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A 'Middle Way' on Afghanistan

By Bruce P. Cameron
November 5, 2009

Editor’s Note: As the Obama administration struggles with what to do about Afghanistan, we have published a variety of articles about the bloody dilemma, some urging a U.S. military withdrawal and others suggesting smarter ways for a continued American engagement.

In this article, foreign policy analyst Bruce Cameron lays out his ideas for “a middle way” that would forego a military escalation, seek to tamp down the violence and undertake a pragmatic reconstruction program:

U.S. policymakers may be contemplating some middle way on Afghanistan, but I haven’t seen it yet, at least not from the words and signals coming from President Barack Obama’s administration.

But such a possibility must be hiding somewhere between “on the one hand, an all-out counterinsurgency campaign with many more troops” and “on the other hand, a counter-terrorism program with smart bombs and special forces but with most other U.S. troops heading home.”

So, here is a stab at laying out a middle course that might work.

First, there must be an acknowledgement of some hard – and unpleasant – truths. The United States has been engaged in Afghanistan for a long time, at least since 1979 when the Carter administration began a small-scale covert operation against a Soviet-backed communist government, through George W. Bush’s 2001 invasion and an eight-year “muddling through,” underfunded occupation that was overly dependent on air power.

While American historians can point to some good from those three decades, the United States has done a lot of harm, too, often backing the worst of the warlords, arguably paving the way for the rise of the Taliban, and slaughtering thousands of Afghanis with misguided aerial bombings.

Recognizing these bloody misjudgments, some on the American Left say the best course is simply for U.S. forces to withdraw and let the Afghanis work out their differences as best they can.

Yet, the impulse to call it quits has a downside, too. Pulling out U.S. troops entirely could have devastating consequences for democratic elements and other non-fundamentalist forces in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Further, it may be reasonable for the United States to stay on awhile at least to repair some of the past damage.

But a wise middle course would recognize the dangerous U.S. tendency to resort too readily to violence and to ignore its destructive consequences. Much of today’s Afghan resistance to the U.S. military presence has resulted from careless American and NATO attacks that have claimed civilian lives and destroyed civilian infrastructure.

So, while maintaining roughly current troop levels, "the middle way" would call for the Army and Marines to cease offensive operations. American soldiers would deploy only in relatively secure areas, like the Germans now do.

That would minimize U.S. casualties, which are on the rise, and limit the collateral damage to civilians that comes with aggressive military campaigns. The greatest imperative would be to do no harm.

The only exceptions should be if there is a time-specific operation to deal with serious actions by the Taliban or al-Qaeda against U.S. or allied forces, or to stop a major offensive by Taliban forces, or to diffuse an al-Qaeda attack.

That means there should be a stop to deployments like the one that the Marines undertook last summer in Helmand province. Nor should the U.S. troops remain in Taliban strongholds like Kandahar.

Ethnic Retrenchment

The ethnic map lends itself to such a retrenchment, which would involve shifting away from the Pashtun heartland in the east and south. While abandoning Kandahar and its environs, the United States could encourage Pashtuns who have sided with U.S./NATO forces to move northward to areas under allied control.

The U.S., NATO and Afghan government forces could base themselves around Kabul and in northern areas dominated by the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Turkmen, relatively friendly areas. Coalition forces also should be able to establish themselves in the Dari-speaking Shi’a Muslim (Hazara) areas to the west of Kabul.

In these secure areas, the coalition could accelerate reconstruction, including development of a decentralized bureaucracy to provide an array of government services. Schools can be built for students who have shown promise. International health agencies could lower infant mortality, ameliorate chronic diseases such as malaria, measles, polio and tuberculosis, and stem outbreaks of hemorrhagic fever and cholera.

The U.S./NATO reconstruction efforts would expand gradually, only moving into districts that the U.S. military is confident it can hold and where development can be painstakingly promoted.

The reconstruction goal would not be to create a paradise, but it might seem like paradise to the Afghans who have witnessed the United States often leaving behind greater poverty and misery, especially after purported American victories, first over the Soviets in the early 1990s and then in 2001-2002 after the post-9/11 U.S. invasion.

New areas absorbed into these areas of U.S./NATO influence should also be contiguous. I have read alarming reports of major actions by the Taliban in the northern areas because so many U.S. soldiers have moved south to more contested territory.

While I disagree with Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s overall strategy to deploy 40,000 more U.S. troops (on top of the roughly 60,000 Americans now there) and to battle the Taliban in Pashtun-dominated areas, I do like one part of his plan – to deploy a new battalion in the west – because it could strengthen support among the Dari-speaking Shi’a.

It must be remembered that the Afghan Taliban are well financed with a hand in the drug trade, which is valued at $3 billion to $4 billion per annum, and with untold millions of dollars flowing from sympathizers in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates.

Despite that, the United States can compete with the Taliban, who are disliked by many Afghans for the Taliban's harsh rule in the late 1990s, but a successful strategy is not about more soldiers and more violence. That would only feed the anger of the Afghan people and exacerbate their historic distrust of foreigners.

Pragmatic Alternatives

Given the fact that the Bush administration squandered an opportunity to address Afghanistan’s needs eight years ago – by rapidly redirecting U.S. resources to the Iraq invasion – perhaps the best the United States can do now is to calm the violence down, offer assistance where it is still welcomed, and become a more benign presence.

The Obama administration also must address another fundamental problem, the lack of qualified Afghan officials and a functioning Afghan government, both in Kabul and at the local level.

President Obama appears to be aware of this problem, since he asked his experts to come up with an inventory of local leaders and their capabilities. He also has spoken to President Hamid Karzai about the urgent need to confront rampant corruption.

By and large, Afghanistan has been without a professional cadre of bureaucrats since the communist government collapsed in 1992. While Karzai’s administration is frequently – and rightly – denounced for corruption, it also deserves condemnation for ignoring the tedious work of building a skilled government bureaucracy.

As Obama seeks to sort through these complexities, he finds himself under mounting pressure from many Washington analysts, especially conservatives and neoconservatives, who are demanding that the President immediately grant McChrystal’s request for more troops in order to pursue a countrywide counterinsurgency strategy.

These analysts claim that time is of the essence and that any pullback would only embolden the Taliban and lead to a possible collapse of the Karzai government.

Karzai, after all, is a Pashtun and his base of support, to the degree that he has one, is in the Pashtun southern areas where the Taliban also are the strongest. So, Karzai’s successful emergence from the recent fraud-plagued election could make it harder to pursue a strategy that scales back the U.S./NATO presence in the south.

However, fears of an imminent Taliban victory appear alarmist. Even if the United States must settle for a temporary standoff with the Taliban – while an Afghan government infrastructure is assembled and negotiations with more moderate Taliban are tried – the likelihood is not for a sudden collapse.

Plus, it is way past time to adjust the three-decade U.S. emphasis on supporting Pashtun leaders – often fundamentalists – to the near exclusion of other ethnic groups. The billions of dollars in covert CIA assistance in the 1980s and early 1990s – much of it funneled through Pakistan’s intelligence agency, ISI – virtually assured the ascendance of the Taliban, a fundamentalist Pashtun group organized and trained by the ISI.

For that miscalculation alone, the United States owes a huge debt to the Afghan people. But correcting the past mistakes must involve applying a more peaceful, more constructive, more realistic and more humble approach, one that does what it can to help while minimizing violence.

By easing resentments in areas of strong U.S. influence and by showing more patience with reconstruction, Obama might find that time is on his side and that calls for an urgent military buildup are misguided.

Recognizing all the past U.S. mistakes and the Afghan animosities toward the eight-year occupation, another difficult truth may be that there is little the United States can still achieve militarily in this volatile region, at least in the near term.

The best strategy may be to refrain from the temptation to escalate – and instead look to the Afghan and Pakistani people to point the way toward an eventual solution.

If this middle-way strategy works, the United States might gain a secure base from which to challenge the Taliban in the future – and when U.S. forces eventually leave, there might at least be a part of Afghanistan where the people come first.

Bruce P. Cameron has served as a Washington lobbyist for various governments over the past several decades, including Nicaragua, Mozambique, Portugal and East Timor. He is the author of My Life in the Time of the Contras.

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