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Tuesday, September 01, 2009

The Afghan War

Diplomats and pundits and statesmen and politicians and professors and military men and reporters have written, spoken, argued, decried, urged, lauded and warned about the U.S war in Afghanistan. I earnestly add my share of bytes.

Obama has said a few times that the war in Afghanistan is a 'war of necessity' as against the 'war of choice', the one in Iraq. Few columnists recently delved into details of what actually constitutes 'necessity' and declared that this war cannot be called one such. (Briefly, a necessary war is when your security is threatened or when you can't pursue other options to resolve a conflict). But political speeches are such that complex ideas that require hours of explanations in thorough detail are conveniently simplified into understandable snippets for the common man. In that sense, what Obama implies is that the war in Afghanistan is more significant than the Iraq invasion which was launched on flimsy grounds and was executed without understanding their view of democracy.

But how necessary is this war, what are the stated objectives, how far are the U.S (and the International Security Allied Forces) in reaching them? After September 11, George W Bush decided to invade Afghanistan to root out Al-Qaeda and the Taliban that were harboring them. Presently, security analysts agree that there are very few pockets of the terrorist organization operating within the borders of Afghanistan. Most of them have moved east to the ungoverned tribal areas of Pakistan, some to Yemen and even as far as to Somalia. Understandably they seek Muslim countries with a weak state (and there are quite a few) and the U.S forces cannot keep stepping into these countries. And Al-Qaeda cannot forever hold a special place in the Pentagon/CIA/Whitehouse triad. If protecting American land and subjects is the point of 'war on terror', they should be lessening their focus on Afghanistan and adopt a zoomed-out view. (There are other forms of threat from grassroots terror camps that can easily target American embassy or personnel).

Two of the stated objectives after the fall of Taliban and driving away the Al-Qaeda is to institute a democracy and create sustainable conditions for nation-building. Theoretically, there's a democracy. Karzai was the democratically elected president in 2004 and as that term was coming to an end they had another election a week back and in a few weeks a winner will be announced. But how indicative are the subjects exercising their right to vote the vibrancy of their democracy? The government controls only one third of the area inside their political borders. Their army is poorly trained. The policemen demand bribe even if they're to do their part of the job. Money has to be pushed in almost all government offices - right from setting up a school to constructing a bridge. In spite of world's non-military assistance, it remains one of the poorest countries.

The U.S & allied troops are greatly outnumbered by the growing insurgents. There are approximately 29,000 US troops and 65,000 ISAF. The country's population is close to 40 million and for any adequate security, considering at least 1 armed person for 100 (such a ratio is not needed in a land of strong law enforcement) there needs to be 400000 troops, just to ensure that boys and girls can go to school and the lady can go to the market and the man can go to his office and all return safely. This is a whopping number. At this point, the international forces are not pitching in any personnel and U.S is the only active contributor. The chief of military operations there, Gen.McChrystal said that the current strategy is not working and it needs to changed radically. His aides suggested that he may need 40,000 more troops to plug the security holes. Considering the growing dissatisfaction at home at the way the war has evolved, the members of Congress may not approve for what could turn out to be another Vietnam.

Nation building is an abstract term. For the sake of this piece, let's say that it means building roads and bridges for effective transportation of men and materials, building and maintaining schools for the effective long-term growth, building & training a strong army that can defend itself, instituting an honest police force to resolve and contain civil conflicts… A diplomat recently said that 10 agricultural experts are more powerful than 100 soldiers in building a country. But when the nation's political entity itself makes money by cultivating poppy (for opium), there's not much one can do. And in areas where the corrupt police don't have much voice, there are warlords who wield their power over their tribes or cities. For a fee they resolve disputes; for a fee you can run your own mom-pop shop; for a fee you can build an office so that they don't blow you up; for a fee they'll return your son safely after kidnapping; for a fee they'll not disrupt your business; for a fee the international aid workers can continue to help the locals…

Afghanistan has been a place of constantly quarelling tribes. A unified leadership for the whole political entity cannot command respect and power, even if the leader is worthy of it. Hamid Karzai is clearly not that material. People are now longing the benign rule of Taliban. American officials say that they have to fight the kleptocracy, not insurgents, to create pockets of safe zones. Karzai recently brought in an exiled Uzbek warlord from Turkey to appease and win the votes of Uzbek tribes. Even during this election, local warlords and tribal leaders congregated and decided who they all should vote for. (In some areas, it is reported, a delegate of the local leader will walk into the polling booth and vote for everyone in the town). When power is distributed in this manner the U.S cannot dream of building a nation, instituting a democracy and happily flying back.

Should the U.S gradually withdraw its troops and call it a day? What if the Taliban from Pakistan heads back and wrests control of major provinces? Would that increase the threat level to America? Is it time to ditch the Bush doctrine of preventive/pre-emptive war and focus on protecting citizens like other countries do? After 8 years into war, is Afghanistan moving towards peace and stability? Do Afghans really like the presence of foreign troops? Do they feel safe or anger at the sight of a humvee? Should Obama consider cutting down on war expenses to prop up his starving economy and help finance his mammoth health care bill? (Taking a breath) If Obama were to pull out, what would happen to America's credibility? Is creating a monster there to counter Soviet expansion in the 80's not enough, need they create another one by leaving before the job is done now? Wouldn't American absence from the region embolden the militants in Pakistan in advancing and destabilizing the nuclear state? Would revising the military and political strategy (currently underway) reduce the pain? Can understanding and respecting their religious/regional affiliations of the populace and including their 'tribal leaders' in a bottom-up, 'you-have-the-power', decentralized approach be effective?

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