Afghanistan, the 50-Year War
By Staff News & Analysis - June 28, 2010

C.I.A. Chief Sees Taliban Power-Sharing as Unlikely … The director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Leon E. Panetta (left), expressed strong skepticism on Sunday about the prospects for an Afghanistan deal being pushed by Pakistan between the Afghan government and elements of the Taliban, saying militants do not yet have a reason to negotiate seriously. "We have seen no evidence that they are truly interested in reconciliation, where they would surrender their arms, where they would denounce Al Qaida, where they would really try to become part of that society," said Mr. Panetta in an interview on ABC's news program "This Week." … Acknowledging that the American-led counterinsurgency effort is facing unexpected difficulty, Mr. Panetta said that the Taliban and its allies at this point have little motive to contemplate a power-sharing arrangement in Afghanistan. … In his remarks on ABC, Mr. Panetta reiterated the narrow goal Mr. Obama set for the Afghan war: "The fundamental purpose, the mission that the president has laid out, is that we have to go after Al Qaeda. We've got to disrupt and dismantle Al Qaida and their militant allies so they never attack this country again." – New York Times

Dominant Social Theme: Look, as soon as we wipe out Al Qaeda and their military allies we'll leave the region.

Free-Market Analysis: This is startling news. We will explain. First of all, the reality of Al Qaeda is fairly tenuous. It may stem from a "list" of Arab militant activists that the CIA kept in the 1980s and 1990s. Second, without state funding there cannot really be an Al Qaeda. It is a dominant social theme – a fear-based promotion, if you will – that terrorist organizations can exist as free-floating cells within the larger body politic. Terrorists need money, places to stay and relatively safety from whence to launch their attacks. Only the state or excrences of it can provide this sort of security in the modern age. Pakistan, for instance, obviously can, and does.

Leon Panetta also made the point on Sunday (as reported in the Washington Post) that there may be as few as 50-100 Al Qaeda in Afghanistan now. This is an incredible statement from our point of view. How does he know? Do Al Qaeda look different than Taliban? Do they wear name tags? Do they even exist? We remember when Donald Rumsfeld took to the air on national TV with big charts showing the five-level cave complexes that bin Laden operated out of. There were said to be several and thousands of Al Qaeda, as well, though neither the caves nor Al Qaeda were ever found and several months ago the Youtube videos of Rumsfeld's fatuous explanations were take down due to "copyright infringement."

What is not tenuous at all is the hurdles that statements like Panetta's set up when it comes to disengaging from Afghanistan. Al Qaeda, whatever it was, if anything, is now the label for a rag-tag band of young men who are attracted to the fighting in Afghanistan from countries other than Pakistan and Afghanistan itself. The Taliban, of course, are drawn from the 40 million-strong Pashtuns, the loosely linked tribal federation that has lived in the mountainous middle of Afghanistan and Pakistan for up to 5,000 years or more (in one form or another).

Let us translate what Panetta just said this Sunday, then. Here it is, as near as we can figure: "The US, Britain and NATO will not withdraw from Afghanistan until the rebellious Muslim youth drawn to the fighting cease to arrive and cease to fight us. Additionally, we will not withdraw until the Pashtuns effectively surrender and lay down their weapons."

So the demands are on the table. The Pashtuns who have not ceased to fight for hundreds if not thousands of years, must stop fighting. Rebellious youths must stop trickling into the area for training and fighting as well. This strikes us as fairly ambitious. In fact, it strikes us as a methodology for turning a decade-long war into one that goes on for most of the century, so long as America, Britain and NATO can afford it. (Britain has done this before, actually, fighting the Taliban for some 50 years in the latter half of the 1800s, to no real avail.)

There are other complications that Panetta didn't allude to in his statement. In a previous article, we pointed out that the Afghanistan war has become far more generalized now and includes Pakistan. Why Pakistan? Because Pakistan wants to control Afghanistan and has used the Pashtuns and their Taliban fighting force as a means to create a military enterprise that is amenable to Pakistan authority. Pakistan remains a mortal enemy of India and despite US efforts it is hard to see how the leadership and peoples of the two countries will ever get along, not in the short run anyway. Here's some more from the NY Times article:

In his remarks on ABC, Mr. Panetta reiterated the narrow goal Mr. Obama set for the Afghan war … But Mr. Karzai and Pakistani leaders believe that with the United States scheduled to begin a withdrawal next year, it makes sense to work aggressively toward a coalition that would involve elements of the Karzai government and the Taliban, both largely from the dominant Pashtun ethnic group. That has led to nervousness on the part of Tajiks and other ethnic minorities, which fear Pashtun domination.

Mr. Panetta admitted that despite the C.I.A.'s aggressive campaign against Al Qaeda and its allies in Pakistan's tribal areas — primarily using missiles fired from drone aircraft — the hunt for Osama bin Laden has made little progress. He said the last precise information on the Qaeda leader's whereabouts came in "the early 2000s." He said authorities were alarmed by the recent flurry of terrorist plots and attacks aimed at the United States, most recently the failed car-bomb attack on Times Square May 1.

We really don't know how all this is going to play out, though we're certainly on record as wondering if the US, Britain and its allies can ever "win" in Afghanistan and – with due modesty – much of what we've been writing about for the past six months has suddenly become "news" in the mainstream media (the idea that the current strategy is failing, etc.). We arrived at our conclusions, of course, by peering behind the dominant social theme of the war – that the West is finally freeing Afghanistan from its quandary of poverty and despair – and trying to figure out what was really going on. Never accept power elite memes at face value.

The elite has been after the Pashtuns for close to 200 years now. The Pashtuns are likely the final impediment to global governance. The war has little or nothing to do with resources, oil, pipelines or drugs. The CIA does not control the war, nor are Jewish bankers playing the Taliban against NATO to kill innocent NATO boys. Sure, there are elements of some of the above at work in the current conflict, but it is bigger than that. The war in Afghanistan is important.

We have been tracking the "new" emergent strategy now that the old new strategy seems to be in tatters. The idea was to win the hearts and minds of Pashtuns by showing them that the US could protect them against the Taliban. This ignored the overwhelming familial relationships between the Taliban and Pashtuns, as we have long pointed out – and also eight years of wholesale Afghan civilian murder by the NATO allies. An Afghan police force and army would then be trained to take over, leaving the grateful Pashtuns to be governed by non-Pashtun entities that Pashtuns actually despise and have warred against for centuries. The whole doctrine was riven with illogic and now, predictably, seems to be collapsing.

Enter the next cobbled-together enterprise. This emergent variant, as far as we can make out, is that Afghan President Hamid Karzai will make peace with Taliban soldiers that are sick of war by buying them out with houses, cash, etc. The Taliban rump will then be mercilessly attacked by Western forces that will stay in Afghanistan indefinitely. Pakistan is also supposed to do its bit by attacking the Taliban. And India is supposed to supply funds and technology to rebuild Afghanistan. Since the Pentagon has announced that Afghanistan minerals are worth US$3 trillion, we suppose we have to throw that into the mix as well. Where it goes, we have no idea.

All of this is cynical in our opinion. The Pashtuns are not a made-up entity like Iraq. (We don't think the Iraq surge worked, by the way, but we'll reserve judgments pending further hostilities there as well.) The idea in Afghanistan, as Iraq, is to build a nation state AROUND the Pashtuns that will hem them in, contain them and eventually splinter them. But the hemming is to be done by ethnicities foreign to the Pashtun by a government that has decided the Anglo-American axis will not win this war against the Pashtuns anymore than it won the last one.

So that leaves us with three resurgent strategies. The first is that Karzai will make peace with some Taliban and peel off parts of the insurgency. The second is that Anglo-American loot will succeed in buying off the Taliban foot soldiers. The third strategy assumes a rump of Taliban and Al Qaeda forces that will be fought mercilessly by the allies and Pakistan.

What are the downsides to such a strategy? Many in the Taliban do not trust Karzai and see him as little more than a puppet for the Americans. So it is certainly questionable as to whether or not Karzai can deliver a meaningful truce that the allied forces would accept. The Taliban have been fighting for decades and the Pashtuns have been fighting for millennia, so we are not sure that offering the Taliban material goods will necessarily remove foot-soldiers. And this assumes the Taliban is static force and that they cannot recruit to make up for the losses.

We wonder whether the US and NATO have the staying power to fight a rump war against the "remaining" Taliban, assuming the Taliban can be fractured and diminished. Within the same context, we wonder if Pakistan would cooperate in reducing the Taliban to a point where they were not an effective military apparatus, for then Pakistan would lose considerable influence in Afghanistan.

The upshot of all this looks to be something of a stalemate. The Anglo-American/NATO alliance will continue to fight the Taliban, which will continue to operate even if it is fractured and loses soldiers. The Pakistanis will do exactly as the Americans ask, but they will also do the opposite as well. And there is another element to keep track of – the Afghan army, which we would guess is not Pashtun based. NATO is trying hard to build an effective, domestic fighting force. But since Karzai's government would be effectively in charge of the nascent army, and he is intent on cutting a deal with the Taliban, we wonder how effectively the army would be deployed if it gets to the point where it is actually viable.

There are 40 million Pashtuns and hundreds of millions of Pakistanis. Many Pakistanis do not like the war or America anymore than the Pashtuns or the Taliban. It will all come down to US staying power. If the US, especially, is willing to stick it out in this hostile and desolate region for another five or ten years, progress can probably be made. But those in charge of the current hostilities should recall that the British tried for some 50 years without success.

After Thoughts

There are no guarantees in this kind of war. Another possibility, of course, would be to widen the war to Iran and set the entire Middle East ablaze. But the horrible thing from an Anglo-American standpoint is that the Pashtuns would probably still be fighting even after other hostilities were resolved. They are the "energizer bunny" of tribal militants.

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