Outside View: Afghanistan’s politico-military answer

By LAWRENCE SELLIN, UPI Outside View Commentator
A soldier from the Afghan national army provides security during a dismounted patrol near the village of Dehayat, Afghanistan on November 9, 2009. UPI/Rock Stevens/U.S. Army
A soldier from the Afghan national army provides security during a dismounted patrol near the village of Dehayat, Afghanistan on November 9, 2009. UPI/Rock Stevens/U.S. Army | License Photo

HELSINKI, Finland, Dec. 1 (UPI) -- "In the end China went her own way as if the Americans had never come."

This is the last sentence of Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Barbara W. Tuchman's book "Sand Against the Wind -- Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-45." As Tuchman described, ultimately, Joseph Stilwell's efforts to bring combat efficiency and offensive spirit to the Chinese Nationalist forces did not succeed, just like Christianity and democracy brought by missionaries and foreign advisers failed to gain a foothold. They were not indigenous demands of the society and culture to which they were being offered. It was a problem for which there was no American solution.


Likewise, there is only an Afghan solution for Afghanistan. History has demonstrated that Afghans will resist outside interference, and political authority is more often driven bottom-up by collective local consent rather than top-down through oppressive central control. It is absolutely clear that the path to peace in Afghanistan is through balance of power, not hegemony.


From a Western perspective, the primary threat to Afghanistan is the imposition of Taliban rule over the country, which would be viewed as a catastrophic geostrategic defeat for the United States and NATO. It would establish a radical Islamic state, which would likely destabilize Pakistan, threaten India and embolden the radical regime in Teheran and that country's terrorist surrogates.

The U.S. and NATO objective, therefore, is to prevent a Taliban takeover of Afghanistan. That does not require destroying the Taliban but neutralizing it as a significant military threat and transforming the current situation from a primarily military one into the political realm.

The Taliban is a coalition of groups with similar ideologies but not necessarily the same goals. They often operate independently and occasionally fight among themselves. Depending upon the circumstances, the instinct for self-preservation can act as a magnet drawing the factions together or it can act as a wedge to separate them.

Applying an Iraq study by Alexander, Kyle and McCallister, Capt. B.U. Hammidov of the Uzbekistan army describes the behavior of Afghan tribal members. He stresses the importance of understanding the strength and extent of tribe and clan-based loyalties and the effect of segmentation on the behavior of Pashtuns.


That is, for a tribe or clan the greatest loyalty is to family, tribe and extended family, while it is less so for nationalism, religion and foreign influence. When growing up, Pashtun tribal children learn the axiom: "Me against my brothers; my brothers and I against our cousins; me, my brothers and our cousins against everybody else."

Segmentation refers to the hierarchical nature and behavior of traditional tribal kinship structures. It means that groups that may be potentially hostile toward one another, or even involved in open conflict, come together when confronted by an external threat that endangers them both. Alternatively, tribal rivalries due to segmentation present opportunities for a third party to exploit.

Effectively leveraging such concepts one could create an insurgency inside the Taliban coalition to divide them and weaken their collective effectiveness.

Pakistan should be encouraged to maintain its military pressure on Taliban elements on its side of the border while simultaneously creating political opportunities for certain Pakistani-tribal groups to distance themselves from the Taliban coalition. Pakistan has previously demonstrated success in this approach.

An important element of U.S. and NATO strategy would be combining unrelenting military pressure on the Taliban while simultaneously creating a tribal-based anti-Taliban opposition within the local Afghan Pashtun communities. Political gestures directed toward the Taliban will be futile without first convincing the Mullah Omar-led Shura it cannot win by force of arms.


A local-based tribal approach will require fewer U.S. troops, cost less and have a more immediate impact than our traditional policy of growing and training the Afghan army and police.

The most effective role for the Karzai government is to stop its factional infighting, reduce corruption and deliver improvements in the lives of ordinary Afghans through a coordinated bottom-up strategy together with aid agencies.

A united Kabul-based front of Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara leadership needs to step up as genuine supporters of anti-Taliban Pashtun communities and recognize them as equals in the governance of the country. The Pashtuns remain Afghanistan's center of gravity without whose support the Taliban would cease to exist. A particularly important target is the "de-Talibanization" of the Ghilzai Pashtuns, who form the core of its membership.

The coalition of Taliban groups, its association with al-Qaida and their external sources of support will not be significantly affected without the United States and NATO clearly regaining the military initiative. At the present time our enemies have no incentive to negotiate and those funding them have no reason to question their investment. They think that they are winning, so for them reconciliation represents a retreat.

The sooner we take the necessary steps to move Afghanistan from a military conflict into the political sphere, the quicker we will be able to define a satisfactory and feasible exit strategy. I don't think we are quite there yet. We won't win at the negotiating table, that which we have already lost on the battlefield.



(Lawrence Sellin, Ph.D., is a colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve and a veteran of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.)


(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

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