September 8, 2009

Genie in the Bottle

The chatter over Afghanistan (it can hardly be called a debate) is turning towards drones and special operations as an alternative to troop escalation. Americans, disapproving of escalation by a large majority, are bombarded by the government, its affiliated think tanks, and the media’s talking points. They can only sit and watch helplessly.

Few options are available, but there is none in the ultimate sense. Most officials inside General McChrystal’s review group favor more troops as does Joint Chief of Staff Michael Mullen. President Obama is reportedly leaning in this direction and hoping to sell his strategy to NATO. Defense Secretary Robert Gates publicly plays down his desire for more troops, but he’s admitted more might be necessary. At the least, America isn’t withdrawing an inch.

“The notion that you can conduct a purely counter-terrorist kind of campaign and do it from a distance simply does not accord with reality,” Gates told reporters last week.

Even if the future of Afghanistan was yet to be finalized, Americans have scant power to make an impact. After everything has been reported, analyzed, hashed and rehashed, Americans aren’t going to turn to a lever and vote on the war. Letters to Congress are pointless anyway, but especially when its lost control of the war. Most Americans will never step foot in Afghanistan, they simply stare at the TV or computer in agreement or disagreement. Their only real power is in poll numbers and protests, potent but nebulous control devices. Sometimes presidents cave to political pressure and rule by polls, sometimes they view negative polls as a positive sign.

With little else to hold onto, knowledge becomes the last refuge. At least we can attempt to understand Afghanistan if we cannot have a say in it. The American people must know three things: defeating al-Qaeda requires the defeat of the Taliban, drones and special-ops aren’t substitutes for counterinsurgency or nation-building, and a political solution with Mullah Omar can potentially neutralize al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.

The necessary defeat of the Taliban is proven with a simple exercise. If America withdrew its conventional forces and operated off shore the Taliban will gain significant amounts of territory and power. With the government on the verge of fracturing and the army only half-trained, al-Qaeda will always have a home in Afghanistan as long as the situation holds. Only by denying the Taliban can al-Qaeda be denied its safe havens. The Taliban is the only group who can keep al-Qaeda out of their villages, mountains, and caves, or who can call off the jihad. That al-Qaeda has other havens is a separate discussion altogether.

Unfortunately for the anti-war movement more troops are necessary to defeat the Taliban. American troops are like those scrambled puzzles with one loose corner to move the pieces around and form a picture. When US and NATO forces moved into Helmand, Taliban fighters scattered to Kandahar, Paktika, and Laghman. The country needs to be filled to the point where the Taliban can’t slide from one province to the next. The Army’s COIN manual is already far below the minimum requirement and Gates’ intelligence complaints stem from insufficient troop levels. Intelligence is hard to gather with less than 5 soldiers for every 1,000 Afghans.

Offshore measures are also insufficient because they still imply the presence of foreign troops. The Taliban won’t be fooled if America withdraws its main body while leaving behind a residual force to hunt down al-Qaeda and possibly Taliban officials. The war will continue. Government officials will continue to be targeted. Civilians contractors will make easy prey if America and Europe wish to continue humanitarian work. Troops are required to secure their projects, as potentially corrupt Afghan police pose a danger. America seemingly has only two options - escalation or complete withdrawal - unless it’s willing to take a chance.

The two previous options are just as risky anyway.

The Taliban and al-Qaeda’s relationship has been twisted to serve the interests of pro-war advocates. Though al-Qaeda was formed long before Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar established a friendship, al-Qaeda was born from jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan. Mullah Omar remains “Commander of the Faithful” even to bin Laden and his followers. Pakistan’s Taliban pays similar homage as do the various nationalities of militants who flock to the resistance. It’s very possible that the Taliban inspires al-Qaeda and not the other way around.

That means Mullah Omar is the only man for America to talk to in Afghanistan, the only man with the slightest chance of granting America’s wishes. Al-Qaeda will only be disrupted and dismantled, never destroyed, without political reconciliation with the Taliban and its base. Negotiation with Omar, which he’s open to, requires complete withdrawal. However, these negotiations could encompass resolution with the Pashtuns, security promises for foreign civil workers, and the exile of al-Qaeda. The Taliban is already protecting foreigners for the right price, why not a political price? And with America gone, perhaps he can be convinced that he doesn’t need al-Qaeda. America has no chance of working off shore and slim chances on shore without Mullah Omar’s neutrality.

President Obama’s troop level is a Jupiter-sized debate, but Omar is the Sun.


  1. If to any extent at all, even the most nominal of extents - development is our goal - Omar cannot be the front man in an alternative Afghan future. We killed his 10 year old son and stepfather, and therefore, persuading him to act in our interests will fail today as they did in 2001 before we did so. Also, insofar as the Taliban are succeeding, they won't need to negotiate with us post-withdraw - assuming a weak Afghanistan remains in place. Last, they implemented the strictest form of shari'a ever known to exist which isn't necessarily compatible with development in itself.

  2. Octopus Mountain won't deny the truth of your points. We consider Mullah Omar as only a chance, not a certainty, which is why we used the Genie metaphor. We wonder of his reaction since few people will even raise the subject.

    First, we don't advocate Omar as the head of the government though he and his officials may need to be given positions. Worse people are already legitimately in government. His son and father, not to mention the bodily harm he suffered himself, are reasons to continue the war endlessly. If they don't get him to the negotiating table they certainly won't cause him to surrender, and many US officials admit the Taliban cannot be defeated militarily. The Taliban might very well refuse negotiation under a US withdrawal, but we're curious of what they would do - no US official has tried engaging Mullah Omar. Lastly, America must define a precise goal which it has still failed to do. Destroying al-Qaeda and the Taliban, nation-building, and upholding human rights are three different objectives, each more difficult than the last. If America is seeking to prevent Sharia law then the odds of success decrease to their lowest point.

    The fact remains that both withdrawal and escalation are extremely risky strategies. Negotiating with Mullah Omar has the potential to alleviate some of America's concerns if he can be rubbed the right way. Americans are running out of options if they don't favor escalation but don't want to run away either.