by RALPH PETERS
July 19, 2011
A fine, but often forgotten, military maxim is to “Respect your enemy.” You need not respect his cause, but never dismiss his potential capabilities. Your enemy may be illiterate, yet adept when fighting on his own turf and within his own culture. Because of the ease with which we collapsed its national government in the autumn of 2001, we’ve spent a decade underestimating the Taliban.
Even before discussing the Taliban’s remarkable ability to rebuild itself and persist in the face of extensive, expensive US and allied efforts, it’s essential to note another consistent error that has hampered our ability to focus on—and fight—our true enemies effectively and efficiently: We have too readily lumped al Qaeda and the Taliban together. The two are profoundly different: al Qaeda is a multi-national enterprise with intercontinental reach and global ambitions. The Taliban are hillbillies who don’t want the revenuers coming up their hollow—and who live by a fire-and-brimstone backwoods version of Islam.
The Taliban didn’t attack us on 9/11. Al Qaeda did. The Taliban leaders were just the increasingly reluctant hosts of the Arab terrorists. They were as blindsided by 9/11 as we were. Yet, somehow, the Taliban became the primary enemy of our deployed forces, while al Qaeda dispersed far beyond Afghanistan’s borders. To paraphrase a former secretary of defense, we fought the enemy we found, not the enemy we wanted to find.
This doesn’t mean that the Taliban are good guys. They’re brutal, woman-hating, murderous fanatics. I wouldn’t mind if every one of them fell over dead. I’m just not convinced that fighting them in support of the hopelessly corrupt and impotent government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai is a wise use of our resources. Al Qaeda remains our great terrorist enemy. As for the Taliban, if middle-class, educated Afghans are not willing to take up arms and fight them to the death, our best efforts cannot prevail. Ultimately, only other Afghans have any chance to defeat the Taliban. But they’re too busy stealing from Uncle Sugar’s cookie jar.
Nor can we rely on our generals to serve as objective judges as to what we may realistically hope to accomplish in Afghanistan. Given a mission, generals charge ahead, embodying our military’s can-do approach. No general ever says that a mission is hopeless or downright stupid—or that he has failed. So we’re stuck in Afghanistan with nuthouse rules of engagement, supporting an illegitimate, kleptocratic government, killing and maiming our soldiers and Marines in the hope of magically transforming unwilling Afghans into third-rate Americans.
We’ve let our pride interfere with sound strategic judgment. In the words of LBJ, we’re determined to “nail the coonskin to the wall.” But this coonskin’s worthless, and there’s no wall to nail it to. Afghanistan doesn’t matter. Al Qaeda matters. And al Qaeda isn’t in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, the Taliban have hit on powerful formula to keep their cause alive—to be frank, they’ve adapted better to their changed circumstances than we have to ours. They’ve learned the hard way that they can’t defeat us in firefights—no more than the Viet Cong or North Vietnamese regulars could. So they’ve devised fighting techniques that we find it almost impossible to counter.
We have our UAVs, our “drones,” expensive precision weapons that have been employed against our enemies to great effect, slaughtering their field commanders and followers. But the Taliban responded with dirt-cheap precision-guided weapons of their own: Suicide bombers and infiltrated assassins. And their precision weapons are even more accurate than ours much of the time. Oh, the technique isn’t new: Its roots go back at least to the medieval Arab-Muslim cult of the Assassins, who also patiently worked their killers into positions of trust over months and years. Nonetheless, it works.
The Taliban’s greatest advantage is tenacity, the simple refusal to accept defeat. Bolstered by their extreme tribal Islam and iron faith, they are willing to trade no end of lives for time—and time is, indeed, on their side. The third key factor is the effectiveness of terror when employed on a grand scale, with frequent attacks on key Afghan leaders and government officials—as well as on local authorities or tribal chiefs who lean toward the government. We want to be liked. The Taliban know it’s better to be feared.
Over the last week, we saw President Karzai’s half-brother, Ahmid Walid Karzai, assassinated by his own trusted bodyguard—who had gone Taliban—in his own home in his stronghold of Kandahar, a city and province the victim ran as his private preserve. Ahmid Walid Karzai was a criminal thug. We decided that, despite his corruption and duplicity, he was our guy. When the Taliban killed him, they made us look impotent to protect any Afghan, while ridding the local people of a gangster. So much for winning hearts and minds.
Then, over the weekend, one of President Karzai’s top advisors and a key member of parliament were killed by gunmen wearing suicide vests—in Kabul, the most-secure city in Afghanistan.
But, then, attacks in Kabul have become routine (and many of them could not occur without collaboration from elements of the security forces we’ve trained). Repeated attacks on our troops, CIA operatives and civilian employees by members of the Afghan National Army and the police sum to a brilliant tactic to sow distrust. Our trainers or assistance officers never know when the Afghan with whom they work and whom they have to trust will turn his weapon on them. And even as we make a great show of respecting mosques and homes, the Taliban have declared all of Afghanistan a free-fire zone—mosques, weddings, funerals, marketplaces. The evidence is clear: The Taliban’s strength of will is exponentially greater than our own.
We can deride the Taliban all we want, but they’ve developed a powerful, cost-effective program to keep resistance alive and sustain doubt amid the populace as to who will win in the end. Our own best efforts have not been able to defeat or even consistently deflect that poor-man’s precision weapon, the suicide bomber. And when we hit back, Afghanistan’s US-funded president blames us, not the Taliban, for any civilian casualties (real or imaginary). The Taliban even do swifter, more-effective media operations than we do. We rely on contractors, they rely on convictions.
Worse, the Taliban seems to have an endless supply of volunteers ready to strap on suicide vests and go willingly to their deaths. We find all sorts of pretzel-logic sociological reasons why young men (and even some women) commit these acts…but we refuse to accept the obvious, that the volunteers believe that their actions are noble and will be celebrated by their people and rewarded by their god. Contrary to the nonsense Washington serves up, no one becomes a suicide bomber for the Afghan minimum wage. These people are true believers.
We face an enemy who has no incentive to quit or to negotiate in good faith: If he survives, he wins; if he dies, he gets the express elevator to paradise. We offer him a temporary job cleaning out irrigation ditches as an alternative to martyrdom.
And even were we to succeed in every one of our hopes in Afghanistan, the next question is “So what?” Building power plants for Afghans in Kandahar does nothing to deter al Qaeda from attacking the United States or our global interests. There’s no connecting tissue.
The Taliban may be President Karzai’s enemy (although his public statements suggest he’s fonder of the extremists than of us), but al Qaeda is our enemy. And al Qaeda has moved on. Nor would the Taliban be likely to welcome al Qaeda back again in a re-Talibanized Afghanistan. After all, the Taliban lost their country because of al Qaeda. We mistake an alliance of expedience for one of affection.
The bottom line for our engagement in Afghanistan is that we can’t “save” the country if Afghans themselves won’t do it. And contrary to the “Saigon follies” briefings from our generals in Kabul, the most-capable Afghans aren’t stepping up to the fight. We rely on tribal levies that are essentially press-ganged and sold to the Afghan government. And if you were a young, educated Afghan—the sort their officer corps desperately needs—would you risk your life for the inept Karzai government?
For all its complexity, strategy reduces to a straightforward proposition: As with any other kind of investment, you want a positive return. Given that our policies in Afghanistan rely on an utterly failed counterinsurgency strategy that assumes we can buy love (you can only buy short-term, perfunctory sex) and are currently killing and maiming our troops through sheer inertia, we’re overdue to take stock of where we are. After all, ten years makes this the longest war we’ve fought. Has the return on our investment put us in the strategic black? Or are we throwing good money (and blood) after bad? (Trust me: Generals do not grasp the elementary concept of “sunk costs.”)
The left got it wildly wrong in its determination to discredit President Bush: His mistake lay not in sending too few troops to Afghanistan, but in keeping too many in that godforsaken country. In the autumn of 2001, we got it exactly right: We sent a punitive expedition to body-slam al Qaeda and smack down the Taliban for hosting the terrorists who struck us. By the spring of 2002, that mission had been accomplished. But then we made the fateful decision to stay, based on the ludicrous assumption that we could turn Afghanistan—one of the most-backward territories in the world--into a model modern democracy.
So we’ve poured in billions. And as a corollary result of this policy, we’ve become enslaved to Pakistan, a rogue state (into which we’ve poured billions more). And Afghanistan is still Afghanistan. And Pakistan only gets worse.
Of course, the complaint from the first was that, had we left Afghanistan after smiting our enemies in 2001, we might have had to go back again. My response was “Fine. Go back, if you have to.” Even repeated punitive expeditions would be a lot cheaper than staying in Afghanistan and attempting to turn that forlorn pit of endemic failure into Nebraska with alps.
And the one lesson we should have drawn from Vietnam was that our well-intentioned generosity only corrupts the country we’re trying to help. The Taliban, like the Vietnamese communists, are morally inoculated by poverty. For those we claim as allies, our wealth has spread a plague of corruption across the land, turning small-time Afghan shoplifters into Bernie Madoffs with beards and turbans.
Should we leave Afghanistan? Not entirely. We should keep a small special-operations-centered force on the ground to continue killing terrorists across the border in Pakistan and to support our old Afghan allies, the Northern Alliance. But all attempts to build an expensive infrastructure that Afghans will not be able to maintain after we leave should stop immediately. And the fate of Afghanistan should be left to Afghans. In the real world, you get what you fight for. If Afghans won’t defeat the Taliban, we can’t.
And we’ve got business elsewhere. In Pakistan, in Yemen, in Somalia…everywhere that al Qaeda attempts to find a refuge. It’s time to come to our senses. Our priority must be killing our nation’s enemies, not teaching toothless villagers how to brush their teeth.
Don’t cite our “success” in Iraq, either. First, President Obama is handing Iraq to the Iranians, making a mockery of our hard-won strategic success. Second--and of supreme relevance to Afghanistan--al Qaeda was a foreign invader in Iraq. And, ultimately, Iraq’s Sunni Muslims decided that we were a nicer invader than al Qaeda. We meant to leave eventually. Al Qaeda intended to stay.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban is the home team.
Family Security Matters Contributing Editor Ralph Peters is a retired Army officer, a former enlisted man, Fox News Strategic Analyst, and the author of 27 books, including the soon-to-be-published Lines Of Fire (September, 2011), a collection of his most-enduring writing on security, strategy and military affairs from the last two decades.