds no footprint in the country. Today 138 House members called for an exit strategy in Afghanistan, and while they lost the vote as an amendment to the Defense Authorization Bill, I have a feeling that those numbers will grow.