Why I Endorse a Very Long Engagement in Afghanistan/Pakistan

Mothers and Daughters

I endorse a very long engagement in Afghanistan and Pakistan because I believe that it is the only way of establishing political stability in the region.  To be clear, I do not believe that stability will come, manna-like, because the U.S. military coerces support; the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan will have to achieve political stability themselves.  The U.S military and its NATO allies can help the people of the region establish political stability by assuring them that, this time, unlike every other time, the U.S. will not leave when it becomes expedient to do so.

I am a partisan in the debate on what is– and how to best implement– a  successful U.S. Af/Pak strategy.  I stand with the Pashtun or Tajik man sitting with his family around a meager and sufficient dinner table, worried like the Punjabi woman, tense, her worried husband sitting on his collapsing chair, wonders whether and what unknown members of the U.S. military and Taliban, in turn, are whispering around some other bleak table.  They are of course, discussing battle plans and troop mobilizations; that man in Afghanistan, that woman in Pakistan only cares about how those far away decisions will effect their future tomorrows.

This is a very elementary dodge.  I care about these men and woman only at an arms distance.  I care about lives lost, and legs blasted one after the other, strafed arms, to some effect, as only some vile fetishist would fancy dismembered feet.  But I also care about democracy and fragile states; people matter, I think, and so does democracy.  But I KNOW that people do not matter in democracies.  Democracies function well if they are allowed to function well and if some background conditions hold.  People come into the study, evaluation and practice of democracy, only sideways.  Contrary to that great prognostician of democracy, Karl Marx, people, as such, do not matter in democracies.  Yet they should. It is this dissonance at intrepid, intelligent, play as I think about Afghanistan and Pakistan.  And I think about Afghanistan and Pakistan because I care about some other place.

I’m coming back.  I’m coming home; for there is, still, Bangladesh.  I’m a native Bangladeshi and a naturalized U.S. citizen.  Half and more of my family are still in Bangladesh.  They are sometimes made badly off by politics and the sociology of hartaal revenge.  At other times, they get by quite well.  But they are the chosen few in that country.  Bangladesh is the Leninist egalitarian’s dream.  Everyone is nearly equal in all resources, endowments and opportunities.  Unfortunately it is the downward equality of the pauper.  Politics, as otherwise practiced in other countries, would solve at least some of these policy dilemmas.  But not in Bangladesh.  More so than most other countries, politics in Bangladesh is run by family tragedies and one-up-manship as to whose tragedy is worse.  The two opposition party leaders are each the last remaining member of political families that took turns in leading the country.  In this circumstance, Islamist and fundamentalist political parties have gained ground, in this so-called secular, yet predominantly Muslim, democracy, by promising social goods like education, agricultural training , health care and shelter.

Jamaat-I-Islami, the most powerful Islamist political party in Bangladesh is an off-shoot of an Pakistani organization that is still strongly embroiled in Pakistani politics. They aligned with the Pakistani military and were implicated in the murder execution of a thousands of Bengalis. But now, since having won the opportunity t join the center right coalion under the former leader of the BNP, Jamaat has become a very powerful entity in Bangladeshi politics.  Jamaat-I-Islami claims as much on its website: “Jamaat’s Ameer (Chief) Mawlana Matiur Rahman Nizami held the portfolios of Ministry of Agriculture and Ministry of Industries while its Secretary General Mr. Ali Ahsan Muhammad Mujahid held the portfolio of Ministry of Social Welfare. It is accepted even by the opponents of Jamaat that those Ministries were run efficiently and honestly. It may be mentioned that Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) could not have formed the government in 1991 without the support of the Jamaat in Parliament.”  In the meantime, Khelafat Majlish, a party aligned with the Jamaat– and, for a spell, involved in coaltion with the more liberal party in Bangladesh, the currently ruling Awami League– is being accused of having ties with militants in Afghanistan.

These developments are worrisome because a large proportion of Bangladeshi’s are now being educated in madrassas, religious schools that now offer a more militantly doctrinaire version of Islam.  The interested reader can ask: How does this fact compare to politics and militancy in Afghanistan?  It compares only because, the Taliban were trained in Pakistan, in and around Peshawar in madrassas, similar in almost every way to madrassas in Bangladesh.  The recent news about the tensions in the civilian-military relationship and the related possibility that elements of the military in Bangladesh are turning to a more radical set of beliefs about the nature of democracy in Bangladesh, only enhance the possibility of a turn towards more collectively acccepted fundamentalist beliefs and political practices in Bangladesh.

Hence, to me, at least, Afghanistan serves as a natural experiment, that if successful will deliver social and political goods to Afghans and will also point to a less involved process, whereby groups in Bangladesh, can return to the fold and contribute to a more secular set of social and political practices.  Afghanistan, of course, serves as a predictive case for Bangladesh, an cautionary example whose lessons Bangladeshi politicians would be wise to learn.  Nevertheless, if Afghanistan can be yanked back to some poor and deprived but functioning state, like so many Latin American countries, then there’s hope  for every other country in the world. (Well, maybe not Somalia.)   The study of fragile states, no doubt, will have a new set of case from which to derive other testable hypotheses; there will be other practical lessons that will be tried in other fields of endeavor in political development.  The recipe for success will be different, of course.  The military might not be involved in state-building, and the agricultural economy might not revolve around poppy cultivation, but some revelation will be at hand.

The U.S. military and other political actors have proposed two recipes in this first case, Afghanistan, and they are mutually exclusive.  The two  strategies are to ramp up U.S and NATO military presence, move to protect civilians in cities and, while providing social goods to the citizens of Afghanistan, urge them to turn against the Taliban, and thereby secure victory in Afghanistan.  Alternatively we shift our resources to Pakistan, while still training a large military in Afghanistan.  As soon as we round up and kill the remaining members of Al Qaeda, we leave.  The first so-called strategy is a very very very tall order.  This is a tall order because this diagnosis reflects what we hope will be the final state of affairs in Afghanistan.  Each ingredient in this mixed bag is an outcome that does not take into account the processes required to obtain it.  The first so-called strategy strikes me as fool-hardy.

The U.S. military needs to think about state versus process oriented mechanisms of choice.  Although I agree that McChrystal’s assessment of the facts on the ground are right, he has to consider whether some of the facts that he requires to be true can be feasibly  considered true (I’ve previously argued that his assessment is not a strategy, as such)  Gen. McChrystal might have confused the feasible set from the possible set.   It must be feasible to obtain all the things that we are required to obtain to reach our required goal.  The possibility of reaching our goal is not sufficient, by itself.  The desired final state of affairs, is in this view, merely the one element of the possible set.  Without the required processes, we cannot reach the feasible set, which though also an element in the possible set, can, actually, obtain.  This implies that every process must itself be a member of the feasible set.  Hence we should plan out our strategy with only the feasible set– that set of outcomes taht we can obtain–in mind.  (This is, of course, much like the game theorist’s formulation of sub-game perfection.  However I think sub-game perfection is a more stringent requirement, that if taken too seriously would muddle-up any strategic planning in which we might engage.  This is because, sub-game perfection that requires consistency of believes becomes a very complicated game as the number of players increases)

Hence, if we want to take seriously the first strategy we should take seriously the set of propostions of what is actually feasible in Afghanistan.  Interestingly enough one of the major voices for the examination of the feasible set in Afghanistan is George Will.  Though he makes a strong case for radical disengagement with Afghanistan, the object of his fury is a straw man that he knocks down repeatedly  His argument that the U.S should leave Afghanistan to the Afghans does not take into consideration the very fact that the Afghans ARE the only actors who can support a long-term U.S engagement and that the McChrystal assessment relies on Afghans to actually realize that proposition is true and to therefore accept it, and pitch in.  Meanwhile Rory Stewart is stepping back one move and arguing–echoing Amartya Sen–that the Afghans who are being inducted into the U.S. military effort do not have the capability to pitch in, the way McChrystal would require.  Afghans are a traditional, illiterate and elephantine-memoried folk who have little expectation that things will remain as they are–and things, as such, are in a bad way–when the U.S. and NATO leaves.  Moreover Afghans fully expect these military and civilian visitors to leave as soon as it becomes expedient for them to do so.  Rory Stewart wants to argue that even were they to so desire, they could not affect change in a way that might lead to the U.S. staying in the region for any longer than two years.  Afghans do not have safety, shelter and schools that might allow them the freedom, and the experience to conduct affairs in teh collective manner required of McChrystal’ assessment.  Nevertheless, given the assessment Obama must supply the required troops. (In fact, it is quite likely he has made assurances to other world leaders that he will be sending 45,000 more troops within the next 6 months) Perhaps, it is wise to increase military presence and then depending on the facts on the ground, draw down to a more modest number and increase civilian, socio-economic development in places were the Taliban have not entirely routed the civilian Afghan central government.

Echoing just this tension between supporting the government and acquiescing to the Taliban’s orders, a coerced victim, Dexter Filkins writes for this Sunday’s NY Times Magazine, of a local governor in Afghanistan. “I can assure you that the people of Garmsir appreciate what you are doing here,” [Abdullah] Jan said. “Unfortunately the people are held hostage by the Taliban.”“Ninety percent of the local people support the government,” Jan told Caskey. “Maybe 10 percent really like the Taliban.” That seemed an overstatement; there were too many roadside bombs in the area — even inside the snake’s head. But the point Jan was making seemed valid enough: once there is law and order, public opinion begins to change. “You guys,” Jan said, looking at Caskey and the other Americans, “you come in, you help and then you leave. The Afghan people are not 100 percent sure that you are going to stay. They are not sure they won’t have their throats cut if they tell the Americans where a bomb is.”

This is the trouble, in essence: In order for any strategy to work, we must have the support of the Afghans.  The Afghans will only support the U.S. and NATO if they think their lot is made better by joining the U.S. and NATO coalition.  This will not happen if we only intermittently engage with the people of Afghanistan, as will likely be the case, if we strike up with Pakistan, under V.P. Biden’s advice.  In order for Afghanistan to remain stable and then turn towards moderation in political and social practices we have to stay in Afghanistan for a long time.

The political reality, however, is that we are likely to remain in Afghanistan, at most,  for four or five more years. As Dexter Filkins writes: “I asked General Flynn to imagine the future here. “We are going to go in and ask for some resources,” he told me. “If those resources are brought to bear in a timely manner, I believe that it’s probably going to take us three years to really turn the insurgency to the point where it’s waning instead of waxing. To do that we have to fix the Afghan security forces, we have to build their capacity and capability, and we have to absolutely culturally change the way they operate. And then I think beyond those three years, we are looking at another two years when the government of Afghanistan and the security forces of Afghanistan begin to take a lot more personal responsibility. The challenge to us is: What can we do in 12 months? What should we expect? If people’s expectations are that we are going to have the south turned around, for instance, it’s not going to happen.”

This is a long waiting game, as the Filkins article show’s the Sunni Awakening in Iraq–the natural comparison, at issue– only worked because the insurgents had grown tired of fighting.  When given the opportunity to align with the government, don’t ask, don’t tell operating in the center of the program, thousands of insurgents filled ranks of the Iraqi police and military.  Note, however, that they were able to fulfil their function as arms of the state by having been literate.  Even, if it were the case that members of the Taliban insurgency did opt to fight in the Afghan army and police force–the only credible way of boosting the number of Afghan boots on the ground–they might not be able to fulfil their artificial duties as protectors of the people, and agents of the state: Only one in four Afghans are literate.

This is not good news.  But this is the news; the hand we’ve been dealt.  Afghanistan is several decades behind Pakistan in terms of socio-economic and political development.  We simply cannot expect the Afghan people to defeat the Taliban on their own military strength and political merits.  If we want to see the Taliban defeated, we must do it ourselves.

Finally and perhaps most obviously, all strategy and political theorizing aside, might not the United States owe the devil its due? We helped create the Taliban.  We should stand watch as the Afghan and Pakistani people make sure that the Taliban do not come back to rule in hell.

~ by Faheem Haider on October 15, 2009.

One Response to “Why I Endorse a Very Long Engagement in Afghanistan/Pakistan”

  1. Do you know the real reason ‘why awami league wanted khaleda zia to join the poverty eradication conference’?

    know the real reason here http://bnpbangladesh.blogspot.com/2009/10/bal-intriguing-plot-in-name-of.html

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