On Tuesday, I had the unexpected pleasure of sitting on a panel with Michael O’Hanlon and former Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul McHale to talk about the future of American strategy in Afghanistan.
That’s the video of the event. In case you don’t want to sit through 90 minutes of jabbering, I’m pasting my comments below, because I think they get at something very important: politics. Specifically, our failure to understand politics.
This image has been making the rounds today. I don’t know who that woman is, what unit she works for, or in what part of the country that image was taken. So this isn’t personal to her and it’s not directed at her; rather, this is representative of the military’s broad (and broken) approach to culture.
What is so striking about this image are the visual clues that are meant to signify a respect for culture: specifically, that pink head scarf. It is meant, I suppose, to show that this woman really cares about social norms of modesty in Afghanistan. It is also meant, I suppose, to distract otherwise pious men and women from noticing her combat uniform, AK-47, boots, and sun glasses — none of which an actually “modest” Afghan women would really wear. I don’t really have any other comments beyond noting how jarringly, amusingly out of place that image is.
Anyway, my notes from the talk:
Negotiations are not really how insurgencies end
Insurgencies end through the creation of a political framework for settling conflicts
I suggest we must be willing to scrap the entire Afghan government and state we’ve spent the last ten years building. This is an enormous step, hugely costly, and possibly ruinous, but it’s the only way we have a chance of ever ending the war.
While some point to foreign troops, it is really the current Afghan government and state that are driving the insurgency.
Break out of the Kabul bubble, away from the military, and speak with normal, non-Americanized Afghans. You find that they think the Taliban is only like 20% of the problem. The rest is the government’s inability to cope with local politics. (C.F., Kapisa, Khost, Marjah, etc.)
We can get some tactical successes but there isn’t strategic & political vision for an endgame.
Politics is the U.S.’s achilles heel in Afghanistan. We, as a country, never put in the hard work to understand them at a local, regional, national, and international level. As a result we are crippled by our reliance on Pakistan, badly overspending on our Central Asian NDN alternative, and left with almost no options beyond attempting a massive do-over.
The current government cannot and will not be an effective partner in negotiations – there is too much bad blood, too many competing interests, and too little willingness to address the political goals of the Taliban.
“Stop fighting and accept the constitution,” often stated as the preconditions for talks to begin, is really a call for surrender. The Taliban are fighting to change the government; demanding they accept it is pointless. The Taliban are a political reality in the country that we have proven incapable of changing.
We need to start looking at how the state of Afghanistan can be re-ordered to accommodate the Taliban demands, so that they can seek their preferences non-violently instead of violently. Our current strategy doesn’t allow for that.
As a result we should keep our expectations for the negotiations VERY LOW.