Monday, October 5, 2009

What's possible

Given all the debate in the U.S. over what to do next in Afghanistan, I figure now's a good a time as any to throw in my two cents. When you strip the issue down to its essence, at least from the American perspective, one question remains: What is the endgame? It used to be creating a stable, democratic, and moderate Afghanistan. Before that, it was eliminating militancy, primarily the al Qaeda threat, to safeguard the U.S.'s national security. The two missions are intended for two different audiences: the first for the people of Afghanistan (and the world in general), the latter for the American people. The first requires a strategy to win hearts and minds - a culturally transformative approach - whereas the latter is by its nature militaristic.

Neither is achievable.

I've written a little about the challenges facing the transformative approach in the past couple of blog entries. People tend to be resistant to change imposed by outsiders, especially when that change affects the fundamental pillars of a society - namely, its language and culture. Transforming Afghanistan, or the Pashtun culture which is the epicenter of the conflict there, will take generations. It is possible but it has to happen from within. That's not to say western countries should simply walk away - we tried that after the Soviets left Afghanistan back in 1988 and look where it got us. Instead, we need to support the existing structures of the society, recognizing the elements of it that promote peace and strengthening them. That, of course, means understanding the culture first.

Walking away means abandoning Afghans and Pakistanis to the sharks. Pakistan may be able to handle it - they have enough firepower to solve their militant problem at any time, though they prefer to project an image of desperate need, to keep the foreign (i.e. U.S.) funds flowing in. Afghanistan on the other hand, will crumble, ironically because Pakistan, shedding its 'under siege' image, will go back to being the Taliban puppet-master.

What Pakistan perhaps doesn't realize, or underestimates the potential danger of, is how deeply militancy, in the form of global jihad, has made a footprint inside the country. It's as much a threat to them as it is to anyone else, which happens to be the crux of their argument for increased financial support. But I predict that if the U.S. and Nato leave Afghanistan any time soon, what will follow is a swift Pakistani "victory" over the militant groups in the northwest and a sudden re-emergence of what's now called the Quetta Shura (Mullah Omar's group) inside Afghanistan. Oh, and a civil war there, naturally.

Which brings us back to Pakistan's quandary: can it, as its military believes, completely contain its homegrown militants? I don't think so. They've managed it in the past only because the scale of the militant jihad didn't extend beyond Kashmir and Afghanistan - both regions within Pakistan's sphere of interest. Now it's gone global. Global jihadists - Uzbeks, Arabs, and a growing number of Pashtuns and Punjabis, have made the northwest of Pakistan their own base of operations. The Quetta Shura, Pakistan's ally, has gone down that road, though to what degree is still speculation. Nonetheless, if Pakistan supports the return of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan it risks joining hands with an ideology premised on holy war. How that would play into Pakistan's own growing global jihadist dilemma is anyone's guess, but I'm guessing it won't be good.

So a military element to the Af-Pak puzzle is now inevitable. It needn't have been this way but it's pointless to pine over what could have been. Perhaps if the U.S. hadn't invaded Afghanistan, the spread of global jihad might have been kept in check. There were moderate elements in the Taliban regime at one time. After 9/11, some were calling for Osama bin Laden to be handed over to the U.S., others wanted him turned over to a neutral third-party, preferably an Islamic nation (fair enough considering the legal issues involved). Instead, they got an invasion. That act has done more damage to Afghanistan, and more critically to the Afghan people's perception of the U.S., than any occupation, no matter how long. It has strengthened the militants' hand. These are the facts of history. The facts of today are different: a disenfranchised people sandwiched between radicals (both of the Islamic and the western kind), a shattered Pashtun nation and a long, messy road of broken promises.

Ultimately, the problem now is trust. There isn't any. Pashtuns don't trust the west to keep its promise of lifting them out of poverty without at the same time destroying their culture. The west doesn't believe Pashtuns are capable of transforming their society on their own. To a degree, both are right, which is why it's so hard to convince either of them otherwise. But knowing a piece of the puzzle doesn't mean you're in a position to solve it. The west is right: the Pashtuns need help, in no small part because of how western countries contributed to dismembering their society during and after the Soviet occupation. But shoving western values down their throats is not the answer. Reciprocally, the Pashtuns make a point when they accuse the U.S. of neo-colonialism: they are being invaded - culturally and linguistically. But so is the rest of the world, something the Pashtuns don't realize.

The solution lies in letting go of the impossible - browbeating a society into accepting your ways or thinking you're doing your society a favour by isolating it from the rest of the world - and focusing on what is possible.

The U.S. and Nato need to accept that the Taliban will inevitably have a role to play in Afghanistan's future. It's up to them to decide whether that role will destructive or productive. Negotiating with the Taliban has been attempted, and it has failed. But I believe the problem was in the approach: even for moderate, nationalist Taliban (as opposed to the extreme, global jihadist variety) there are cultural redlines that cannot be crossed. We have to learn to accept those lines. Girls' education? Eventually. Eliminate purdah? In time. You cannot shatter these kinds of barriers; they must be disassembled, brick by brick.

And Pakistan? Dealing with Pakistan is necessary but should not be obsessive. Pakistan will always act in its own interest. Supporting the Taliban is in its interest because of how deeply India has penetrated into the chambers of Afghan politics. That is also an undeniable fact. One could try to fix the Indo-Pak problem first (i.e. Kashmir) and hope that will fix Afghanistan, but it's a fool's hope. And we are talking here about what is possible. By recognizing a Taliban role in Afghan politics, the west meets Pakistan's interest while at the same time ensuring that the more radical global jihadists are sidelined. That's a first step. Then comes the hard part: eliminating those global jihadists. That will be a long, quiet war, fought on multiple fronts, not the least of which will be political and ideological.

The Pashtuns will have a major role to play...well, actually, the central role. Engaging the Taliban, who are Pashtuns, engages the people, just as now, fighting the Taliban means fighting the Pashtun people. Supporting the Pashtuns will mean diverting much of the cash now flowing into the pockets of Pakistani and Afghan politicians, generals and bureaucrats into the infrastructure of Pashtun society. The existing tribal system, for example, is in desperate need of re-construction. Village halls for jirgas, equipment and know-how to codify and "modernize" what is currently a chaotic mix of ad-hoc edicts, recognition of village elders as a legitimate political institution. These are starting points. The downside is that success will not be measured in a few catchy headlines. Success will be like the hour-hand of a clock, moving imperceptibly toward the magic-hour. We probably won't even notice when it gets there.

But here's the thing: it will eventually get there. It is possible.


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