Thursday, March 26, 2009

Waist deep in the Big (Afghan) Muddy?

The Associated Press is running a story it says is based on multiple sources familiar with the Afghanistan War plan Obama is scheduled to announce Friday. According to those sources, Obama is concerned about the rapid deterioration of the NATO position there and plans to increase the number of troops even beyond the 17,000 he recently decided to add.

I hope they have more in mind that just straight escalation. But it's sounding a lot like that. The story does quote the Secretary of State:

"It is an integrated military-civilian strategy," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told reporters in Monterrey, Mexico. "We are convinced that the most critical underpinning of any success we hope to achieve, along with the people and government of Afghanistan, will be looking at where civilian trainers, aid workers, technical assistance of all kinds can be best utilized."
The problem is that after a year or so in Iraq, everyone learned they had to make at least a rhetorical nod to the idea of a combined civilian-military strategy. It's also a way for our infallible generals to claim they did everything right but those blankety-blank politicians back home screwed things up.

Former diplomat William Polk (a direct descendant of President James K. Polk) spoke to the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) on Afghanistan this week.

The Nation's Katrina Vanden Heuvel reports on his presentation:

"I look in vain for a place where we have succeeded militarily against guerilla warfare," he said. "… I think the more people we put in there, the more people are going to get shot at." He said Afghans who help Americans will be viewed in the same way as Loyalists during the American Revolutionary War -- they were despised even more than the British.

Even more powerful, however, were the lessons Polk drew from his experiences with Vietnam. "Always the idea was with a few more troops and a little more time we will solve the problem," he said. "… We were so sure that we knew how to do everything in Vietnam." He said the extent to which we didn't know what we were doing was made abundantly clear when a Marine Corps Colonel informed Polk that one could purchase a tank in the marketplace in downtown Saigon.

"The government that we were trying to promote was so corrupt that they were selling their opponents all the arms to kill us with," Polk said. He noted the corruption today in the Karzai government -- its involvement in the drug trade, for example -- and the consequent willingness of more and more Afghans to once again accept the Taliban as an alternative that "doesn't steal." ...

"We have to recognize that we have inherited an incredibly fragile, fragile position to try to build on…." Polk said. "We have to try to find ways to make that transitional period [of withdrawal] as smooth as we possibly can. But we have to be very straightforward in recognizing it's not going to be easy, and it's not going to be simple. And we're not going to end up with the kind of [government] that we'd like to have theoretically."
The CPC's Web site has Chapter 11 of Polk's book Violent Politics: A History of Insurgency, Terrorism, and Guerrilla War, from the American Revolution to Iraq (2007) available at its Web site, "The Afghan Resistance to the British and the Russians". This is a part of his description of the Soviet war in Afghanistan:

Most of the native opponents of the Russians were Muslim fundamentalists. Some were Sunni Muslims and others were Shiis. While all fought in the name of Islam, they fought separately by village or tribe. They were joined by foreign volunteers from Central Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and other Muslim areas. Of these volunteers, the best known is Osama bin Ladin, who came from Saudi Arabia. While the fundamentalists took American help and welcomed foreign aid 'workers and particularly doctors - and occasional journalists in the hope of creating favorable comment in the Western press - they made no secret of the fact that they hated with almost equal fervor both the Russians and the Americans. The Americans, in Afghan eyes, were just a new generation of Englishmen, intent on dominating their country and destroying their way of life. ...

Unlike most of the insurgencies I have studied, the Afghan insurgency was motivated neither by nationalism nor by ideology. It defined itself in terms of its enemy. The enemy was not so much Communism as Russia, and not only Russia alone but all foreigners. The Afghans accepted outside help but did so reluctantly and without affection for the donors. Xenophobia must be considered to have been a major motivation. Insofar as it was refined into something like an ideology, it was defined by Islam. But it was not religion, per se, that seems to have most motivated people: it was the Afghan "way," the social code that was encapsulated in Islam that Afghans felt was being attacked and that they determined to protect. As a Hezb-i Islami commander told the English visitor Peregrine Hodson, "It is true that Afghanis is a poor country, but the most precious thing we have is our faith; without it we have nothing. We are fighting to protect our religion." [my emphasis]
The special situation in the world just after the 9/11 attacks may, may have presented an opportunity for foreign forces to accomplish a lot more than they have since then. But that opportunity, if it ever existed, is long past.

Polk also observes of the Russians' treatment of captured fighters, "Prisoners were summarily shot since the Russians claimed that they were illegal enemy combatants not covered by the Geneva Conventions." The mujaheddin followed a similar practice with Russian prisoners.

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