Winning in Afghanistan Long Enough to Leave

The post title above is deliberately provocative, but it gets to the point of the matter, for Afghanistan is significantly different than Iraq. Please chew on that a minute before you disagree. I am certainly not saying that we should drag up, the title challenges the embedded assumptions of the armchair followers of the war (those like myself,) as well as the level of commitment we seem to have now. The post title sums up what I believe much of the strat chat to be about right now.

Winning in Afghanistan is a long term commitment like getting married. There are no easy answers or silver bullets other than consistency and persistence.

Afghanistan is a long term commitment because it has so much less than Iraq does, because everyone is more independant than Iraqis are, and because there’s 2,000 years of shifting alliances to overcome. This is just one reason why the Sons of Anbar approach would not work there, that independence makes it natural for any central government be weak and any coalition or factional alliance to be a temporary thing.

Alliances are mercurial, and the sides can get rechosen very quickly. There’s no taint that goes with switching sides in the next choose up either, one merely has to look at the repositioning that Hekmatyar has taken over the years to see that. This is why arming up local militias and tribal lashkars is probably not a good idea except in limited niches. The weapons you give them one week could be used against you the next, and for you the month after that.

The tribes tend to ally with the side perceived to benefit them most at that moment. During the poppy harvest they ally with the drug warlords because that’s where the money is. During the winter they might ally against the same warlord’s bands who take to stealing and protection racketeering once the cash is gone. It’s a facile question of what’s best for the tribe right now.

This is easily seen when a blood feud occurs. To cure some perceptions blood feuds are mostly personal, or family vendettas, they rarely encompass whole tribes – tribes might support one side or the other, but once over they support the winner.

The concept of being traitorous to one side or the other does not really come into play. You can change sides without taint because it is assumed that you are always looking out for your family’s and then your tribe’s best interests first.

This was true in the time of Alexander well before Islam and the concept of Jihad arrived in Alexander’s city and if some new religion swept the region it would be true afterwards. Those advocating getting blood feuding started between Al Qaeda and the Afghanistan tribes fail to recognize the very personal nature of family honor in Afghanistan. [ I did at one time way back in ’05, but failed to explain that I meant blood feuds against individual Taliban and Al Qaeda Leaders by specific individuals they caused harm to. ]

There are also the larger divisions that lay atop this shifting field – those of larger ethnicities (Pashtun, Hazara, Tajik, etc,) then you can layer in the usual factors found in most other countries – urban vs. rural, class, religion, political stripes, etc. So if you step back and look at the whole picture you will see that Afghanistan has much in common with early America, and because they are fiercely independent they would make for great allies in an area where both Russia and China consistently try to make inroads and undermine stability. They might not always be on our side when we leave, but they won’t be on the other side either.

So with that background how do we win? First step is deciding if that’s what we want because winning is a commitment of a couple of decades. Another generation must get through shcools first.

The second step is to recognize the value of consistency coupled with persistence. If alliances are always mercurial, then the side that is consistently and persistently the best to ally with in all seasons wins, but it takes a long time. A strategy forged on the concept of getting out honorably fails – the only real honor in Afghanistan is personal and familial.

If we consistently take out the violent leaders, and build a base of new leaders who are less violent then we win over the next two decades. To do that we have to want to, and we have to marry into this. Is the political will and patience there to do that? Time will tell that tale as it always does, but first we have to examine long and hard how consistency and persistence break down into long term strategy, and daily tactics. The real question blowing in the wind is what does Obama’s CNAS strat team think of this reality? Some are pointing at good signs from Nagl.

Update: Here’s some of the typical strat chat you see, h/t Small Wars Journal:

More from small wars journal here. There’s one thing missing from their summation – where possible you must demonstrate the foreign interventionists. This is harder to do in Afghanistan’s southern frontiers because all Pashtun are automatically more “local” than ISAF or Northern Afghan troops, however where Iran’s and Al Qaeda’s intervention is in effect that mask must be ripped off and passed around every village bazaar.