Afghanistan: The underpants option
“A defeatist position [in Afghanistan] is not possible for us. We cannot leave in our underpants... or without any.” That was Mikhail Gorbachev addressing senior Soviet officers in 1987, two years before the Soviets pulled out. Two years before NATO pulls out, the same frantic search is underway for something that could be called a victory, or at least “peace with honor.” Meanwhile, NATO soldiers die, together with many more Afghans.
The French are smart: All their troops will be gone from Afghanistan by the end of this year. The Canadians were even smarter: Almost all their troops left last year. But the rest of the NATO countries dumbly soldier on toward the scheduled departure date of 2014, even though the situation is clearly spinning out of control: One-quarter of the 48 Western troops killed in Afghanistan this August were murdered by Afghan government soldiers.
The most striking thing about these so-called “green-on-blue” killings, according to a 2011 Pentagon analysis reported by Bloomberg, is that only 11 percent of them are the result of infiltration by the Taliban. Most of them are due to grudges or disputes between coalition and Afghan army troops, which suggests that NATO’s current focus on training Afghan forces to “stand up” on their own is just as futile as all its previous strategies.
Last year a team of U.S. Army psychologists investigated the nature of these grudges and quarrels, conducting interviews with dozens of American and Afghan focus groups. Their report, “A Crisis of Trust and Cultural Incompatibility,” concluded that the Afghan troops see the American soldiers as “a bunch of violent, reckless, intrusive, arrogant, self-serving, profane infidel bullies hiding behind high technology.”
The U.S. troops, in return, generally view their Afghan allies as “a bunch of cowardly, incompetent, obtuse, thieving, complacent, lazy, pot-smoking, treacherous and murderous radicals.” This does not constitute the foundation for a successful collaboration.
The view of the Afghan soldiers is more positive, despite all that, than the civilian population’s attitude toward the foreign forces. A poll conducted in late 2010 by the Afghan Center for Socio-Economic Research reported that nearly 60 percent of civilians wanted all the foreign soldiers gone within a year. Forty percent would still want the foreigners out even if their departure meant that the violence got worse.
Yet less than 10 percent of Afghans, according to the same poll, actually want to see the Taliban back in power. They are not being inconsistent. They just don’t buy the standard Western line that only the foreign occupation has kept the Taliban and their alleged al-Qaeda allies from returning to power.
There is some evidence that the Taliban themselves don’t really believe that either. They remember that even when a Taliban government ruled in Kabul in 1996-2001, they never succeeded in extending their authority to the northern parts of the country where the non-Pashtun minorities live – and taken together, those minorities account for 60 percent of the population.
In an interview published in the “New Statesman” last month, a senior Taliban commander known as “Mawlvi” told Michael Semple, a former United Nations envoy to Kabul during the period of Taliban rule, that “the balance of power in the Afghan conflict is obvious. It would take some kind of divine intervention for the Taliban to win this war.”
The foreigners have lost their war, but the Taliban, still overwhelmingly Pashtun, will not be able to defeat all the other ethnic groups in the civil war that follows NATO’s departure. In fact, they won’t even do as well as they did in the similar civil war after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989: “The Taliban capturing Kabul is a very distant prospect,” Mawlvi said.
He may be wrong about that. His assumption is that after the foreigners leave the Afghan army, which is overwhelmingly recruited from the non-Pashtun groups, will break apart into the same Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara militias that thwarted the Taliban’s drive to control all of Afghanistan after the Soviets left.
But those ethnic militias no longer exist, and their former commanders have grown fat and corrupt in the service of the foreigners. It might prove impossible to rebuild them fast enough to thwart a post-occupation drive by the Taliban to seize the whole country – although they would probably be unable to hold the non-Pashtun areas in the long run.
The Taliban have won their war against the foreign occupiers, but they probably won’t win a decisive victory in the civil war that follows. And the only remaining way that the foreigners could still influence the outcome would be to dump their puppet president, Hamid Karzai, and start rebuilding the ethnic militias now.
They won’t do that, so their continued military presence over the next two years is irrelevant to the ultimate outcome. And public opinion in Afghanistan is turning against them so fast that they might still end up leaving without their underpants.