The South Asia Channel

Empire going mad

Empire going mad

The current U.S. clue- and helplessness in Afghanistan, with its strategy that no one knows whether it will work and with no Plan B, is definitely crying out for some "out of the box" thinking. But the ideas which have started to appear on various websites reminds one of the mad Dr. Strangelove, who learned "how to stop worrying and love the bomb" in Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 movie. Most frightening is that some of these ideas and plans do not spring from the minds of fringe commentators but from the heart of the U.S. establishment. But for remote-view "experts" and newcomers in the field alike the advice would be: some closer-up knowledge about the country would help.

The most prominent plan of this kind is without doubt the "de facto partition of Afghanistan." It comes from George W. Bush’s former deputy national security adviser Robert D. Blackwill. His brainchild adds up to a hand-over of Afghanistan’s "northern and western regions" to a federation of non-Pashtun warlord-led militias (something like a neo-Northern Alliance), propped up by "40,000 to 50,000 [US] troops." The predominantly Pashtun rest, i.e. the South and the East, would not be left alone but turned into a virtual free-fire zone:

[T]he sky over Pashtun Afghanistan would be dark with manned and unmanned coalition aircraft – targeting not only terrorists but, as necessary, the new Taliban government in all its dimensions. Taliban civil officials – like governors, mayors, judges and tax collectors – would wake up every morning not knowing if they would survive the day in their offices, while involved in daily activities or at home at night" (Read Blackwill"s full article here.)

And if this drone strategy doesn’t work (as it apparently doesn’t in Pakistan), we still have Associate Professor Cora Sol Goldstein from California State University, another advocate of partition. She has already gone a step further, regretting that "the national and international political context makes it impossible for the U.S. to fight a total war [sic!] in Afghanistan and Pakistan" and that the "use of nuclear weapons" in the AfPak region is "not yet justified."

Not yet.

Does she seriously suggest nuking Kandahar? Or Quetta or Karachi?

(Read her full paper here but have some stiff drink at hand. To Nuclear Cora, we would like to recommend reading Masuji Ibuse’s Black Rain or the opening chapter of Kamila Shamsie’s Burnt Shadows so that, in the meanwhile, she understands what she is talking about — so that she stops confusing D-Day in World War II with Hiroshima and Nagasaki.)

But maybe we can discount her for the time being as a fringe political scientist who has lost her scientist’s ethics for a moment in an acute attack of outrage over some Taliban atrocity — and maybe she has never seen Afghanistan or any Afghan other than on TV. She certainly has never published — at least on open sources — about Afghanistan before.

Instead, let’s go back to Blackwill’s scenario. Its first part (on the North and West) would be an escalation of the already widely discussed option of "decentralizing" Afghanistan by further empowering "local powerbrokers" or whatever is the latest euphemism for warlords and commanders (For some in this discussion, anyone with a dozen Kalashnikov-wielding men is a "warlord", but clarity on what they are talking about is rarely a strength of these contributors). The current Special Forces-led, under-the-radar "local police" program (another euphemism for militias) could serve as a stepping stone for the implementation of Blackwill’s scenario when the time has become ripe.

Blackwill is not against "nation-building" in Afghanistan but he wants to "devote" it to the imaginary Northwestern half of Afghanistan alone where, he assumes, "people are not conflicted about accepting U.S. help and not systematically coerced by the Taliban" (by the way, Nuclear Cora also has something to say about this, and much more bluntly than Blackwill would ever put it: "Any policy, governmental or non-governmental, aiming at increasing education in a Taliban-ruled society, means increasing the power of the enemy." Ergo: Let the Pashtuns die illiterate).

Well, Blackwill should travel to the North. If he ever was able to step out of his armored vehicle (surely possible given all the sympathy for the U.S. there), he will find out that there are many non-Pashtuns, including the former mujahedin leaders he apparently believes still are full-hearted U.S. allies as they were during the 1980s proxy war against the Soviet Union, who do not appreciate the already existing U.S. heavy-handedness in their country.

His illusions about the Northern Alliance leaders show that Blackwill still lives in the Cold War. He obscures the fact that their inability to govern Afghanistan after the withdrawal of the Soviet occupation forces and the downfall of Dr. Najibullah’s regime was a major source for the emergence and success of the Taliban. Does it occur to Blackwill that the recycling of these same warlords and political mujahedin leaders is a source and not a remedy for the current mess in Afghanistan?

In contrast, for him, the rather large "Pashtun pockets" in the West (Farah, Nimruz, parts of Herat and Badghis) and even the North (Faryab, Balkh, Kunduz, etc.) simply represent a Pashtun "fifth column." He doesn’t articulate what he has in mind for them. Does he want to put barbed wire around their villages and bomb them like the rest of the Pashtun South? Or does he envisage a "population exchange," with ethnic massacres as "collateral damage"?

In the second part of his scenario, Blackwill even collides with one of his own basic assumptions: if the Taliban are "unpopular" also amongst Pashtuns, why does he want to bomb all of them back to the stone-age, instead of helping those who are uncomfortable with the Taliban to find or even create an attractive political alternative that can stand up against them? Because, as Blackwill says himself, "the long-term […] strategy and [the] far shorter U.S. political timeline are incompatible." He has a point, but that doesn’t mean that a long-term institution-building and governance-oriented strategy is wrong. It just means that a useful strategy for Afghanistan needs more time — something that nobody seems to have.

There are further collisions with Afghan reality, for example that "Hamid Karzai’s deeply corrupt government [is] as [italics by me] unpopular as the Taliban." This perhaps is an expression of political "realism," in an attempt not to be too negative about someone the U.S. must work with and doesn’t want to make angry again. But in fact, in many areas of Afghanistan the Karzai government is more unpopular than the Taliban. Otherwise, why would people join the Taliban? Apparently, it needs to be repeated for Blackwill that this unpopularity does not spring from some theoretical political disagreement, but because of an active persecution of large tribal groups by predatory government officials who have established a cartel of monopolistic power — and that it is propped up by his country’s own Special Forces who continue to work with some of the most unsavory of them. Karzai has admitted this causality at the Peace Jirga, and we had it even in writing in the Government of Afghanistan’s draft Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration Program document, before most of it was edited out from the Kabul conference version.

On this issue, also some other out-of-the-box thinkers kick in, a five-member &quo
t;Red Team" somewhere "[o]n a NATO base in Kabul," describing themselves as "cognitive insurgents" in a recent disarming Associated Press (AP) article (read it here).

One of its brilliant — and surely well-paid — proposals stipulates (in the words of AP) the need to "[r]ecognize that for Afghans, some corruption is worse than others, so tackle what affects them day-to-day first." This means that policemen taking money at checkposts or judges demanding a bakhshish for even opening a file, or bureaucrats opening the hand before they press a stamp on some paper (called "the nickel-and-dime bribes" in the article) should be priority targets for the U.S. anti-corruption drive. Because "if a local leader is lining his pockets but also cooperating with the NATO-led force, getting him fired may leave a void for the Taliban." So let him continue, proposes the team’s "senior analyst" Lt. Col. Michael McGee. (I relinquish my similar title at AAN with immediate effect to avoid being in such a company.) And as we know from Southern Afghanistan, this idea already has been picked up; it is called "tempering" the approach to corruption.

This type of thinking makes the little fish responsible for the current misery of Afghanistan and condones the corrupt activity of the big fish in and around government who serve as examples that the country has become a free-for-all by legally(!) carrying out billions of dollars to the Gulf and other places under the noses of the uniformed and not uniformed representatives of the donor governments (see: Matthew Rosenberg, "Corruption Suspected in Airlift of Billions in Cash From Kabul", Wall Street Journal, 25 June 2010).

Does out-of-the-box thinking include the option that two things could happen or should be done at the same time? Apparently not.

Meanwhile, Blackwill even hopes to "enlist" the UN Security Council for his crazy scenario. Apparently, the consideration that a UN approval to a "de facto partition" of a member state would herald the end of this organization does not even occur to him — or he doesn’t care.

To me, the whole thing sounds like a wet dream of the military-industrial complex.

But unfortunately, it might be closer to reality than one would like it to be. With the possible defeat of Obama’s Democrats in the upcoming mid-term elections and General Petraeus slowly inching away from the withdrawal timeline agreed to with his commander-in-chief, it looks as if the U.S. military in particular wants to wait out the Democratic administration and switch to a course à la Blackwill under a Republican successor in 2012.

And then, Allah protect the Afghans.

Thomas Ruttig is the co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, where this was originally published. He speaks Pashtu and Dari.