December 22, 2008
By Joe Klein
“Things have gotten a bit hairy,” admitted British Lieut. Colonel Graeme Armour as we sat in a dusty, bunkered NATO fortress just outside the city of Lashkar Gah in Helmand province, a deadly piece of turf along Afghanistan’s southern border with Pakistan. A day earlier, two Danish soldiers had been killed and two Brits seriously wounded by roadside bombs. The casualties were coming almost daily now.
And then there were the daily frustrations of Armour’s job: training Afghan police officers. Almost all the recruits were illiterate. “They’ve had no experience at learning,” Armour said. “You sit them in a room and try to teach them about police procedures — they start gabbing and knocking about. You talk to them about the rights of women, and they just laugh.” A week earlier, five Afghan police officers trained by Armour were murdered in their beds while defending a nearby checkpoint — possibly by other police officers. Their weapons and ammunition were stolen. “We’re not sure of the motivation,” Armour said. “They may have gone to join the Taliban or sold the guns in the market.”
The war in Afghanistan — the war that President-elect Barack Obama pledged to fight and win — has become an aimless absurdity. It began with a specific target. Afghanistan was where Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda lived, harbored by the Islamic extremist Taliban government. But the enemy escaped into Pakistan, and for the past seven years, Afghanistan has been a slow bleed against an array of mostly indigenous narco-jihadi-tribal guerrilla forces that we continue to call the “Taliban.” These ragtag bands are funded by opium profits and led by assorted religious extremists and druglords, many of whom have safe havens in Pakistan.
In some ways, Helmand province — which I visited with the German general Egon Ramms, commander of NATO’s Allied Joint Force Command — is a perfect metaphor for the broader war. The soldiers from NATO’s International Security Assistance Force are doing what they can against difficult odds. The language and tactics of counter-insurgency warfare are universal here: secure the population, help them build their communities. There are occasional victories: the Taliban leader of Musa Qala, in northern Helmand, switched sides and has become an effective local governor. But the incremental successes are reversible — schools are burned by the Taliban, police officers are murdered — because of a monstrous structural problem that defines the current struggle in Afghanistan.
The British troops in Helmand are fighting with both hands tied behind their backs. They cannot go after the leadership of the Taliban — still led by the reclusive Mullah Omar — which operates openly in the Pakistani city of Quetta, just across the border. They also can’t go after the drug trade that funds the insurgency, in part because some of the proceeds are also skimmed by the friends, officials and perhaps family members of the stupendously corrupt government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Helmand province is mostly desert, but it produces half the world’s opium supply along a narrow strip of irrigated land that straddles the Helmand River. The drug trade — Afghanistan provides more than 90% of the world’s opium — permeates everything. A former governor, Sher Mohammed Akhundzada, was caught with nine tons of opium, enough to force him out of office, but not enough to put him in jail, since he enjoys — according to U.S. military sources — a close relationship with the Karzai government. Indeed, Akhundzada and Karzai’s brother Ahmed Wali — who operates in Kandahar, the next province over — are considered the shadow rulers of the region (along with Mullah Omar). “You should understand,” a British commander said, “the fight here isn’t really about religion. It’s about money.”
Another thing you should understand: thousands of U.S. troops are expected to be deployed to Helmand and Kandahar provinces next spring. They will be fighting under the same limitations as the British, Canadian, Danish and Dutch forces currently holding the fort, which means they will be spinning their wheels. And that raises a long-term question crucial to the success of the Obama Administration: What are we doing in Afghanistan? What is the mission?
We know what the mission used to be — to kill or capture Osama bin Laden and destroy his al-Qaeda command. But once bin Laden slipped away, the mission morphed into a vast, messy nation — building effort to support the allegedly democratic Karzai government. There was a certain logic to that. The Taliban and al-Qaeda can’t base themselves in Afghanistan if something resembling a stable, secure nation-state exists there. But the mission was also historically implausible: Afghanistan has never had a strong central government. It has been governed for thousands of years by local and regional tribal coalitions. The tribes have often been at one another’s throats — a good part of the current “Taliban” uprising is nothing more than standard tribal rivalries juiced by Western arms and opium profits — except when foreigners have invaded the area, in which case the Afghans have united and slowly humiliated conquerors from Alexander the Great to the Soviets.
The current Western presence is the most benign intrusion in Afghan history, and the rationale of building stability remains a logical one — but this war has become something of a sideshow in South Asia. The far more serious problem is Pakistan, a flimsy state with illogical borders, nuclear weapons and a mortal religious enmity toward India, its neighbor to the south. Pakistan is where bin Laden now lives, if he lives. The Bush Administration chose to coddle Pakistan’s military leadership, which promised to help in the fight against al-Qaeda — but it hasn’t helped much, although there are signs that the fragile new government of President Asif Ali Zardari may be more cooperative. Still, the Pakistani intelligence service helped create the Taliban and other Islamic extremist groups — including the terrorists who attacked Mumbai — as a way of keeping India at bay, and Pakistan continues to protect the Afghan Taliban in Quetta. In his initial statements, Obama has seemed more sophisticated about Afghanistan than Bush. In an interview with me in late October, Obama said Afghanistan should be seen as part of a regional problem, and he suggested that he might dispatch a special envoy, perhaps Bill Clinton, to work on the Indo-Afghan-Pakistani dilemma. Clinton seems a less likely prospect since his wife was named Secretary of State. The current speculation is that Richard Holbrooke may be selected for the job, which would be a very good idea.
Holbrooke is a great negotiator, but he’s also a great intimidator, and the first step toward resolving the war in Afghanistan is to lay down the law in both Islamabad and Kabul. The message should be the same in both cases: The unsupervised splurge of American aid is over. The Pakistanis will have to stop giving tacit support and protection to terrorists, especially the Afghan Taliban. The Karzai government will have to end its corruption and close down the drug trade. There are plenty of other reforms necessary — the international humanitarian effort is a shabby, self-righteous mess; some of our NATO allies aren’t carrying their share of the military burden — but the war will remain a bloody stalemate at best as long as jihadis come across the border from Pakistan and the drug trade flourishes.
I flew by helicopter from Helmand to the enormous NATO base outside Kandahar to learn that three Canadian soldiers had been killed that morning in an ambush. I stood in a small, bare concrete plaza as the Canadian flag was raised, then lowered to half-staff. Next the Danish flag and finally the NATO flag were raised and left to rest at half-staff. A small group of soldiers from assorted countries stood at attention and saluted as the flags rose and fell. There were no American flags this day, but there soon will be.
Before he sends another U.S. soldier off to die or be maimed in Afghanistan, President-elect Obama needs to deliver the blunt message to the leaders of Pakistan and Afghanistan that we will no longer tolerate their complicity in the deaths of Americans and our allies, a slaughter that began on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, and continues to this day. Obama will soon own this aimless war if he does not somehow change that dynamic.