Time to pull out

By Tom Putnam | Jul 15, 2010
Tom Putnam

Our confrontation with Afghanistan has gone on way too long.

We struck them militarily in 2001 because they harbored Al Qaeda, who engineered the World Trade Center bombings on September 11. Al Qaeda was protected by the ruling Taliban faction of the Pashtun Tribe. The latter comprises roughly 60 percent of Afghanistan's population. After the Russians left Afghanistan in the late 1980s, the Taliban took over. Everyone remembers how rigid and strict they were in adhering to their perceived version of Islamic Law. The subjugation and isolation of women was particularly onerous. The other Afghani tribes did not like the Taliban and were elated that U.S. forces had rid their "country" of that subjugating force.

With America's military conquest of Afghanistan, Al Qaeda fled into the federally administrated tribal areas of western Pakistan and most have evaded capture to this day. Some, over time, however, have been identified and killed by drone missiles; but not the two leaders: Osama Bin Laden and his Egyptian "side-kick" and -- if you can imagine -- a pediatrician, Ayman al-Zawahiri. They remain at large, likely protected by Taliban Pashtuns in Pakistan. Ominously however, Al Qaeda now has operatives in Yemen, Somalia, and who knows where else. Likely, there are latent cells within Western nations.

With Al Qaeda flushed from Afghanistan, the U.S. believed its mission there was essentially finished; we had retaliated for Sept. 11. Attention was then turned to Iraq, a country that had become increasingly worrisome to the West: a prolonged war with Iran, invasion of Kuwait, murderous hostility towards the Kurds in the north, subjugation of the majority Shia in the south, and then evidence of obtaining "weapons of mass destruction."

In 2003, the U.S., with Senate approval and joined by Great Britain, invaded Iraq with the expectation of removing atomic weapons and offering all Iraqi citizens a chance for a democratic government to succeed. As we know today, no atomic weapons were ever found, even though Saddam Hussein's military commanders, fearing his rage, had assured him of their existence. Sadly in today's world, as a result of the Iraqi experience, no nation, including the U.S., has the guts to enter and remove atomic weapons from either North Korea, Iran, or for that matter, Israel or Pakistan, as an initial step in ridding the earth of atomic weapons. There is much continuing dialogue on the desirability of all nations abandoning nuclear weapons; but there has been no definitive action to date, and don't expect any soon.

Slowly, Iraq is developing its own brand of democracy. Yes, Iraq is a tribal state like Afghanistan, but the people are more educated than the tribes in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan, as a state is not like our conception of a state in the West. It remains a "primitive" tribal area where family is most important, as are neighbors like oneself. There continues to be much intermarriage between cousins, and government is essentially managed by local tribal councils. The concept of a central government is not understood, appreciated, nor desired.

Yes, all tribes, except for some Pashtuns, were happy to see the Taliban lose political power after the U.S. invasion in December 2001; but they still retain their tribal construct and will likely do so through much of the early 21st Century. Until there is more education and contact with more democratized Middle Eastern and Central Asian nations, members of the Afghani nation will have little faith in a central government in Kabul. Their experience with the Taliban in the 1990s is still too fresh in many other tribal minds. The current U.S. administration's determination to set up a stable central government in Afghanistan is not desired by many tribes in Afghanistan and therefore will not become a reality soon, if at all. The want for a strong and stable central government in Afghanistan must come from within. That has been the human experience throughout history.

The U.S. administration decided to send 30,000 additional US troops to Afghanistan in July 2009. Those additional troops, in concert with the already present NATO and U.S. forces, were to begin a counterinsurgency against the resurgent Taliban in Helmand and Kandahar provinces. There was to be an associated development of trust in the Kabul government. Tragically, corrupt is the single most repeated word used to describe the central government in Kabul.

The Helmand operation failed miserably. The Taliban merely slipped across the nebulous border between Pakistan and Afghanistan and then later returned as conditions eased. Because of the Helmand province failure, the Kandahar operation has been delayed. Because of the Commanding General: Stanley McChrystal's inopportune remarks concerning U.S. governmental civilians involved in the area, he was relieved of his command and replaced by General David Petraeus. Petraeus was the person given credit for convincing the Sunnis to join a counterinsurgency against Al Qaeda in Iraq in 2006 and 2007. Iraq is still not a stable, well governed government; but it is making headway slowly. General Petraeus will be expected to begin an effective, if delayed, counterinsurgency in Kandahar. Unfortunately, I believe, because of tribal reasons cited above, that the Kandahar and allegiance to Kabul mission will also fail. Petraeus will be squandered on this now apparently ill-advised mission. His being placed in command, however, will likely make him less of a future presidential threat to his current Commander-in-Chief.

Currently, it appears that Vice President Joseph Biden has the most cogent solution to this nine year mess: remove our combat forces and turn to undercover agents and drone guided missile attacks to continue our war against Al Qaeda. In the meantime, from afar, we can observe the development of Afghanistan, an evolving tribal nation.

Time to pull the troops out!


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