Tripathi: Afghanistan and Presidential Dilemmas

Deepak Tripathi writes in a guest editorial for IC

News that the US ambassador to Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, has sent classified messages to Washington in the last few days, advising President Obama not to send more troops to Afghanistan, is dramatic both in its timing and substance. It came just as Obama was to hold further deliberations with his advisers on a new strategy for what is now described in Washington as the AfPak front. The substance of Eikenberry’s advice went directly against the plan the military commander in Afghanistan, General McChrystal, has been pushing for in recent months. Eikenberry’s intervention is highly significant. A Harvard and Stanford-educated general, he had served in Afghanistan twice before retiring and was immediately appointed America’s envoy in that country in April 2009. He has strong military credentials and President Obama’s ear–an effective counter to the Pentagon lobbying for ever-increasing military commitment to the war.

The contrary advice from Eikenberry may have annoyed General McChrystal. But it represents an established pattern by now: well orchestrated media reports originating from advocates of greater American involvement before every new strategy session, apparently intended to bounce the president into sending more troops; and President Obama finding a way to resist that pressure. Whatever criticisms are leveled against Obama over his perceived hesitation or dithering, these maneuvers within the administration point to his dilemmas at this juncture. For unlike George W Bush, an instinctive demolisher, Obama is a man of intellect, averse to war and more in tune with history.

The last two decades of the twentieth century were a period of exceptional savagery in Afghanistan. First, it was committed during Soviet occupation and the US-Soviet proxy war in the 1980s. Then came the West’s neglect of Afghanistan and the outbreak of a ‘war of all against all’ following the collapse of Soviet and Afghan communism. The culture of violence to which powers great and small, and Afghan factions themselves, contributed got deeply ingrained in Afghan society. Violent human behavior was revealed in more frightening ways than before.

The opening decade of the new century brought the horror of 9/11 early. Its conclusion reminds us of the Soviet decade in Afghanistan and the American military era in Vietnam before the 1975 withdrawal. In 2009, the total strength of American and allied troops is more than 100,000, nearly as high as the number of Soviet troops in Afghanistan twenty years before. Already, it has become the bloodiest year for the US-led international forces, with numerous civilian deaths in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And General McChrystal wants 40,000 extra soldiers, warning his commander-in-chief that otherwise the mission would fail.

In his August 2009 report, General McChrystal presented to the Obama administration a list of ‘new objectives’ in Afghanistan. Among them are: ‘discredit and diminish insurgent and their extremist allies’ capability’; ‘promote the capability of, and confidence in, the Afghan National Security Forces’; and ‘maintain and increase international and public support for ISAF goal and policies’ in Afghanistan. Those keeping a keen eye on the conflict might ask what has the international occupation force been doing for eight years and what is new in McChrystal’s objectives? His assessment further says that the international force has not adequately been executing the basics of counterinsurgency warfare. So more military (with civilian) resources must be committed.

General McChrystal’s remedy bears a striking resemblance to a letter written by Colonel K Tsagolov of the Soviet military to his defense minister Dmitry Yazov in August 1987. At a time when Soviet leader Gorbachev had decided to withdraw from Afghanistan after a failed invasion and occupation, Colonel Tsagolov, using Marxist jargon, wrote: “A deep political crisis of the Afghan society is obvious…The coalition of social forces continues to change in favor of the counter-revolution. The state regime is not capable of stopping the counter-revolution on its own.”

Colonel Tsagolov criticized the policy of national reconciliation being pursued by then president, Najibullah, at the Kremlin’s behest. Tsagolov observed that ‘our efforts over the last 8 years have not led to the expected results’; national reconciliation ‘has not led to a breakthrough in the military-political situation, and will not lead to one’. The ‘counter-revolution will not be satisfied with partial power today, knowing that tomorrow it can have it all’. Colonel Tsagolov’s recommended solution was to ‘help the progressive political forces’ to preserve the ‘democratic content’ of the country; and to ‘ensure future development of social processes’ in Afghanistan ‘in the direction of our long-term interests’.

How did the US/ NATO war in Afghanistan become so brutal, falsifying the first impressions in the wake of an ‘easy victory’ in overthrowing the Taliban regime? From the outset, one side in the new Afghan conflict has had overwhelming power and acquired impudence. But the underdog has had strength in numbers, prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice. Fear has lost its deterrent quality. Death is no more an unwelcome prospect. Life has to be endured, not enjoyed. And the rationality in martyrdom has replaced the rationality in survival among those who fight the occupation forces. Human beings are at their most dangerous when they no longer fear death. It explains the conduct of the suicide bomber.

The Afghanistan crisis has deteriorated in the absence of a credible strategy. Eight years after the US-led invasion of 2001, the futility of counterinsurgency resulting in the loss of more innocent lives than those of ‘terrorists’ is plain to see. To succeed, a strategy must be not about killing, but about rebuilding. It should attract support rather than cause alienation. Its foundations must be based on a thorough understanding of the cultures and sensitivities of others and reasons of human pride.

There are choices other than McChrystal’s counterinsurgency plan to guide the international efforts: to persuade Pakistan’s military to relax its hold; to allow the democratic institutions and processes to develop; to fight corruption; and to encourage the rule of law. Above all, to save both Afghanistan and Pakistan from future generations of militants; to build effective systems of education that provide modern schools instead of religious madrasahs. The United States has a responsibility to play a vital role in all this. But it may only be possible if there is an acceptance in Washington that a coercive enterprise to remake a traditional society rarely succeeds.


Deepak Tripathi, former BBC correspondent in Afghanistan, is the author of two forthcoming books: Overcoming the Bush Legacy in Iraq and Afghanistan and Breeding Ground: Afghanistan and the Origins of Islamist Terrorism (Potomac Books, VA, 2010). He lives near London and his gmail moniker is DandATripathi.

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8 Responses

  1. Military advise is always to escalate. Ask a surgeon how to fix a problem and he will want to operate. Obama asking the military what they think is best is a silly proposition. Dah, don't we all know what they will recommend ???

  2. Professor – this essay just might have every toxic ingredient and paradigm the "expert class" all have on Afghanistan.

    The most popular truism among those of you that know this subject so well is the worn out term "the West’s neglect of Afghanistan." This often also takes the form of America's abandoning Afghanistan after the Soviet pull-out. This is a canard of the first degree and when I hear it I cringe. Never mind the fact that the US was key to helping Afghans repel Soviet hegemony. Somehow we are responsible for what the Afghans did to themselves after the victory over the Soviets. When are the Afghans going to be held accountable for Afghan behavior? Not one single American soldier fired a bullet in anger there before 9/11. No, the US did not turn its back on the Afghans. The Afghans turned their own backs on morality and humanity.

    The second canard is that the international community (or the US) has been "occupying" Afghanistan. I wish we had been. I wish the US approach after assisting the Northern Alliance romp over the Taliban would have been to declare Martial Law much like The US did in Germany. The stark contrast between the brute success the US had in post-war Germany and the absolute failures of political and cultural awareness we've experienced in Iraq and Afghanistan are well documented (see link to for a somewhat effective academic overview of it). We have not occupied Afghanistan – we "partnered" with the Pashtuns and Hamid Karzai. We've provided security for their national and local Jirgas and supported their idea of where Afghanistan needs to go. There has been no American vision for Iraq or Afghanistan's future. In both cases, we took the approach of "you decide, it's your country." I wish it were not so but don't try to tell me we've occupied anything – we've not insisted on one single law for either country and that's a shame.

    Canard number three: "…a thorough understanding of the cultures and sensitivities of others" has been sorely lacking in US and international efforts. Please. This recurrent theme is so overused and it lacks any substance. Our Army has been too understanding – I bet more Army officers can recite the tenets of Islam and Pashtunwali than the US Bill of Rights. I can guarantee you that promoting the US Bill of Rights has never been part of the US mission in Afghanistan. In fact, we are so sensitive to Afghan culture that we've avoided and dropped our cultural mores when we're in Afghanistan. Tell the US grunt who goes without R-rated movies and alcohol during his deployments there that we've lost all sensitivities to the host culture. What we've lost is a lack of conviction about our rights to our political tenets and our culture.

    Finally, Deepak tells us what the expert class only knows – that the keys here are to convince Pakistan (the country that invented the Taliban) to relax its hold, fight corruption, and encourage the rule of law. Hundreds of years of history be damned. Let me take you back to a period of time in the US when it was possible to speak bare faced truths: The Afghans are militant, brutal, vile, and corrupt. The Pakistanis are rotten to the core. The US can't change any of that. After eight years of trying to help, it is now apparent that the Afghans are not worth it. Maybe these are the truths Obama is wrestling with.

  3. The goals of helping Afghanistan as set out in this essay make sense whether you call it counterinsurgency or something else. Still, can "rule of law" be built without putting force behind the law? What is gained by getting the Pakistani army to put less pressure on armed groups that control part of its territory?

  4. Nice piece Juan. I like the statement "…a coercive enterprise to remake a traditional society rarely succeeds"

  5. "The Afghans are militant, brutal, vile, and corrupt. The Pakistanis are rotten to the core."

    Racism is so crazily pleasing.

  6. Anonymous

    "What we've lost is a lack of conviction about our rights to our political tenets and our culture."

    Am I misinterpreting, or is there any way to read 'anonymous' other than as insisting worldwide imperialist intervention (even if haltingly ending in dissappointment) is a great and good American tenet ingrained in an admirable culture the more admirable because of the ingraining?

  7. "Tell the US grunt who goes without R-rated movies and alcohol during his deployments there that we've lost all sensitivities to the host culture. What we've lost is a lack of conviction about our rights to our political tenets and our culture."

    The entire comment was violently sickeningly shamelessly racist. Quite vile.

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