I know that in the current news-and-analysis cycle, I may as well not even be discussing something that was published nearly a month ago. Still, I’d like to get in the way-back machine and discuss an New York Times editorial titled “Learning From Wikileaks,” which remains interesting to me because its author, Mitchell LaFortune, was a military analyst in Afghanistan, and because of the tortured logic he uses. Indeed, the title is somewhat ironic in light of how little seems to have been learned from nearly a decade in Afghanistan.
As he is beginning to lay out his argument, LaFortune suggests that Americans who believe that the war in Afghanistan is not worth continuing, including House members who voted against a war appropriations bill, “fail to understand the complexity and scale of the war effort, which leads to a flawed analysis.” This seems deeply questionable – an expensive morass needs to be continued because it is actually more complicated and difficult than its detractors suggest? Certainly this is a less than promising situation. Perhaps, though LaFortune has a solid argument backing up this odd assertion? He says:
“For example, many have bemoaned the rash of sophisticated attacks in Eastern Afghanistan. But allied attention has been focused on the easier fight of evicting the Taliban from the agrarian provinces of the south, not combating the complex enemy in the east.”
So, readers, the US may be losing “the war of perception,” the war may seem to be going badly, but worry not! It looks bad while we’re doing the easy parts – we’re not even focusing on the complicated parts! Of course, if this easier fight in the south consists of things like the Operation in Marjah, which involved easily taking a city from insurgents who simply dissolved into the countryside, only to return to fight their slow guerrilla war, it remains very unclear as to how well we are even doing in the “easier fight.”
LaFortune then gives his fundamental rationale for staying in Afghanistan – that there must be a “robust intelligence and quick-strike military structure” there and across the border in Pakistan. This quick-strike military structure presumably refers to UAV “drones” and small units used mostly to carry out assassinations, a tactic that has a very mixed record when it comes to defeating insurgent and opposition groups (see: Vietnam, Hamas.) It must also of course be asked if maintaining this sort of structure requires “winning a war” there. It can also be asked why this structure must be in place. LaFortune asserts that withdrawing from Afghanistan would leave the Pakistani Taliban free to overthrow Pakistan’s government, which would then “give Al Qaeda all the time it needs to reconstitute its network.” It is not at all clear that if the Afghani Taliban were to again take control of Afghanistan (basically, taking back Kabul) that they would welcome the presence of al Qaeda. There was never a great intimacy between the two. Before the attacks on the World Trade Center, Mullah Omar is supposed to have come close to turning Osama Bin Laden over to Saudi Arabia, which was a great supporter of the Taliban. A decade later, the Taliban is unlikely to be very thankful to al Qaeda for getting them driven from power. In declaring the danger of an al Qaeda-friendly Pakistan, LaFortune first makes the shallow assumption that two groups with Islamist philosophies will enthusiastically ally with each other. He then goes much further in assuming that the sort of Taliban-identified groups that have a chance of controlling a mostly rural, agrarian nation of 28 million with an army full of illiterate drug addicts will fare similarly in a far more industrialized nation of 178 million people with a strong professional army.
Having established that the U.S. goal in Afghanistan is not to create a stable, honest government, LaFortune laments that the military’s focus on disrupting the supply lines that bring explosive to insurgents does little to establish the secure environment that would allow for economic growth in Afghan cities. He also complains that that overloading of soldiers with protective equipment keeps U.S. soldiers from being able to win the trust of local leaders. Yet at the same time, he believes that the rules of engagement are too restrictive to allow for effective killing of insurgents. These are rules of engagement put in place in an effort to minimize civilian causalities, those being foremost grievance of the Afghans he wants to win the trust of through human contact and economic growth.
So LaFortune doesn’t need a strong central government in Kabul, but he does require economic growth and safety in the rest of the country. In making this formulation, he points to how Afghanistan functioned in the 1970s: by his description, with a weak central government, strong local leaders and weak religious leaders. To move towards this system, LaFortune wants aid and protection to go directly to local leaders, bypassing the Karzai government. Considering the enormous corruption (and CIA paychecks) in the Karzai government, this isn’t necessarily a bad idea. LaFortune does explain how the U.S. should decide which local leaders should receive this funding. Should a local warlord be given support if he is the only party in a situation that has an ability to provide the stability necessary for economic growth? What about leaders who may have at some point aligned themselves with the Taliban? Does the U.S. give support simply to anyone who promises to keep out “al Qaeda” and “the Taliban” and may have the ability to provide local stability? If we’re not specifically supporting groups and people who hold values we think will be beneficial to Afghanistan’s future development, what exactly is the different between this plan and simply giving development money directly to the Taliban, with the one condition that they don’t harbor international terrorists?
The last plank of LaFortune’s plan is an attempt to counteract the power of clerics affiliated with the Taliban and the Haqqani Network. He blames the power of clerics on the Soviet occupation, stating that anti-Soviet resistance movements ultimately left religious figures with a “higher social standing” than local leaders. LaFortune says that this increase in clerical standing meant it was “not hard to foresee the rise of the Taliban.” (Never mind that the Taliban is not only a religious fundamentalist movement, it is also a Pushtun nationalist movement, originally consisting of Pashtuns driven into the Pakistani borderlands by post-Soviet in-fighting, and then backed by Pakistan’s intelligence services.) His curious solution for the problem of Taliban-controlled religious authority is a system of “mobile mullahs” who would be protected by American troops as they move from place to place settling land and other disputes. LaFortune specifies that “these men should come from the general areas in which they will be performing their duties and be approved by community leaders.” It is astonishing that LaFortune believes that in Afghanistan, of all places, religious leaders could possibly gain acceptance while being constantly trailed by the military forces of a foreign power.
LaFortune’s plan for Afghanistan is self-contradictory on many fronts. Ultimately, it barely addresses the basic reasons for militant insurgency in Afghanistan. The plan’s raison d’etre is to prevent the Pakistan Taliban from gaining control of all of Pakistan, yet he spends absolutely no time explaining how likely or unlikely this outcome is or which it views only as a base to prevent events in Pakistan, the likelihood of which LaFortune does not make a case for.