America's Afghan follies
By Ralph Peters
New York Post
May 13, 2010
President Hamid Karzai is doomed. During his strate gic shopping trip to Wash ington this week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pronounced his epitaph: "We will not abandon the Afghan people."
In DC doublespeak, that means we're searching desperately for the exit ramp.
Then we got the mandatory presidential press conference. If platitudes killed terrorists, "The Bam and Ham Show" would've exterminated the Taliban.
President Obama assured Karzai of his "commitment to an Afghanistan that is stable, strong and prosperous." We'll see a communist takeover of Texas before that goal's achieved.
Doublespeak: Karzai and Obama met in DC yesterday -- and exchanged empty platitudes. (Reuters)
The Afghan room has more than its share of corners, and we've painted ourselves into every single one of them. Setting aside the Taliban, we're suffering from plenty of self-inflicted wounds.
After a nasty duel-with-Kabul this spring, the administration about-faced and threw its weight back behind Karzai as the only Afghan president we've got. Too bad Afghans don't want him. They'll fight for the Taliban, but not for Karzai and his 40 thieves.
Even our most fervent engagement advocates admit that corruption's a cancer in Kabul. Elsewhere, Karzai's writ doesn't run beyond grabby governors in well-protected compounds. As in Vietnam, we kid ourselves that the locals can be won over to a government that couldn't care less about them.
Worse, we're determined that Afghanistan will have a strong central government at the expense of its tribes (after we spent years denying the importance of tribes in Iraq before coming around). Sorry, in a tribal society, you work with tribes.
But Karzai doesn't want us to do that. It would further undercut his illusory power. So we let him dictate our policy, then beg him to back a confused offensive in Kandahar (where his reputed-druglord brother's the local powerbroker). It's the counterinsurgency equivalent of Pickett's Charge.
Our obsession with creating a centralized, Westernized state extends to our efforts to build an Afghan military. Our model is the romanticized WWII squad in which every possible ethnic group's represented, all Americans.
But people fight for different things, and Afghans aren't interested in fighting for a foreign-backed government or for ethnic groups other than their own.
The Brits cracked the code on how to get tribesmen to fight for them: You give them a substitute tribe that's an extension of their hereditary tribe. The Indian Army's regimental system fit the bill perfectly: Recruited from an exclusive tribal network or ethnic group, the regiment could count on soldiers performing well to avoid shaming their families (think Gurkhas). Plus, the regiment offered its own tribal rituals.
If you want to succeed in a tribal society, you exploit tribal identities. Our officials insist that would undercut our goals. Well, perhaps our goals should be more realistic.
Then there's the continuing denial that Islam has anything to do with the Taliban's persistence or Afghan resistance to our goodwill gestures: This mullah's corrupt; that suicide bomber wasn't very religious(!); that local uprising's just a neighborhood feud. Religion has nothing to do with it.
As a kid, I built model ships. What was the most important component? The glue. Which, if I had done a good job, was invisible. That HMS Victory kit had hundreds of parts large and small -- but without the glue they wouldn't have held together.
Islam's the glue binding our enemies. Even when it isn't visible.
So we wind up supporting yet another disdained "president" because we insist that a tribal society must subject itself to a strong central government defended by an American-model army that refuses to be built. This is not a formula for success.
Another sign that Afghanistan's in "beaucoup deep kimchee" (as a former NCO of mine used to say) is that the pundits are already assigning blame.
On a TV panel on Tuesday, a prominent conservative voice insisted that the loss of Afghanistan would be Obama's fault for not sending enough troops (and this when barely half the surge forces have arrived). The speaker couldn't bear the thought that he had gotten the Afghan equation wrong.
If anything, our inexperienced president can be blamed for agreeing to send more forces to a country where the resistance grows in direct proportion to the visibility of foreign occupiers. Our problem all along in Afghanistan hasn't been the lack of troops, but a lack of understanding. We didn't just invade Afghanistan -- we invented it. The country we're struggling to save doesn't exist.
Of course, there is an Afghanistan of sorts -- a weird accident of where other borders ended. And the people who live there really don't want to become third-rate Americans.
As President Karzai wraps up his Washington visit, the acrimony's already breaking out over "Who lost Afghanistan?"
The answer is that it was never ours to lose.
Ralph Peters is the author of "Endless War."