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Defining U.S. National Security Interests in Afghanistan

April 15, 2011

Small Wars Journal, 15 April 2011: On 15 March 2011, General Petraeus testified at length on the situation in Afghanistan before the Senate Armed Services Committee. While the majority of the four-hour hearing can be summarized as the general’s cautious but optimistic assessment of progress on the security and political fronts, two of his comments in particular are deserving of serious scrutiny.

Starting at 203:00, Senator John Cornyn, questions General Petraeus about the Taliban’s aspirations for acquisition of nuclear weapons and regime change in Pakistan. General Petraeus responds, “With respect to the Afghan Taliban, Senator, I think that their aspirations truly are within Afghanistan. In particular it would be to reestablish the kind of state that they had established there in the wake of the [post-Soviet era] Afghan civil war.” He then states that while extremist groups might value access to them, “There is quite considerable security for the Pakistani nuclear weapons.”

At 234:00, in response to comments from Senator Mark Udall on liberalization of trade ties between India and Pakistan as a path to more amicable diplomatic relations, General Petraeus expresses his support for Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s aspiration to position Afghanistan as an energy resource transit route between Central Asia and the “very rapidly growing economy of the Subcontinent” [referring here to India via Pakistan].

Beginning at 176:15, Senator Joe Manchin III (D-WV) expresses dissatisfaction with the thought that while the U.S. is “paying for the security” in Afghanistan, China appears to be reaping the economic rewards. He notes that China is making an investment of $3.5 billion and “it looks like there will be a return of $88 billion.” Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy responds that the U.S. is also working to invest in the strategic mineral resources of Afghanistan through the Task Force for Business and Stability Operations (TFBSO) and is encouraging other Western nations to do the same.

These three points raise several important questions, the first of which is, how is the Obama administration defining vital U.S. national security interests in Afghanistan? If General Petraeus believes that the Afghan Taliban’s aspirations are limited to Afghanistan, as he clearly states in his testimony, it logically follows that there should be room for negotiation with them on their relationship with Al Qaeda, which is the core- and perhaps only –threat to the security of the American public.

Americans should be asking our congressional intelligence committee members if there is a consensus view within the intelligence community on the Afghan Taliban’s potential responsiveness to high level diplomatic overtures in exchange for their leaders’ abandonment of Al Qaeda. They should further request declassification of documents pertaining to such assessments. NATO may not win over Mullah Omar but such a diplomatic thrust might be enough to splinter the Afghan Taliban leadership and isolate the irreconcilable elements.

Thus far U.S. policy has required the Taliban to accept the Afghan Constitution as a quid-pro-quo for seats in the government, a prerequisite the Taliban have rejected ostensibly because it violates Sharia law. While it may not be pleasant to think of abandoning Afghans to the Taliban’s ultraconservative legal code, the use of force is a dubious way of addressing widespread societal problems such as disregard for the rights of women that are rooted in Afghanistan’s patriarchal tribal culture. A patient long-term focus on social evolution through education and exposure to Western media is more likely to fundamentally change this culture than forced social engineering experiments.

The second question General Petraeus’s testimony raises is, Can the U.S. “drain the swamp” of potential terrorist recruits in Afghanistan by playing a role in developing its economy, to include positioning Afghanistan to serve as an energy resource transit route from Central Asia to Pakistan and India?

Senator Scott Brown (R-MA) notes that there are potentially trillions of dollars worth of resources in Afghanistan and that revenue raised from the extraction of these resources must be injected into the Afghan economy to enable it to become self-sustaining. But are U.S. officials prepared to ensure that what is injected is not largely siphoned off by corrupt Afghan officials? Past experience gives reason for skepticism. The U.S. depends on these officials as much as they depend on the U.S. This mutual dependence constrains anti-corruption efforts to a significant degree when that corruption issystemic and institutionalized at the highest levels of the Afghan government.

As we learned in Vietnam far too late, finding the right balance between sovereignty and accountability is a difficult thing for an occupying power. Afghans will only tolerate so much corruption and economic oppression before their loyalties quietly shift, reinforced by propaganda- accurate or not -that foreign designs over their resources are to blame for their misery. Given the current deplorable state of the Afghan government and Pakistani intelligence service’s continued support for the Afghan Taliban, it might be worth considering cutting a deal with the senior Afghan Taliban leadership in exchange for a guarantee that they will disavow any pan-Islamist ambitions and enable a permissive operating environment for our special operations forces to hunt down what remains of Al Qaeda within territory under their control.

Such a solution, however imperfect, is not inconceivable. As Afghanistan expert Ahmed Rashid has noted in his book “Taliban”, prior to September 11th, 2011 the moderate wing of the Afghan Taliban’s leadership “despised the Arabs [referring here to Al Qaeda]” and “was opposed to international terrorism”. Rashid further notes that although Mullah Omar’s decision to continue to harbor Osama bin Laden after September 11th ultimately prevailed amongst the Afghan Taliban leadership, Omar “knew the Taliban leaders were deeply divided on the issue, and he faced the possibility of a revolt from within his own ranks. Omar was also bolstered by the reassurance from his supporters in Pakistan and Al Qaeda that the USA might launch a bombing campaign- which the Taliban could survive –but it would never send ground troops into Afghanistan.” (218-219)

U.S. overtures to the Afghan Taliban leadership would reduce the possibility of various militant groups with safe havens on the Pakistani side of the border from coalescing into a single ideological force as an unintended consequence of U.S. interventionist policies in the region. Even if they fail, they would at the very least have one advantageous political effect- they would demonstrate to the American public, whose support for the Obama administration’s current counterinsurgency strategy is waning, that the nation must renew its determination to see the mission to completion after 10 years of war. The Afghan Taliban leadership would be given a final opportunity to come to the negotiating table with only one pre-condition and if they refused, the only future they could look forward to would be as hunted men living in a perpetual state of fear.

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