Masthead graphic based on a painting by Gudrun Thriemer.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Barnett Rubin, "Saving Afghanistan," Foreign Affairs, January/February 2007.

"Even as Afghan and international forces have defeated insurgents in engagement after engagement, the weakness of the government and the reconstruction effort -- and the continued sanctuary provided to Taliban leaders in Pakistan -- has prevented real victory." [Western leaders have seized on the "sanctuary provided to Taliban leaders in Pakistan" as the essence ofthis, and have chosen to ignore that Rubin sees the weak Afghan government and the weak reconstruction effort as equally effective in "preventing real victory." -jlt]

Rethinking Afghanistan

"A mere course correction will not be enough to prevent the country from sliding into chaos. Washington and its international partners must rethink their strategy and significantly increase both the resources they devote to Afghanistan and the effectiveness of those resources' use. Only dramatic action can reverse the perception, common among both Afghans and their neighbors, that Afghanistan is not a high priority for the United States -- and that the Taliban are winning as a result."

Main points

Rubin supports the military response to terrorism and does not believe that the war is already lost. He repeats the view that Washington appeases Pakistan as a supporter of the cross-border insurgency and that "the future of NATO depends on its success in this first deployment outside of Europe."

But he also points out what would have been required and what is still required to bring about even so much as a chance of success.

"Unless the shaky Afghan government receives both the resources and the leadership required to deliver tangible benefits in areas cleared of insurgents, the international presence in Afghanistan will come to resemble a foreign occupation -- an occupation that Afghans will ultimately reject."

" the 2001 Afghan war, the U.S.-led coalition merely pushed the core leadership of al Qaeda and the Taliban out of Afghanistan and into Pakistan, with no strategy for consolidating this apparent tactical advance."

"Disrupting command and control -- not preventing 'infiltration,' a tactical challenge to which Pakistan often tries to divert discussion -- is the key to an overall victory." [See Richards for argument counter to this. 4GW organizations do not rely on command and control in the same way that Western-style military organizations do. In particular, Shazhad points out that the Afghan insurgency has practically no command and control in this sense. -jlt]

"The two fatal weak points in Afghanistan's government today are the Ministry of the Interior and the judiciary. Both are deeply corrupt and plagued by a lack of basic skills, equipment, and resources."

"...many community leaders accuse the [Afghan] government itself of being the main source of abuse and insecurity."


"On September 19, 2001, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf told his nation that he had to cooperate with Washington in order to 'save Afghanistan and Taliban from being harmed'; accordingly, he has been all too happy to follow the Bush administration's instructions to focus on al Qaeda's top leadership while ignoring the Taliban. Intelligence collected during Western military offensives in mid-2006 confirmed that Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was continuing to actively support the Taliban leadership, which is now working out of Quetta, the capital of Baluchistan Province, in western Pakistan."

"With US assistance, Pakistan developed a capacity for covert asymmetric jihadi warfare, which it eventually used in both Afghanistan and Kashmir."

"The civil war seemed to come to an end with the 1988 Geneva accords, which provided for the withdrawal of Soviet troops (while allowing continued Soviet aid to the communist government in Kabul) and the end of foreign military assistance to the mujahideen. But the United States and Pakistan, intent on wiping out Soviet influence in Afghanistan entirely, ignored the stipulation that they stop arming the resistance. The result was a continuation of the conflict and, eventually, state failure."

"With Islamabad's help, the Taliban established control over most of Afghanistan by 1998, and the anti-Taliban resistance -- organized in a 'Northern Alliance' of feuding former mujahideen and Soviet-backed militias, most of them from non-Pashtun ethnic groups -- was pushed back to a few pockets of territory in the northeast. As their grip over Afghanistan tightened, the Taliban instituted harsh Islamic law and increasingly allied themselves with Osama bin Laden, who came to Afghanistan after being expelled from Sudan in 1996."

"It took 9/11 to force Washington to recognize that a global terrorist opposition was gathering strength -- using human and physical capital that the United States and its allies (especially Saudi Arabia) had supplied, through Pakistan's intelligence services, in pursuit of a Cold War strategic agenda."

Pakistan's "deep penetration of Afghan society and politics enables it to play the role of spoiler whenever it chooses." [Rubin sees Pakistan sort of like Syria in Lebanon. -jlt]

"To defend Pakistan from ethnic fragmentation, Pakistan's governments have tried to neutralize Pashtun and Baluch nationalism, in part by supporting Islamist militias among the Pashtun. Such militias wage asymmetrical warfare on Afghanistan and Kashmir and counter the electoral majorities of opponents of military rule with their street power and violence."

" order to prevent the United States from allying with India [after 911], Islamabad acquiesced in reining in its use of asymmetrical warfare, in return for the safe evacuation of hundreds of Pakistani officers and intelligence agents from Afghanistan, where they had overseen the Taliban's military operations."

Points of interest

"An April 1978 coup by communist military officers brought to power a radical faction whose harsh policies provoked an insurgency. In December 1979, the Soviet Union sent in its military to bring an alternative communist faction to power, turning an insurgency into a jihad against the invaders."

"The strength and persistence of the insurgency cannot be explained solely by the sanctuary the Taliban enjoy in Pakistan. But few insurgencies with safe havens abroad have ever been defeated. The argument that poverty and underdevelopment, rather than Pakistani support, are responsible for the insurgency does not stand up to scrutiny: northern and western Afghanistan are also plagued by crime and insecurity, and yet there is no coordinated antigovernment violence in those regions."

"Community leaders complain forcefully about judicial corruption, which has led many to demand the implementation of Islamic law, or sharia -- which they contrast not to secular law but to corruption. One elder from the province of Paktia said, 'Islam says that if you find a thief, he has to be punished. If a murderer is arrested, he has to be tried and executed. In our country, if a murderer is put in prison, after six months he bribes the judge and escapes. If a member of parliament is killed ... his murderer is released after three to four months in prison because of bribery.' Enforcement by the government of the decisions of Islamic courts has always constituted a basic pillar of the state's legitimacy in Afghanistan, and the failure to do so is turning religious leaders, who still wield great influence over public opinion, against the government."

"Crop eradication puts more money in the hands of traffickers and corrupt officials by raising prices and drives farmers toward insurgents and warlords. If Washington wants to succeed in Afghanistan, it must invest in creating livelihoods for the rural poor -- the vast majority of Afghans -- while attacking the main drug traffickers and the corrupt officials who protect them."

"Some in Washington have accused critics of the effort in Afghanistan of expecting too much too soon and focusing on setbacks while ignoring achievements. The glass, they say, is half full, not half empty. But the glass is much less than half full -- and it is resting on a wobbly table that growing threats, if unaddressed, may soon overturn."


"The Bush administration failed to provide those Taliban fighters who did not want to defend al Qaeda with a way to return to Afghanistan peacefully, and its policy of illegal detention at Guantánamo Bay and Bagram Air Base, in Afghanistan, made refuge in Pakistan, often with al Qaeda, a more attractive option." [Failure similar to de-Baathification. The Bush Administration doesn't pursue a policy that includes negotiation as an integral or even an eventual part of achieving a workable peace. -jlt]

"Washington should reverse the Bush administration's policy of linking as many local conflicts as possible to the global 'war on terror' and instead address each on its own terms." [The peace movement should challenge the practice of linking as many local conflicts as possible to American imperialism and instead address each on its own terms. Any strategy must address the core concerns of the participants. Rubin proposes turning the border region into a zone of cooperation rather than conflict. -jlt]

"The United States and its allies should encourage the Afghan government to open a domestic debate on the sensitive issue of recognition of the Durand Line in return for guarantees of stability and access to secure trade and transport corridors to Pakistani ports....Washington should ask India and Afghanistan to take measures to reassure Pakistan that their bilateral relations will not threaten Islamabad. If, as some sources claim, the Taliban are preparing to drop their maximalist demands and give guarantees against the reestablishment of al Qaeda bases, the Afghan government could discuss their entry into the political system.

"Creating a reasonably effective state in Afghanistan is a long-term project that will require an end to major armed conflict, the promotion of economic development, and the gradual replacement of opium production by other economic activities."

Barnett R. Rubin is Director of Studies and a Senior Fellow at New York University's Center on International Cooperation and the author of The Fragmentation of Afghanistan. He served as an adviser to the Special Representative of the Secretary-General at the UN Talks on Afghanistan in Bonn in 2001.

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