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Monday, January 16

The Perfect Son and the Afghan War (Updated 8:15 PM ET)

8:15 PM ET Update
I added a few links and expanded and elucidated some of my discussion since I first published this post. I did so with the sinking feeling that I might as well be talking from inside a glass booth, a feeling that often besets me when I advise on Pakistan and the Afghan War.

I am looking at things from such a vastly different viewpoint than Washington's (to include academia and think tanks) that I might as well be writing in a dead language; in a way I am, because as I noted in the updated version, considerations about human nature, which are much broader than found in any academic study of psychology or anthroplogy, etc., are completely absent from policy thinking in Washington, including war planning. Human nature has been relegated to the closet, with predictable results that manifested again and again during the U.S. prosecution of the Afghan and Iraqi wars.

But what use is it to say any of this to ears that can't hear?
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I wrote the following for the comment section at Small Wars Journal; this was in response to a post there by the SWJ editors to announce the publication of a book titled An Enemy We Created: The Myth of the Taliban/Al Qaeda Merger in Afghanistan, 1970-2010 by Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, and also to specifically answer observations that Robert C. Jones inserted in the comment section about the book.

Jones also writes for SWJ and is, I discovered from reading his bio at SWJ, "a retired Army Special Forces Colonel who has recently been hired as the strategic advisor to the USSOCOM J5. [...]"

At the last moment, just as I was about to post my reply, which turned out to be essay length, I decided against lecturing Colonel Jones and the other brass (both retired and active-duty) who hang out at SWJ, about how to win the Afghan War including the best approach for Washington to Pakistan. So while regular visitors to this blog probably know the gist of my advice on both topics by heart, I've repeated it so many times, I'm going to publish my reply here.

The caveat is that I only quote a small part of Colonel Jones's comments, so you'd want to go to Small Wars Journal to read his entire commentary and those of other SWJ readers (including Doctor Madhu, a blogger in her own right who posts at Chicago Boyz) who responded to the book announcement.

Ready? Here goes:

Regarding Robert C. Jones's comment, "The Taliban and the populace they emerge from (that half of Afghan society and the aspect of the same that extend into Pakistan not represented by the Northern Alliance Friends and Family plan ...) have always been both the source and key to AQ sanctuary in the AFPAK region." --

The sanctuary is not so much a physical space as a tangle of strategies, fixed ideas and tacit agreements that have overgrown the history of Afghanistan since the USA got involved in ejecting Soviet Russia from the country -- a tangle that has little to do with Taliban or the history of the movement's relationship with al Qaeda. So van Linschoten and Kuehn are phoning in from the Moon, if they're arguing that because Taliban shouldn't be conflated with Qaeda it's possible for NATO and/or the Afghan government to negotiate a peace settlement with them.

Down here on Earth:

> The Haqqani Network has evolved into a transnational criminal syndicate that's a textbook example of Black Globalization, and which like all BG outfits cares nothing about having say in a government -- and which, despite pro forma nods to Mullah Omar's status as a religious leader, now cares nothing for the fate of Taliban.

> The great majority of Afghan Pashtuns have turned against Taliban -- 90 percent of them have turned, according to a Pakistani ex-intelligence official who spoke recently to Pakistan-based Los Angeles Times reporter Alex Rodriguez.

> The original Northern Alliance has morphed into a vastly expanded political network and its leaders recently read the riot act to some members of Congress in Berlin about the U.S. ploy to negotiate with Taliban.

> Caught now between the devil NATO and the deep blue sea of furious countrymen, Hamid Karzai has finally grown a spine and insisted that (1) he and not the USA will lead any peace talks with Taliban and (2) there will be no negotiations until Taliban stop fighting. He's made such noises before but this time he has the new, improved NA forcing him to walk out far out on the plank.

> By some miracle the British defense ministry has overridden the foreign office by recognizing that an India in the hand is better than two Pakistans in the bush. Maybe this change in thinking has something to do with the realization that today the vast majority of Pakistanis in the U.K. have no sympathy left for 'Islamist' terrorism, but who can fathom the ways of miracles?

> Germany, which reportedly now runs the European Union, has lost patience with Washington's preference for bailing water with a sieve in Afghanistan over getting tough with Rawalpindi and all because the 'Get Russia' crowd on both sides of the Pond fears that the Kremlin might someday make contact with a Klingon battleship. A fear that delayed for years the building of the NDN.

> More U.S. soldiers returning from Afghanistan are learning in graphic detail that their commanders in Afghanistan looked the other way while their civilian bosses in effect paid Pakistan's military to murder and maim Americans -- while the American military establishment yapped about counterinsurgency theories and the State Department yapped about 'fixing' Pakistan.

That's just the short list of how things stand these days on Earth, but it all amounts to a greatly changed world since Dick Cheney okayed the Airlift of Evil. I've mentioned the airlift several times over the years but just as a reminder: the airlift, which was so large it was actually an air bridge, evacuated
... thousands of top commanders and members of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, their Pakistani advisors including Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence agents and military personnel, and other Jihadi volunteers and sympathizers, from the city of Kunduz, Afghanistan, in November 2001 just before its capture by the forces of the U.S. and its allies the Northern Alliance during the War in Afghanistan. All these anti-U.S. combatants were safely evacuated from Kunduz and airlifted by Pakistan Army cargo aircraft to Pakistan Air Force air bases in Chitral and Gilgit in Pakistan's Northern Areas. [...]
See the Wikipedia article I linked to above for the source notes.

So. Vice President Cheney, who at the time had the Pakistan 'portfolio' at the White House, made an executive decision reportedly without President Bush's knowledge, which laid the groundwork for the very 'insurgency' that soon enough murdered and maimed so many Americans and other NATO troops -- and Afghan civilians and troops.

In my view Mr Cheney should have been brought up on a charge of treason for his decision but the incident starkly illustrates the way official Washington treated Pakistan's military at the time. By today, the American taxpayer has suffered enough because of that special relationship and so has the American enlisted man and woman; okay?

So the first task is to dispense with some of the tangle by looking at water and geological survey maps in Afghanistan; this, in order to grasp that no matter how many USAID projects are created to help Pakistani mango growers and to reduce illiteracy in Pakistan, this will not stop Pakistan's military from wanting to control Afghanistan.

And anyone in Washington naive enough to assume that bringing real democracy to Pakistan will change its military's designs on Afghanistan also probably believes that bringing real democracy to Iran will stop Iranians from insisting that there is no such thing as an Arab Gulf.

What, then, is the best the way for Washington to best relate to Pakistan? It's the same way that the USA can pull off a decisive victory in Afghanistan. So write this war plan on the back of your hand:

The next time Rawalpindi complains that the USA is building an Afghan army that will rival their own -- and they make this complaint every hour on the hour -- the response from Washington should be, 'Don't whine if you don't want us to also build them a nuclear weapons facility.'

That's pretty much the entire plan for those who have considerable life experience under their belt; for those who don't: The key idea is for Washington to stop playing Sahib in Pakistan. For Americans who don't understand the Sahib angle I'll put it another way: every time Washington does or says something that causes Pakistan's military to lose face, they have to do something awful in Afghanistan to prove they're not girly men or children.

> So don't praise the Pakistanis in public because that's patronizing them, in their view. Don't criticize them in public, because that's bossing them around, in their view. Don't offer to help fix Pakistan because that's making Pakistan's leaders look unable to look after their own people.

> Confine comments to "Tsk tsk" and "Gee that's a shame" when they complain about their problems. If they ask for more money, pay only what's fair for NATO transports through the country and work like mad to get the remaining 29 percent of NATO supplies now trucked through Pakistan transferred to the Northern Distribution Network.

> At the same time never outright refuse a request for financial aid; that's insulting in their view; simply reply, "Yes yes," which in that part of the world doesn't mean "Yes I will;" it means "Yes I heard you." If that concept is too hard to grasp, Washington should simply hear its phone ringing or mutter about bureaucratic red tape in response to requests for aid.

> The CIA and U.S. military should stay on the Afghan side of the Durand Line no matter how fuzzy the line. Stop all drone attacks in Pakistan, no matter how counterproductive that might seem at first.

> When Rawalpindi asks for the millionth time how long America is going to stay in Afghanistan, lie like a trooper and reply, "Forever."

> Above all, recognize that decades ago the United States inserted itself in a family feud -- and that only Indians can help the Pakistanis because Indians are the only family the Pakistanis have, and so they're the only people the Pakistanis really pay attention to. This isn't even getting into the caste system in Pakistan and India, which is not something Americans who're trying to win a war need to know about in any detail. In short, just assume there are some things Americans can't fix and shouldn't try to fix, and that Pakistan is one of them.

That's it; it would take a book, which I will never write, to explain all the reasoning behind every piece of the advice but I've simply compressed a great deal of hard-won experience into as few words as possible to get across the general idea. I add that much of my advice has more to do with considerations about the ways f human nature, which have been completely excluded from policy thinking in Washington, than with the 'culture' of any specific peoples.

As to how long the war plan would take to work -- longer than it would take the Iranian military to deal with the Haqqanis and Afghan Taliban, but it wouldn't take forever and there's a way to speed up the process. The way would be for Washington to break bones at a NATO confab.

But first Washington would have to set the example. If all other NATO members are persuaded that the USA has really turned over a new leaf, they would be more inclined to toughen their own approaches to Rawalpindi. A united front in this respect would do more than anything to persuade Pakistan's leaders that while they can deploy non-aggressive means to achieve a stake in the new Afghanistan, they can no longer hope to control it.

As to where all this leaves Taliban: the so-called "Afghan Taliban" are a Pakistani military invention -- and I don't want to hear the guff that it was the ISI that did it, as if the ISI is a separate entity from the military; it's separate only for purposes of deniability. The military will dismantle its Frankenstein once it's assured that NATO will no longer turn a studiously blind eye to Islamabad's use of terrorism as a foreign policy instrument.

The real problem is not Taliban or even the Haqqanis but the non-Taliban ultraconservative Afghans that Hamid Karzai pandered to, with NATO studiously looking the other way, in the attempt to offset the perception in Afghanistan that he was dancing to America's tune. The attempt fooled no one, but the pandering gave the ultraconservatives greater power in Afghanistan than they'd ever enjoyed.

The only reasonably fast antidote I can see would be to resurrect the monarchy in Afghanistan because if the king said a modern approach to something was okay, it was okay with the ultraconservatives. So it was all downhill for a modern Afghan state once the monarchy folded.

(Anyone who doubts that Afghanistan ever had anything approximating a modern state should study the photographs in Once Upon a Time in Afghanistan at Foreign Policy magazine. The modernity, however, was not supported by institutions and infrastructures that would have allowed it to withstand the first real test, so when the monarchy crumbled, Afghanistan's modern state also crumbled and with terrifying swiftness. Some measure of the totality of the collapse is the rarity of the photographs that an Afghan expat found and published at Foreign Policy. Yet the images in the photos are a silent rebuke to those who claim that Afghanistan never progressed beyond the 12th Century.)

But restoring the monarchy seems impossible at this juncture, and besides even if an acceptable heir to the throne was scared up, I think the way is forward not back, although I'd get an argument about this from monarchists.

In any case this problem is entirely up to the Afghans to solve even though we had a hand in bringing it to a head again. If it's any comfort to Americans, this is a problem that will continue recycling in Afghanistan, as it has in many other countries including Pakistan, until the Afghans somehow resolve the sense of a vacuum left by the absent monarch.

Maybe the Afghans will hit on the kind of compromise that exists in several European countries, whereby a "constitutional monarchy" is glommed onto democratic government. Certainly the Afghans will soon enough be rich enough to afford such a compromise, in the way North Sea oil has allowed Norwegians and the British to go on compromising -- until the oil runs out -- but any such discussion is, I hope, outside the scope of the Afghan War.

To wrap it up, in the Afghan War Americans need to learn to play to their strengths instead of their weaknesses. Leave it to the Europeans to try and 'understand' the Afghans because quite frankly Europe's monarchist past (and present) makes them better suited than Americans to understand. Americans should just hew as closely as possible to the classic American archetype: Strong. Taciturn. Steady as a rock. Dependable as the sunrise.

The archetype happens to be pretty much the same as the most universally loved archetype and the most powerful one, that of the Perfect Son -- the man every man would be proud to call a son. When you fit the role of the Perfect Son, you won't need words to give the Afghans assurances that you won't leave them in the lurch again. They'll look at you and know, and with that knowledge they'll face their very uncertain future with great courage. That's how powerful the Perfect Son is -- far more powerful than a mountain of foreign aid and bribes.

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