The South Asia Channel

Three reasons Democrats should support more troops in Afghanistan

By Brian Glyn Williams Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, has recently requested 40,000 additional troops to help fight an increasingly aggressive insurgency in the country. Below are three reasons why Democrats who have soured to the war should support his request. 1. Al Qaeda and the Taliban are one. ...


By Brian Glyn Williams

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO commander in Afghanistan, has recently requested 40,000 additional troops to help fight an increasingly aggressive insurgency in the country. Below are three reasons why Democrats who have soured to the war should support his request.

1. Al Qaeda and the Taliban are one.

In the past few weeks Vice President Joe Biden has offered an alternative plan for Afghanistan that could be summarized as “fight terrorists not insurgents.” Instead of sending McChrystal the 40,000 troops he has reportedly requested to wage a full blown counterinsurgency against the Taliban, this “limited” strategy calls for waging a counterterrorism campaign against al Qaeda. Rather than slug it out with the local Taliban, we should focus on the al Qaeda terrorists who attacked the U.S. on 9/11, and since al Qaeda is in Pakistan, American forces should simply rely on unmanned aerial drones to kill them there, according to this argument.

Republican writer and strategist George Will summed up this strategy by stating American forces should be “substantially reduced to serve a comprehensively revised policy: America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, air strikes and small, potent Special Forces units, concentrating on the porous 1,500-mile border with Pakistan, a nation that actually matters.”

Putting aside the absurd assertion that Afghanistan somehow does not “matter,” this call for monitoring a 1,500 mile “porous” border using fewer than 200 Predator and Reaper drones overlooks the logistical limitations of such a campaign. If America cannot stop Mexicans from entering America in the millions, how can it monitor the mountainous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan from afar … using only drones? Most importantly, how can we look the Pakistanis in the eye after calling on them to go after the Taliban and al Qaeda on their own side of the border when we talk of withdrawing “offshore” to fight them on our side of the border? For the hammer (the U.S. in Afghanistan) and anvil (the Pakistani army) approach to work to prevent cross border raids the U.S.-led coalition needs to hit the Taliban from the Afghan side of the border while our Pakistani allies pressure them from the other side.

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But the biggest flaw with calls for waging a more limited counterterrorism campaign (as opposed to a counterinsurgency), is that is rests upon the flawed assertion that there is somehow daylight between the Taliban and al Qaeda. Those in support of the limited approach have begun to retroactively argue that the Taliban are a local outfit that we should not be fighting since they did not attack America on 9/11. This theory posits that the Taliban are unlikely to stand by the al Qaeda lightning rod which caused the overthrow of their regime in 2001.

But that is exactly what the Taliban have done so far. When President Bush called upon the Taliban to turn over Bin Laden and dismantle al Qaeda’s terrorist camps in Afghanistan after 9/11, Taliban leader Mullah Omar drew a line in the sand and dared the Americans to come and meet their fate in the killing mountains of Afghanistan. Did the Taliban learn their lesson and subsequently break their ties with their dangerous allies? 

On the contrary. In 2001 al Qaeda fled to the Pashtun-dominated tribal provinces of Pakistan and there they were offered sanctuary by the Taliban. A series of Taliban commanders such as Nek Muhammad, Mullah Dadullah, Baitullah Mehsud, Jalaluddin Haqqani, and Hakimullah Mehsud not only protected al Qaeda but actively worked to disseminate their brand of terrorism throughout Pakistan and Afghanistan. Under al Qaeda’s influence, the down-but-not-out Taliban began to radicalize. By 2006 the Taliban had become the world’s second most pervasive users of suicide terrorism after the Iraqis. They had also begun to behead their victims on video and to assassinate their enemies. It was the Taliban that were blamed for killing former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and who tried killing Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf. Al Qaeda amirs (commanders) sit in on the Taliban shuras (councils) in Quetta and Waziristan, they fight alongside the Taliban insurgents, and they fund and train their Taliban allies. The Taliban and al Qaeda have essentially morphed into one since 2001. Under al Qaeda influence the Taliban have threatened to attack the West on numerous occasions.

For those who seek to de-link the Taliban from Al Qaeda in order to rationalize a more limited war, al Qaeda has a response. In a recent al Qaeda internet posting, a spokesman emphatically states:

All praise is for Allah, al Qaeda and Taliban all are Muslims and we are united by the brotherhood of Islam. We do not see any difference between Taliban and al Qaeda, for we all belong to the religion of Islam. Sheikh Osama has pledged allegiance to Amir Al-Mumineen (Mullah Muhammad Omar) and has reassured his leadership again and again. There is no difference between us, for we are united by Islam and the Shari’a governs us. Just as the infidels are one people, so are the Muslims, and they will never succeed in disuniting the Mujahideen, saying that there is al Qaeda and Taliban, and that al Qaeda are terrorists and extremists. They use many such words, but by the Grace of Allah, it will not affect our brotherly relationship.

There is a reason why no one has been able to get the $25 million bounties on Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda number two Ayman al Zawahiri, and that is because the Taliban protect them. There is nothing to indicate that this would change if the Americans withdrew from the counterinsurgency and let the Taliban sweep back across southern Afghanistan. Far from it. Recent history would indicate that the Taliban would continue to offer sanctuary to the terrorists who attacked London, Madrid, Istanbul, New York, Bali and Washington from their Taliban-protected bases in Pakistan and Afghanistan. If the Taliban are allowed to regroup they will be more radical than they were in 2001, more distrustful of the Americans who toppled them, and filled with arrogance over their perceived victory. From such a position of strength, why would they suddenly change and turn on their al Qaeda allies/sponsors? 

2. History is not necessarily against us.

Over the summer Democrats began to turn against the war in Afghanistan. At the time it became conventional wisdom that history was not on the U.S.-led coalition’s side. One such voice recently opined, “Afghanistan is a 40,000 rural, rugged village fortress and thus a graveyard of empires since Alexander the Great — unconquered by Romans, Medians, Persians, Turks, Mongols, British, Soviets and our shrinking “coalition” forces.”

Overlooking the fact that the Romans never came anywhere near Afghanistan and that many village fortresses are pro-American, the truth is that all of the above people except for the Soviets actually succeeded in “conquering” the Afghans! A perusal of maps of bygone empires will show that Alexander, the Persians, the Turks, the Mongols, and even the British at times succeeded in “conquering” Afghanistan (the British absorbed the tribal territories of the North West Frontier Province from Afghanistan into their Indian empire).

As for the Soviets, their experience actually has very little in common with that of the U.S. The Soviets fought a mujahideen ‘freedom fighter’ army of 250,000 men. The Taliban insurgency by contrast is limited to 20,000 men. If this were not enough, the CIA funded the mujahideen insurgents and the Pakistanis, far from attacking them, actually provided training and equipment.

And the Soviets were forced to fight all Afghanistan’s ethnic groups to varying degrees. In particular, the Tajiks led by the indomitable Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Lion of Panjshir, killed two thirds of Soviet soldiers. Today the Tajiks are fully with the U.S. led coalition as are the Uzbeks, Turkmen, Aimaqs, and Hazaras. It is only the Pashtuns in Afghanistan that support the Taliban (and most of them are actually on the U.S. side, including the Pashtun president Hamid Karzai).

Additionally, the anti-Soviet freedom fighters were armed with Stinger ground-to-air missiles, something the Taliban today do not have. Plus, the Soviets were trying to bolster communism in this conservative land via a 100,000-man conscript army. The U.S. and its NATO allies are professionals who have total air superiority and the support of millions of Afghans. By contrast they are trying to support something the Afghans seem to genuinely want.

As for those who make glib comparisons to the U.S. quagmire in Vietnam, the U.S. lost 58,000 troops in that war. In eight years of fighting in the Texas-sized country of Afghanistan the US has by contrast lost just over 800. The two wars are very different in scale and have even fewer points of comparison than the U.S.-Soviet experiences in Afghanistan.

History would indicate that a war can be won in Afghanistan and that numerous empires such as the Persians, Medes, Alexander, Arabs, Turks, Mongols, Safavids, and Moghuls did control this land at times. The Cassandras who call Afghanistan the “Graveyard of Empires” prove the maxim that a little knowledge is worse than none.  

3. The Afghan People. 

In the 1980s America fought the Soviets using our Afghan allies as proxies. In essence, we fought the Soviets to the last drop of Afghan blood. And bleed they did. As many as 1.5 million Afghans died in the war that helped bring down our communist adversary. In other words, in the 1980s this small population lost more people than America has lost in all its wars combined. But when the war was over the U.S. did not offer the Afghans anything similar to the Marshall Plan that was used to rebuild post-World War II Europe. On the contrary the U.S. turned off all aid to this devastated land and left the Afghans to suffer in isolation. As a result, another 60,000 Afghans died in the post-Soviet civil war in which the previously-preserved Afghan capital was utterly destroyed. Many others died from starvation and wounds in refugee camps in Pakistan. Not surprisingly, many Afghans feel used by their American Cold War allies.  

But not everyone abandoned the Afghans. The Saudi extremist charities and fundamentalist Pakistani political parties pumped in millions of dollars to building madrassas (religious schools) that acted as de facto orphanages and jihadi incubators for a new generation of Afghan war orphans. In the 1990s this generation of Talibs (religious students) formed the Taliban regime which turned Afghanistan into a fundamentalist prison camp. The once-free Afghans were horribly abused in this medieval time warp which came about as a result of U.S. inattention.

What eventually caught the U.S.’s attention was not the fact that the misogynistic Taliban treated half the population (the women) as thralls and closed girls’ schools and hospitals, it was the fact that they harbored al Qaeda terrorists. When these terrorists attacked the United States on September 11, 2001, U.S. President George W. Bush and his wife Laura belatedly spoke of a noble project to free Afghan women from the Taliban’s oppression. They also spoke of making up for lost time and rebuilding this war torn land as an antidote to future extremism. It was the sort of far-sighted vision that led the U.S. to rebuild post-World War II Europe as an antidote to communism.

Despite the fact that Bush was distracted by the invasion of Iraq, much has been achieved in succeeding years. Eight years on Afghanistan is a changed place. I have traveled through roughly half of Afghanistan’s provinces and have seen de-mining teams hard at work, beautiful bridges and paved roads that put the ones I drive on in Boston to shame, laughing school children (including girls! See here and here) studying in U.S.-built schools, a bustling capital seemingly with more cell phones per person than we have in the U.S., and women tentatively going about without burqas on for the first time in years. In the majority of the country a new generation is growing up without war and more than two thirds of Afghanistan is experiencing peace, according to U.S. maps I saw over the summer in Afghanistan.

This is because the insurgency is largely located in the tribal belt of the ethnic Pashtuns (the Taliban are almost all Pashtuns, though not all Pashtuns are Taliban of course). The other ethnic groups who make up the majority, such as the Hazaras, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Turkmen, and Aimaqs, belonged to the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance and want the United States there. Over and over again during my travels through their lands, and even in the Pashtun tribal lands, Afghans told me to tell my fellow Americans not to abandon Afghanistan. If we left, the Afghans I met feared the Taliban thugs would come back throwing acid in un-veiled women’s faces, burning schools, amputating hands, and stoning women for adultery (i.e. being caught out on the street with a male who was not family or husband). All we have achieved at a cost in blood and gold would be overturned and the Afghans would be right where we left them back in 1991 when they fell prey to the extremists.

The peace and stability that we have brought to some two-thirds of Afghanistan is fragile and takes a military presence to maintain. We need time to train the tens of thousands of Afghan police and military to keep the peace and fight the Taliban insurgents in the Pashtun south. The Afghans desperately need breathing room.

Even in the tribal south the U.S. has kept the Taliban out of the Pashtuns’ spiritual capital of Kandahar and prevented them from reestablishing their harsh laws in Afghanistan’s second largest city. For this the Kandaharis are grateful. In fact repeated polls have shown that majority of Afghans want the U.S. and NATO there. As they watch Indian soap operas on televisions the Taliban once smashed, send their girls to school, and drive on newly paved roads, millions of Afghans are experiencing the direct benefits of the U.S. presence in their country. This is the work we could have been doing in 1991 and, for all its obvious flaws, it is a tentative sign of progress in the long journey to rebuild civil society in this long suffering land. In other words, compassionate, global-minded Democrats who supported President Bill Clinton’s humanitarian interventions in places like Kosovo, Bosnia, Haiti and Somalia owe it to the Afghan people to be patient and do the same for Afghanistan.

Brian Glyn Williams is an associate professor of Islamic history at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth.