The Ghosts of Gandamak

THE name Gandamak means little in the West today. Yet this small Afghan village was once famous for the catastrophe that took place there during the First Anglo-Afghan War in January 1842, arguably the greatest humiliation ever suffered by a Western army in the East.

The course of that distant Victorian war followed a trajectory that is beginning to seem distinctly familiar. In 1839, the British invaded Afghanistan on the basis of dubious intelligence about a nonexistent threat: information about a single Russian envoy to Kabul, the Afghan capital, was manipulated by a group of ambitious hawks to create a scare about a phantom Russian invasion, thus bringing about an unnecessary, expensive and wholly avoidable conflict.

Initially, the British conquest proved remarkably easy and bloodless; Kabul was captured within a few months and a pliable monarch, Shah Shuja, placed on the throne. Then an insurgency began which unraveled that first heady success, first among the Pashtuns of Kandahar and Helmand, then slowly moving northward until it reached the capital.

What happened next is a warning of how bad things could yet become: a full-scale rebellion against the British broke out in Kabul, and the two most senior British envoys were murdered, making the British occupation impossible to sustain. On the disastrous retreat that followed, as many as 18,000 East India Company troops and maybe half again as many Indian camp followers (estimates vary), were slaughtered by Afghan marksmen waiting in ambush amid the snow drifts and high passes, shot down as they trudged through the icy depths of the Afghan winter.

The last 50 or so survivors made their final stand at Gandamak. As late as the 1970s, fragments of Victorian weaponry could be found lying in the screes above the village; even today, the hill is covered with bleached British bones. Only one man, Thomas Souter, lived to tell the tale. It is a measure of the increasingly pertinent parallels between the events of 1842 and today’s that one of the main NATO bases in Afghanistan is named Camp Souter.

For the Victorian British, Gandamak became a symbol of the country’s greatest ever imperial defeat, as well as a symbol of gallantry: William Barnes Wollen’s celebrated painting of the Last Stand of the 44th Foot — a group of ragged but determined British soldiers standing in a circle behind their bayonets as the Pashtun tribesmen close in — was one of the era’s most famous images.

For the Afghans themselves, Gandamak became a symbol of freedom, and their determination to refuse to be controlled by any foreign power. It is again no accident that the diplomatic quarter of Kabul is named after the Afghan resistance leader who oversaw the British defeat at Gandamak, Wazir Akbar Khan.

A week or so ago, while doing research for a book on the disaster of 1842, I only narrowly avoided the fate of my Victorian compatriots.

Gandamak backs onto the mountain range that leads to Tora Bora and the Pakistan border, an area that has always been a Taliban center. I was trying to follow the route of the British retreat, but had been advised not to attempt to visit the Gandamak area without local protection. So I set off in the company of a local tribal leader who is also a sports minister in the Karzai government, Anwar Khan Jigdalek. A mountain of a man, Anwar Khan is a former wrestling champion who made his name as the mujaheddin commander against the Soviet Union in the 1980s.

We left Kabul — past the blast walls of the NATO barracks that were built on the very site of the British cantonment of 170 years ago — and headed into the line of bleak mountain passes that link Kabul with the Khyber Pass. At Sarobi we left the main road, and moved into Taliban territory; five trucks full of Anwar Khan’s old mujaheddin comrades, all brandishing rocket-propelled grenades, appeared to escort us.

At Jigdalek, on the 12th of January, 1842, 200 frostbitten British soldiers found themselves surrounded by several thousand Pashtun tribesmen. The two highest-ranking British soldiers were taken hostage. It was 50 of those infantrymen who later managed to break out under cover of darkness to make the final passage to Gandamak. Our own welcome to the village was, thankfully, somewhat warmer.

It was Anwar Khan’s first visit to his home since he had become a minister, and the villagers treated us to a feast, Mughal style, in an apricot orchard. We sat on carpets next to bubbling irrigation runnels, under a trellis of vine and pomegranate blossoms, as course after course of kebabs and mulberry-scented rice were laid in front of us.

It was nearly 5 p.m. before the final pieces of naan bread were cleared away, and our hosts decided it was too late to head on to Gandamak. Instead, we went that evening to the nearest big city, Jalalabad, where we discovered that we’d had a narrow escape: there had been a huge battle at Gandamak that day between government forces and a group of villagers and Taliban fighters. Our gluttony had saved us from driving straight into an ambush.

The battle had taken place on exactly the site of the British last stand. In Afghanistan, imperial history seems to be repeating itself with almost uncanny precision.

The following morning I attended a jirga, or assembly of tribal elders, to which the graybeards of Gandamak had come, under a flag of truce, to discuss what had happened the day before. The story was typical of all I had heard about the current government, and revealed how a mixture of corruption and incompetence had helped give an opening for the return of the once-hated Taliban.

The elders related how the previous year, government troops had turned up to destroy the opium harvest. The troops promised the villagers full compensation, and were allowed to burn the crops; but the money never came. Before the planting season, the villagers again went to Jalalabad and asked the government if they could be provided with assistance to grow other crops. Promises were made; again nothing was delivered.

So, desperate, the villagers planted poppies, informing the local authorities that if anyone tried to burn the crop, they would have no option but to resist: they had children to feed. When the troops turned up, about the same time as we were arriving at Jigdalek, the villagers were waiting for them, and had called in the local Taliban to assist. In the fighting that followed, we were told, nine policemen were killed, six vehicles were destroyed and 10 police hostages taken.

Ever since, I’ve been thinking about the close parallels between the fix that NATO now faces in Afghanistan, and that faced by the British more than 150 years ago. Then as now, the problem is not hatred of the West, per se, so much as a dislike of foreign troops ordering people around in their own country.

There has always been an absolute refusal by the Afghans to be ruled by foreigners, or to accept any government perceived as being imposed on them. Then as now, the puppet ruler installed by the West has proved inadequate for the job: simultaneously corrupt and weak, and forced to turn on his puppeteers in order to retain a fragment of legitimacy in the eyes of his people.

Then as now, there have been few tangible signs of improvement under the Western-backed regime: despite the billions of dollars sent to Afghanistan, Kabul’s streets are still more rutted than those in the smallest provincial towns of Pakistan. There is little health care: for any serious medical problem, patients have to fly to India.

Then as now, the presence of large numbers of well-paid foreign troops has caused the cost of food and provisions to rise, and living standards to fall; Afghans feel they are getting poorer, not richer. Then as now, there has been an attempt at a last show of force in order to save face before withdrawal. As in 1842, this year’s surge has achieved little except civilian casualties, further alienating the Afghans.

It is not, however, too late to learn some lessons from the mistakes of the British in 1842. Then, the British officials in Kabul continued to send out dispatches of delusional optimism as the insurgents moved ever closer to Kabul. Those officials believed there was a straightforward military solution to the problem, and that if only they could recruit enough Afghans to their army, they could eventually march home and leave the pliable regime in place. By the time they realized they had to negotiate and reach a compromise with their enemy, their power had ebbed too far, and the only thing the insurgents were willing to talk about was an unconditional surrender.

Today, too, there is no easy military solution to Afghanistan: even if we proceed with the current plan to spend billions equipping an Afghan Army of half a million troops, that force will never be able to guarantee security or shore up such a discredited regime. Every day, despite the military muscle of the United States, the security gets worse, and the area under government control contracts.

The only answer is to negotiate a political solution while we still have enough power to do so — which in some form or other means talking with the Taliban. Otherwise, we may yet be faced with a replay of 1842. George Lawrence, a veteran of that war, issued a prescient warning in The Times of London just before Britain blundered into the Second Anglo-Afghan War in the 1870s. “A new generation has arisen which, instead of profiting from the solemn lessons of the past, is willing and eager to embroil us in the affairs of that turbulent and unhappy country,” he wrote. “Although military disasters may be avoided, an advance now, however successful in a military point of view, would not fail to turn out to be as politically useless.”

William Dalrymple, the author of the forthcoming “Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India,” is writing a book on the First Anglo-Afghan War.


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The Karzai Fiasco

Echoes of Vietnam in a spat that only helps the Taliban.

President Obama isn’t faring too well at converting enemies to friends, but he does seem to have a talent for turning friends into enemies. The latest spectacle is the all-too-public and counterproductive war of words between the White House and our putative ally, Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The only winner so far in this spat is the Taliban.

The Obama Administration seems to have had it out for Mr. Karzai from the day it took office, amid multiple reports based on obvious U.S. leaks that Vice President Joe Biden or some other official had told the Afghan leader to shape up. The tension escalated after Mr. Karzai’s tainted but ultimately recognized re-election victory last year, and it reached the name-calling stage late last month when President Obama met Mr. Karzai on a trip to Kabul and the White House let the world know that the American had lectured the Afghan about his governing obligations.

The public rebuke was a major loss of face for Mr. Karzai, who later returned fire at the U.S., reportedly even saying at a private meeting that if the Americans kept it up, he might join the Taliban. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs kept up the schoolyard taunts yesterday by suggesting that Mr. Obama might not meet with Mr. Karzai as scheduled in Washington on May 12.

“We certainly would evaluate whatever continued or further remarks President Karzai makes, as to whether it is constructive to have that meeting,” said Mr. Gibbs, in a show of disdain he typically reserves for House Republicans.

The kindest word for all of this is fiasco. American troops are risking their lives to implement a counterinsurgency strategy that requires winning popular support in Afghanistan, and the main message from America’s Commander in Chief to the Afghan people is that their government can’t be trusted. That ought to make it easier to win hearts and minds.

Mr. Karzai has been disappointing as a nation-builder, has tolerated corrupt officials and family members, and can be arrogant and crudely nationalistic. Presumably, however, Mr. Obama was well aware of these defects last year when he recognized the Afghan election results and then committed 20,000 more U.S. troops to the theater.

You go to war with the allies you have, and it’s contrary to any diplomatic principle to believe that continuing public humiliation will make Mr. Karzai more likely to cooperate. On the evidence of the last week, such treatment has only given the Afghan leader more incentive to make a show of his political independence from the Americans.

All the more so given that Mr. Karzai has already heard Mr. Obama promise that U.S. troops will begin leaving Afghanistan as early as July 2011. This shouting spectacle will also embolden the Taliban, who after being run out of Marjah have every reason to tell the citizens of Kandahar that even the Americans don’t like the Afghan government and are short-timers in any case.

This treatment of an ally eerily echoes the way the Kennedy Administration treated Ngo Dinh Diem, the President of South Vietnam in the early 1960s. On JFK’s orders, U.S. Ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge refused to meet with Diem, and when U.S. officials got word of a coup against Diem they let it be known they would not interfere. Diem was executed, and South Vietnam never again had a stable government.

By contrast, President George W. Bush decided to support and work closely with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki during the 2007 U.S. military surge in Iraq. The Maliki government was sectarian and sometimes incompetent, and some of its officials were no doubt corrupt, but Mr. Bush understood that the larger goal was to defeat al Qaeda and to stabilize the country. From FDR to Reagan, Presidents of both parties have had to tolerate allied leaders of varying talents and unsavory qualities in the wartime pursuit of more important foreign-policy goals.

Coming on the heels of the U.S. public chastisement of Israel’s government, the larger concern over the Karzai episode is what it reveals about Mr. Obama’s diplomatic frame of mind. With adversaries, he is willing to show inordinate patience, to the point of muffling his objections when opposition blood ran in the streets of Tehran. With allies, on the other hand, the President is unforgiving and insists they follow his lead or face his public wrath. The result will be that our foes fear us less, and that we have fewer friends.

Editorial, Wall Street Journal


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How to Save Afghanistan From Karzai

IN February, the Taliban sanctuary of Marja in southern Afghanistan was attacked in the largest operation of the war. Last week, President Obama flew to Afghanistan and declared, “Our troops have pushed the Taliban out of their stronghold in Marja …. The United States of America does not quit once it starts on something.”

But what is that “something”? And, equally important, does Afghanistan’s president, Hamid Karzai, have to be a part of it?

The United States ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry, was guilty of understatement last fall when he told Washington that “Karzai is not an adequate strategic partner.” Still, getting rid of Mr. Karzai at this point wouldn’t be easy, and any major upheaval would clearly imperil President Obama’s plan to start withdrawing American troops next summer.

The Marja offensive, however, may have shown us an alternative approach to the war. For one thing, it demonstrated that our Karzai problem is part of a broader failure to see that our plans for Afghanistan are overambitious.

The coalition is pursuing a political-military strategy based on three tasks. First, “clear” the guerrillas from populated areas. Second, “hold” the areas with Afghan forces. Third, “build” responsible governance and development to gain the loyalty of the population for the government in Kabul. To accomplish this, the coalition military has deployed reconstruction teams to 25 provinces. We may call this a counterinsurgency program, but it’s really nation-building.

The problem with building a new and better Afghanistan is that, above the local level, President Karzai has long held the levers of political power by controlling provincial finances and leadership appointments, including those of police chiefs. Regardless of the coalition’s success at the district level, an obdurate and erratic Mr. Karzai is an obstacle to progress.

The success in Marja, however, changed the dynamics of the conflict. It now seems that the planned surge of 30,000 additional troops will likely achieve progress in “clearing and holding” Kandahar and other Taliban-controlled areas by mid-2011. At that time, the force ratio will be one coalition soldier for every three Afghan soldiers and policemen, and the Afghan Army will still rely upon us for firepower and moral support.

Ideally, we could then begin to withdraw major American units and leave behind small task forces that combine advisory and combat duties, leading to a new ratio of about one American to 10 Afghans. Not only would this bring our troops home, but it would shift the responsibility for nation-building to Afghan forces.

At the same time, we would have to pivot our policy in two ways. First, Mr. Karzai should be treated as a symbolic president and given the organizational “mushroom treatment” — that is, we should shut off the flows of information and resources directly to the national government.

President Ronald Reagan did something similar with another erratic ally, President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines. In February 1986, Reagan warned Marcos that if government troops attacked opposition forces holed up on the outskirts of Manila, it would cause “untold damage” to his relations with the United States — meaning the aid spigot would be turned off. When his countrymen saw that he was stripped of prestige and support, they forced Marcos into exile.

Second, the coalition must insist that the Afghan military play a primary role in the governance of the districts and provinces, including in the allocation of aid and the supervision of the police. We should work directly with those local and provincial leaders who will act responsibly, and cut off those who are puppets of Kabul.

This is happening, to some extent, in Helmand Province, site of the Marja battle, where the coalition has independent control over $500 million in reconstruction aid and salaries. We have been fortunate that the provincial governor, Gulab Mangal, while a Karzai appointee, has proved an innovative partner. But in any case, we know that coalition aid need not flow through Kabul.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top American commander in the region, already seems to be considering this approach as the battle for Kandahar gains intensity. “One of the things we’ll be doing in the shaping is working with political leaders to try to get an outcome that makes sense” including “partnering inside the city with the Afghan National Police,” he told reporters last month.

Although isolating Mr. Karzai will strike many as a giant step backward, the truth is that we don’t have a duty to impose democracy on Afghanistan. The advancement of liberty doesn’t necessitate a “one person, one vote” system, as the 1.5 million fraudulent votes cast for Mr. Karzai in last summer’s sham election showed. We cannot provide democracy if we desire it more than the Afghans.

The Philippines — and South Korea as well — evolved into thriving democracies at their own pace, well after American aid helped to beat back the military threats facing them. It was enough to prevent the Communist takeovers and leave behind governments controlled in the background by a strong military. We didn’t spend tens of billions of dollars on material projects to inculcate democratic principles.

Similarly, a diminished Hamid Karzai can be left to run a sloppy government, with a powerful, American-financed Afghan military insuring that the Taliban do not take over.

Admittedly, this risks the emergence of the Pakistan model in Afghanistan — an army that has a country rather than a country that has an army. But we are not obliged to build a democratic nation under a feckless leader. We need to defend our interests, and leave the nation-building to the Afghans themselves.

Bing West, an assistant secretary of defense in the Reagan administration, has reported on the Afghan war since 2001.


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Publicly criticizing the Afghan president hurts the U.S.

Just four days after President Obama’s surprise visit to Kabul, Afghan President Hamid Karzai gave a major speech complaining heavy-handed international actions tarnished last year’s presidential election, diminished his legitimate status as clear winner and risked making the foreign military presence resemble the imperialist invaders of yesteryear.

Karzai went too far. His comments were unfair and risked encouraging critics of the Afghanistan mission who want to portray foreign forces as unwelcome. But his remarks were also a predictable result of American browbeating. Historically, negative treatment of the Afghan leader has produced these sorts of reactions. Kabul and Washington are partners in the effort to create a stable, democratic state; they should understand that public displays of rancor are best avoided.

The immediate catalyst for Karzai’s outburst appears to have been comments by Obama’s national security adviser. En route to Kabul, Gen. Jim Jones predicted to journalists on the record that Obama would pressure Karzai about corruption in governance and said that Karzai had made no progress on this front since his Nov. 19 inauguration.

Jones’s concerns were not without foundation. Even as the latest wave of U.S. troops began arriving en masse, and NATO forces, with limited Afghan help, were clearing towns such as Marja in Helmand province and preparing for a major operation in Kandahar city, the ruling elites in Kabul allegedly refused to clean up their self-serving approach to governance. Allegations of malfeasance have been reinforced by concerns about the president’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, a major power broker in Kandahar. His system of patronage and favoritism has been a concern for allied forces, who see it as angering local tribes that are on the outs — and thereby helping the Taliban’s efforts to recruit followers.

In the past year, Vice President Biden and other U.S. officials have strongly criticized the Afghan leader in public. But whatever one thinks of Afghan governance, and it’s true that it’s not improving fast enough, Jones’s remarks were flawed and self-defeating.

First, Karzai was largely a U.S. pick. Through the Bonn process that followed the Taliban’s overthrow in 2001, this country led an international effort to make him Afghanistan’s leader. His “big tent” approach to governance was seen as the most practical way to engender support from tribal leaders, warlords and other power brokers as the United States sought to maintain a light footprint in Afghanistan and avoided building up a strong central state. Circumstances have changed since 2001, but Karzai remains largely the same man. Moreover, some aspects of his strategy of inclusiveness resemble the American desire for reconciliation with elements of the Afghan insurgency. We have grounds to debate and criticize Karzai on many issues, but such conversations need to happen with an attitude of respect, an appreciation of nuance, and an awareness that 80 percent of Afghans still like him as their leader.

Second, Jones was wrong that no notable progress has been made against corruption since November. The pace of progress remains too slow, but Karzai began his second term as president by keeping in office many of his best ministers and governors. Helmand province Gov. Gulab Mangal, Interior Minister Hanif Atmar and Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak, for example, have accomplished a good deal for their country. The Major Crimes Task Force designed to pursue cases of high-level corruption is gaining strength. And the number of trained Afghan army and police forces accompanying NATO troops into Marja, while still modest, was double the number of locally available forces accompanying U.S. Marines on similar operations in Helmand last year.

Discussions continue about how to dilute Ahmed Karzai’s influence in Kandahar. But delays reflect disagreement among NATO governments about how to proceed, not just nepotistic interference from Kabul.

Third, browbeating Karzai, especially in public, does not work. A more respectful approach has proved effective. While keeping much of his counsel private, Sen. John Kerry was direct in meetings with Karzai last fall. Kerry persuaded Karzai to accept a second round of voting to determine the presidency, and though that second round was not implemented, Karzai’s willingness to approve it did much to shore up his legitimacy at home and abroad. Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s discreet approach to Karzai and his cabinet has generated cooperation with key ministers on reform of Afghan security forces. And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s presence at Karzai’s second inauguration is part of a State Department effort to make diplomacy and development more effective, in part by reaching out to regional and local Afghan leaders in key places. Perhaps the professional rapport he seems to have with Clinton is an indication that Karzai responds to such efforts.

A transcript of the Obama-Karzai meeting was not released. Our guess is that it had a more balanced tone than much of the trip’s public remarks. To be fair, Jones may have underestimated how his comments could reinforce negative perceptions in Afghanistan and the United States and set the stage for another period of acrimony. But we are fighting a war. Our leaders need to stop relearning lessons about U.S.-Afghan diplomacy every few months. There is no time to waste.

Michael O’Hanlon is director of research and a senior foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution. Hassina Sherjan is an Afghan businesswoman and director of the nonprofit group Aid Afghanistan for Education. They are co-authors of “Toughing It Out in Afghanistan.”


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This Time We Really Mean It

This newspaper carried a very troubling article on the front page on Monday. It detailed how President Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan had invited Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to Kabul — in order to stick a thumb in the eye of the Obama administration — after the White House had rescinded an invitation to Mr. Karzai to come to Washington because the Afghan president had gutted an independent panel that had discovered widespread fraud in his re-election last year.

The article, written by two of our best reporters, Dexter Filkins and Mark Landler, noted that “according to Afghan associates, Mr. Karzai recently told lunch guests at the presidential palace that he believes the Americans are in Afghanistan because they want to dominate his country and the region, and that they pose an obstacle to striking a peace deal with the Taliban.”

The article added about Karzai: “ ‘He has developed a complete theory of American power,’ said an Afghan who attended the lunch and who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. ‘He believes that America is trying to dominate the region, and that he is the only one who can stand up to them.’ ”

That is what we’re getting for risking thousands of U.S. soldiers and having spent $200 billion already. This news is a flashing red light, warning that the Obama team is violating at least three cardinal rules of Middle East diplomacy.

Rule No. 1: When you don’t call things by their real name, you always get in trouble. Karzai brazenly stole last year’s presidential election. But the Obama foreign policy team turned a blind eye, basically saying, he’s the best we could get, so just let it go. See dictionary for Vietnam: Air Marshal Nguyen Cao Ky.

When you can steal an election, you can steal anything. How will we get this guy to curb corruption when his whole election, and previous tour in office, were built on corruption? How can we be operating a clear, build-and-hold strategy that depends on us bringing good governance to Afghans when the head of the government is so duplicitous?

Our envoy in Kabul warned us of this before the election, but in his case, too, we were told to look the other way. On Nov. 6, the ambassador, Karl Eikenberry, wrote to Washington in a cable that was leaked: “President Karzai is not an adequate strategic partner,” he warned. “Karzai continues to shun responsibility for any sovereign burden, whether defense, governance or development. He and much of his circle do not want the U.S. to leave and are only too happy to see us invest further. They assume we covet their territory for a never-ending ‘war on terror’ and for military bases to use against surrounding powers.”

One reason you violate Rule No. 1 is because you’ve already violated Rule No. 2: “Never want it more than they do.”

If we want good governance in Afghanistan more than Karzai, he will sell us that carpet over and over. How many U.S. officials have flown to Kabul — the latest being President Obama himself — to lecture Karzai on the need to root out corruption in his administration? Do we think he has a hearing problem? Or do we think he believes he has us over a barrel and, in the end, he can and will do whatever serves his personal power needs because he believes that we believe that he is indispensable for confronting Al Qaeda?

This rule applies equally to the Israeli prime minister, Bibi Netanyahu, and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas. There is something wrong when we are chasing them — two men who live in biking distance from one another — begging, cajoling and pressuring them to come to a peace negotiation that should ostensibly serve their interests as much as our own.

Which leads to Rule No. 3: In the Middle East, what leaders tell you in private in English is irrelevant. All that matters is what they will defend in public in their own language.

When Karzai believes that the way to punish America for snubbing him is by inviting Iran’s president to Kabul — who delivered a virulently anti-U.S. speech from inside the presidential palace — you have to pay close attention to that. It means Karzai must think that anti-Americanism plays well on the streets of Afghanistan and that by dabbling in it himself — as he did during his presidential campaign — he will strengthen himself politically. That is not a good sign.

As Filkins and Landler noted, “During the recent American-dominated military offensive in the town of Marja — the largest of the war — Mr. Karzai stood mostly in the shadows.” And if Karzai behaves like this when he needs us, when we’re there fighting for him, how is he going to treat our interests when we’re gone?

We have thousands of U.S. troops on the ground in Afghanistan and more heading there. Love it or hate it, we’re now deep in it, so you have to want our engagement there to build something that is both decent and self-sustaining — so we can get out. But I still fear that Karzai is ready to fight to the last U.S. soldier. And once we clear, hold and build Afghanistan for him, he is going to break our hearts.

Thomas L. Friedman, New York Times


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Five myths about the war in Afghanistan

The war in Afghanistan is in its ninth year, and even officials supportive of the U.S. presence there acknowledge the challenges that remain. “People still need to understand there is some very hard fighting and very hard days ahead,” Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said during his trip to Afghanistan last week. But the conflict is not hopeless, nor it is eternal. If we want to develop realistic expectations about the war — how it might unfold from here and when it could begin to wind down — it would help to dispel some of the popular mythologies that have emerged about the Afghans, the enemy we’re fighting and the U.S. commitment.

1. Afghans always hate and defeat their invaders.

The Afghans drove the British Empire out of their country in the 19th century and did the same to the Soviet Union in the 20th century. They do fight fiercely; many American troops who have been deployed both in Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years have asserted that the Afghans are stronger natural fighters.

Yet, the people of Afghanistan do not despise foreigners. Despite downward trends in recent years, Afghans are far more accepting of an international presence in their country than are Iraqis, for example, who typically gave the U.S. presence approval ratings of 15 to 30 percent in the early years of the war in that country. Average U.S. favorability ratings in recent surveys in Afghanistan are around 50 percent, and according to polls from ABC, the BBC and the International Republican Institute, about two-thirds of Afghans recognize that they still need foreign help.

And before we mythologize the Afghan insurgency, it is worth remembering some history. In the 1980s, the United States, Saudi Arabia and others gave enormous financial and military assistance to the Afghan resistance movement that eventually forced the Soviets out. That group grew to about 250,000 in strength in the mid-1980s. But today, the Taliban and other resistance groups receive substantial help only from some elements in Pakistan — and diminishing help at that — and collectively, they number about 25,000 fighters.

Finally, though U.S.-backed Afghan forces overthrew the Taliban after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, today’s international presence there does not amount to an invasion. Foreign forces are present at the invitation of the host government, which two-thirds of Afghans consider legitimate, if somewhat corrupt.

2. The situation in Afghanistan is much more difficult than the one in Iraq.

The U.S. goals in both countries are similar — establishing better security and governance and eventually passing total control to domestic authorities — and there are certainly ways in which Afghanistan poses a tougher challenge than Iraq. There are more tribes to contend with, the drug problem is worse, literacy rates are lower, national institutions such as the security forces and the judiciary are weaker, and the economy is less advanced.

But Afghanistan’s history of violence and its relative underdevelopment also make its people realistic about the future; they are grateful for even incremental progress, as polls show. And consider the following signs of improvement: Seven million children are now in school (compared with fewer than 1 million under the Taliban), and some 8 million cellphones are in use among a population of about 30 million — compared with virtually zero before 2001. Health care is also getting better.

Also, the violence in Afghanistan today is far less severe than it was in Iraq. Before the troop surge in 2007, more Iraqi civilians were killed every month than have been killed from war-related violence in Afghanistan each year. In other words, Afghanistan is less than a tenth as violent as the Iraq of 2004-07. Communities were displaced and sectarian tensions were inflamed far more in Iraq than they have been in Afghanistan.

3. The U.S. military is for war-fighting, not nation-building.

This was a core philosophy for the incoming Bush administration in 2001 — until the tide of history made George W. Bush the president most preoccupied with nation-building since Harry Truman.

The debate about whether the U.S. armed forces should be involved in nation-building was big in the 1990s, but the nation-builders have won the argument hands down. The terminology has shifted, to be sure, from “nation-building” to “stabilization and reconstruction” missions, but these include efforts to improve governance and the economy as well as security and stability.

Among top civilian and military leaders, there is no real disagreement about whether the armed forces should engage in these types of activities — at least not in situations such as Afghanistan, where the weakness of a state threatens American security. While Gen. David Petraeus led the writing of the new counterinsurgency field manual, with its emphasis on protecting local populations and helping build up indigenous institutions, it was then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld who, in a November 2005 directive, wrote that “stability operations are a core U.S. military mission that the Department of Defense shall be prepared to conduct and support.” He added that such operations will receive a “priority comparable to combat operations.” That remains U.S. policy.

4. We should negotiate with the Taliban.

There is nothing wrong with negotiating with elements of the Afghan resistance, especially at the local level. If they are willing to renounce violence and accept the authority of the central government as well as the temporary presence of international forces, we can allow them to rejoin society, obtain jobs and perhaps, in some cases, hold government positions. Many insurgents who are motivated less by ideology than by money, opposition to the government or tribal rivalries may fit this bill.

But a major compromise with the central Taliban leadership is not only unlikely — it’s a bad idea. The Taliban is not interested in negotiation and is not the sort of organization with which the Afghan government or the United Sates should ever compromise. Its extremist ideology is misogynous and intolerant, and its history in Afghanistan is barbaric. Most important, the Taliban is extremely unpopular among Afghans.

President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly stated his willingness to negotiate with Taliban leaders willing to renounce insurgency, while British Foreign Secretary David Miliband has called for some form of political settlement with the Taliban and other insurgent groups, provided that our core interests are protected. But in general, NATO and Afghan forces will have to establish more battlefield momentum before widespread negotiations become plausible. Any talks must be pursued from a position of strength, so that deals will involve convincing the Taliban to lay down arms rather than pretending that it could share power while clinging to its current ideology.

5. There is no exit strategy or exit schedule.

Some Afghans (and Pakistanis) listened to President Obama’s Dec. 1 West Point speech, in which he promised that U.S. forces in Afghanistan would start to withdraw by July 2011, and worried that America’s commitment is weak. Many Americans, though, have the opposite concern — that this war is open-ended.

But if the new strategy being implemented by Gen. Stanley McChrystal is successful, we will see clear evidence of that by late 2010 or 2011. We should then be able to contemplate major reductions in the U.S. military presence starting in 2012.

There are two main reasons for large NATO and U.S. troop deployments in Afghanistan today. The first is to clear and hold key strategic areas, as with the current operation in Marja. This effort will largely culminate in 2010 and 2011. The second is to train Afghan forces. Given schedules for recruiting, training and forming Afghan units, this process will be most demanding through 2012 or so.

Put the pieces together and, while a rapid reduction in U.S. forces starting next summer is unlikely, the United States should be able to cut its presence by perhaps 20,000 troops per year thereafter. This is hardly a quick exit — at least not as fast as Congress or Obama might want — and such a time table implies that the United States will still have 60,000 or more troops in Afghanistan when Obama faces voters in 2012. But it is not unending, nor is it unrealistic.

Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Hassina Sherjan is the president of Aid Afghanistan for Education, a nonprofit group in Kabul. They are the co-authors of “Toughing It Out in Afghanistan.”


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A Karzai Lament

Afghanistan’s president becomes a NATO scold.

Since U.S., British and Afghan troops began pushing into the Taliban stronghold of Marjah two weeks ago, they have gone to unprecedented lengths to minimize civilian casualties. Among other restrictions, they are forbidden from calling in air strikes until they have confirmed that targets pose a legitimate threat and that collateral damage can be minimized. Such caution may have its benefits in winning over the population, but it also has its price: As of Sunday, 13 coalition troops have been killed in the operation. Another 80 have died since the start of the year.

One would think Afghan President Hamid Karzai would applaud the sacrifice being made by his foreign allies as they seek to put cities like Marjah under his government’s control. Instead he has chosen to play the scold. At the opening session of the Afghan parliament last weekend, he held up a picture of a young girl whose family was killed in a Valentine’s Day strike and criticized the U.S. And this week, his cabinet blamed and condemned an air strike launched by U.S. Special Forces on Sunday that left 27 civilians dead, including four women and a child.

Nobody on the allied side of the war effort is indifferent to these tragedies, least of all U.S. Afghan commander General Stanley McChrystal, who yesterday went on Afghan TV to apologize for the accident. NATO also expressed its condolences—the second time it has done so since the Marjah offensive began.

But if moral responsibility belongs anywhere it is with the Taliban, which uses civilians as human shields while taking every opportunity to exploit their deaths for propaganda purposes. Mr. Karzai’s politically opportunistic carping only helps to validate their strategy.

We have always been of the view that Mr. Karzai’s failings as a leader should not serve as an alibi to withdraw from Afghanistan. The case would be easier to make if Mr. Karzai devoted more of his time to standing up for the allies who are standing up for his country.

Editorial, Wall Street Journal


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