Afghanistan – Get bin Laden and Get Out?

Every time I check the news, the Afghanistan situation is getting worse. Dr. Jerry Silverman knows much more about the situation than I, so I have asked him a series of questions. I think you will find his responses interesting.

Elliott: You have made a convincing case that the US should avoid going down the nation-building road in Afghanistan – But it seems we are partially down that road already. What are your thoughts on changing course?

Jerry: Change is always difficult and our involvement in Afghanistan is no exception. We faced a similar issue more than 40 years ago. I remember being asked during my Ph.D.  exams in 1965 whether sending the first American main force units to Viet Nam a few months earlier was in our national interest. My answer then was that the commitment itself had changed the situation so that we could not simply withdraw even if committing those troops had been a mistake in the first place. My Professor’s response – “so what you are saying is the longer we pursue an irrational policy, the more rational it becomes” – has stayed with me ever since. That lesson was reinforced numerous times during my service in Viet Nam as a USAID foreign service officer in the central highlands during 1967-1968 and again as an academic researcher and Ford Foundation staffer in Saigon from 1972-1975. So as I explained in more detail in another article my answer today would be that we should begin the difficult process of devising an exit strategy that provides for an acceptable negotiated withdrawal, or at least the appearance of one. And that should be done within the broader context of a fundamental review of America’s strategic core and secondary interests worldwide.

Elliott: Didn’t we go into Afghanistan just to get bin Laden? What if we told Afghanistan and Pakistan that if they gave us bin Laden, we would leave?

Jerry: That sounds straight-forward enough and, if successful, would serve two purposes: (1) prove our ability to reach out and capture leading terrorist enemies and bring them to justice — especially if we can hold them accountable in a well publicized trial — and (2) provide us with political cover to withdraw all NATO military forces — including our own — from Afghanistan. But that is not as simple as it sounds — for at least four reasons.

First, I assume we have not captured or assassinated bin-Laden and al-Zawahiri during the last nine years partly because: (1) we don’t ourselves know exactly where they are for any period long enough for us to mount our own special forces or missile strike; (2) we want bin-Laden and al-Zawahiri to be “taken out” by our Afghani or Pakistani “allies” to avoid martyring them at the hands of infidels but that they are not able or willing to do so; and/or (3) we believe the consequences of assassinating them ourselves; incarcerating them without trial in our own prison system, or bringing them to trial in our own courts would be worse than the actual threat they currently pose. None of those capabilities and concerns has disappeared.

But even if they have, a second problem is the need to ascertain exactly which among the myriad “Taliban” groups actually have access to bin-Laden and al-Zawahiri. The term “Taliban” is now applied to a variety of groups that increasingly cooperate with each other within shifting alliances. The Taliban is not the relatively cohesive group that occupied Kabul and much of Afghanistan between 1996 and 2001. Almost any group engaged in violent insurgent acts against the Karzai Government and/or NATO forces are now referred to as “Taliban.”

Third, it is important that we not make any public demand until we know for certain that the relevant Taliban have already agreed to accept it. And that would require prolonged secret negotiations. Indeed, if they did agree to it — something I very much doubt will happen — they would almost certainly prefer to do so in secret rather than in response to a public demand. Remember, we did try the public approach during the run-up to the insertion of main force troops there. Now, nine years later we still don’t have them and we are increasingly mired in Afghanistan.

Finally, prosecuting bin-Laden and al-Zawahiri within the American court system would no doubt be politically controversial both domestically and worldwide – additional kidnappings and other acts of terror directed at forcing their release would no doubt occur. A trial in the UN International Court of Justice would not be possible because al-Queda is not a “state-party” but is instead a “non-state actor.” The other alternative would be to try them in the much newer independent International Criminal Court (also in The Hague). But we do not have standing there because, although the ICC was initially established at our initiative, we decided in the end not to join it for fear that its jurisdiction might extend to our own governmental and military personnel. Thus, the ICC could provide a venue for a public trial beneficial to our interests only if we turned bin-Laden and al-Zawahiri over to an ally like France, Germany, Italy, the UK or Afghanistan itself that, unlike us and Pakistan, are state-members of that court. But that would obviously complicate matters for us.

Elliott: The election process smells. First, it does appear the US worked with the UN to legitimize it. And then when news came out that it was in fact rigged, we were forced to get Karzai to agree to a second election. But does the election really matter? Doesn’t the Taliban control most of the country?

Jerry: Well those are two rather different questions. With respect to elections, my own view is that they matter for a few elite, largely secular, modernizing Afghanis whose political culture is a lot like ours – at least with respect to their attachment to sovereign-states as the primary unit for political action. That should not be surprising since many of them were educated in either the United States, Western Europe, or USAID-supported and largely foreign-staffed Kabul University during the 1960/70s. But that is not the case for the overwhelming majority of “Afghanis” whose primary political identity does not extend to all legally defined citizens of “Afghanistan” Instead, most Afghanis are loyal to their clans or extended kinship groups; one or another parochial political leader or warlord; or a particular religious leader. Those loyalties do not shift from one leader to another because of an election outcome and, therefore, do not serve to legitimate the winner even if the election process is not corrupted.

Forgive yet another example from our experience in Viet Nam — the situation there was substantially different and oh so much simpler. But, a whole series of constituent assembly, presidential, parliamentary, provincial and village council elections were conducted in South Viet Nam between 1966 and 1973. Yet, despite Vietnamese adult literacy rates in the high 80s – as compared to Afghanistan’s rate of 28% — those elections did not establish legitimacy and political support for the Saigon Government.

Unfortunately, real elections almost always emphasize differences among candidates or parties rather than any common middle ground among them – even when the opposing side is not permitted to participate or chooses not to do so. One need only look at our own “blue”/”red” state dichotomy to understand how elections tend toward extreme rhetoric even as voters’ actual values and behaviors cluster toward the center.  That is even more the case if conducted in the middle of violent conflict among people who are not committed to respect the results no matter the outcome. So as with most questions about Afghanistan, the answer to whether or not elections count is both Yes and No — they count for some and not for others. Unfortunately, I don’t think they count among a sufficient mass of Afghanis to significantly affect the political outcome of the conflict there.

As for the Taliban “controlling” most of the country, I doubt it. First because, as mentioned above, the “Taliban” is not a single integrated entity with common command and control. Second, because I find it difficult to attribute to them a capacity that no Afghani or foreign government has ever achieved. Taliban groups are clearly increasing their presence and ability to influence events in larger and larger areas within Afghanistan — and perhaps Pakistan. But that area encompasses one of the most – if not the most — fragmented population on earth. That is a major problem confronting anyone who wants to make a deal with the opposition – who exactly to make a deal with? I have so far identified seven cross-cutting divisions among ethnic Pashtuns — and Pashtuns are not the only ethnically distinct population there. Nonetheless, although every self-appointed ruler of Afghanistan between 1747 and 1978 was a Pashtun (except during 1929) and again continuously since 1996, that has not ended recurring conflicts among them. Indeed, both Hamid Karzai and the leaders of various “Taliban” groups are all Pashtun.

So are the Taliban powerful? Yes, of course. Do they have the ability to dominate all other groups and “control” Afghanistan? No way. But neither do Karzai or NATO, or anyone else.

Does the Taliban and/or other anti-Karzai forces have the power to continue this war indefinitely? Almost certainly. Does the United States have such power? Also almost certainly. But that is a power to perpetuate the war indefinitely, not the power for either side to “win it.”

That is the stark reality. Therefore, the best “solution,” is to accept the undesirable reality of our inability to end the conflict in Afghanistan and withdraw, adapt to the continuation of instability there after our departure, contain the negative affects elsewhere as best we can, and reallocate our limited resources to other more important things.

Elliott: Jerry, fascinating and horrifying.

Thanks for taking the time to address this important issue once again.

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