By David Ignatius
By The Daily Star [Daily Times can only be accessed by proxy server, still, such as this one.]
Recently The New York Times carried vivid war reporting from Afghanistan. C.J. Chivers described the “bloody standoff” in the Korengal Valley between American troops and die-hard tribal warriors. Photographer Tyler Hicks snapped an unforgettable front-page picture of a US soldier in a mad dash to escape a riverside ambush.
But I found myself wondering: Why is the United States fighting insurgents in the remote Korengal Valley in the first place? The story described the enemy as “Taliban,” but it said the locals are angry “in part because they are loggers and the Afghan government banned almost all timber cutting, putting
local men out of work.” There’s apparently no sign of Al-Qaeda in the valley, where people are fiercely independent and speak their own exotic language.
While applauding the bravery of the US soldiers, we should also ask the baseline question: Is this use of American military power necessary or wise? When I was in the area a year ago, I visited an Army forward base near Asadabad that was firing large-caliber artillery shells into the Korengal to keep the local fighters at bay. The percussive roar of the outgoing fire was so loud it was hard to hear the comments of members of the US Provincial Reconstruction Team, who were explaining their efforts to win over the local population by building roads and schools.
The fighting in Korengal illustrates a bigger problem that’s at the heart of President Obama’s strategy for the Afghanistan War. The strategy is leaning in two directions at once. Obama described his war aims in limited terms, as preventing Al-Qaeda from launching attacks on the United States. But to accomplish that goal, he advocated a broader nation-building effort that could last many years. In military jargon, it’s an “enemy-centric” strategy that employs “population-centric” tactics of counterinsurgency warfare.
The problem isn’t so abstract for the young soldiers at Korengal Outpost: Are US foot patrols and artillery barrages needed to stop Al-Qaeda in this Afghan wilderness? Or is there a better, cheaper way, with less loss of Afghan and American lives?
The senior officials who drafted Obama’s strategy agree that it has this inherent tension, but they say it’s inescapable. They believe that a successful counterinsurgency fight has both a soft, road-building side and a kinetic, kill-the-enemy side. The challenge, the officials say, is combining the two approaches to splinter the insurgency. If the strategy works, says one of the people who drafted it, the US will dismember the “syndicate” of insurgent groups by the end of the summer fighting season this year or next.
To get an Afghan view, I spoke last week with Ashraf Ghani, who was finance minister from 2002 to 2004, in the first post-Taliban government, and is now running for president. He’s a supremely articulate man who took a doctorate in anthropology from Columbia University and worked at the World Bank. He’s probably a long shot for the presidential palace in Kabul, but he has a clear analysis of what’s needed – from Americans and Afghans, both – to put this war on a better track.
“Choices have to be made in terms of how the US strategy is implemented – counterinsurgency tactics, or kinetic. Right now, they’re attempting to do both,” says Ghani. He favors the former, and cautions that “months of counterinsurgency work can by undone by one kinetic action.”
Ghani is running on several issues that need to be addressed, no matter who wins. He wants greater Afghan self-reliance, reform of the country’s corrupt and feeble government, and a jobs program. The definition of the average Taliban supporter, he says, is “unemployed youth.”
I was encouraged by Ghani’s comments about reconciliation with some elements of the Taliban alliance. Take Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who’s part of the insurgent syndicate. Ghani has read four books written by Hekmatyar and says the bearded warlord has a “very modernist vision.”
He also cites a new book by Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, a Taliban leader who was held at Guantanamo from 2002 to 2005. Ghani says the mullah mirrors the evolution of the Taliban away from jihadism and toward nationalism and development.
The idea of using military force alone to suppress the fierce tribesmen of Afghanistan is as mistaken now for America as it was for the British in the 19th century, or the Russians in the 1980s. But Ghani and others seem serious about building a modern Afghanistan with US help – a long, slow but entirely worthwhile process.