Perspectives

October 12, 2009
U.S. mulls military options in Afghanistan

An Afghan villager in late 2008. Photo: Flickr user RugNug

S. Azmat Hassan is a career diplomat and former ambassador of Pakistan, where his postings have included Ambassador of Pakistan to Malaysia, Syria and Morocco, and Deputy Permanent Representative of Pakistan to the United Nations in New York. He currently serves as an adjunct professor at Seton Hall University.

On how to proceed in Afghanistan: Obama should make haste slowly. He is being pulled in different directions, which is not unusual in American politics. Kennedy was pressured by his senior military commanders to preemptively attack Russian missile sites in Cuba, which he rejected. Instead, he wisely chose diplomacy. He averted a possible nuclear holocaust in the aftermath of which the living if any would have envied the dead. Truman dismissed MacArthur, a general with a big ego, who advised him to nuke China to stop their advance in the Korean War.

Obama should strictly order the US commander in Afghanistan General McChrystal, to observe military protocol by not courting the media to publicize his recommendation for 40,000 additional troops. He should go through the military chain of command instead of trying to become a military prima donna. The buck stops with Obama- the Commander-in-Chief.

Since time immemorial, no foreign army has won in Afghanistan. Alexander, arguably the greatest military commander of all time, and more recently the mighty British and the Soviet armies, all experienced humiliating reverses in Afghanistan. The US Army supported by some NATO forces, has been trying for 8 years to defeat a ragtag militia calling itself the Taliban. They have failed. One does not have to be a military genius to figure out that when the combination of the forces opposing you is in the ascendant; it is time to give up the military option. The Taliban have the advantages of geography, history and resolve to attenuate and outlast the US forces-whom they consider foreign invaders.

Throwing in more troops is not likely to alter the current military equation. In today’s world where asymmetric warfare has demonstrated that a $20 improvised explosive device can destroy humvees and armored personnel carriers costing millions, the military calculus is weighted in favor of the local resistance. It is a resistance, moreover, which is hugely reinforced by an apparently inexhaustible supply of suicide bombers who can wreak havoc among both the military and civilians.

Those who recommend military escalation are still hoping for a military victory. Their rationale for pursuing the military option is the wrongheaded conflation of the Taliban with al-Qaeda. No such partnership is discernible today in Afghanistan. The Taliban regime was overthrown by the US in 2001 for being in cahoots with Osama bin Laden. They are unlikely to make the same mistake twice. American analysts themselves admit that al-Qaeda is down to around 100 adherents in Afghanistan.

Al-Qaeda is thus highly unlikely to be in a position to launch another 9/11 or any operation approaching it. Mullah Omar has publicly proclaimed that his fight is not against the West. It is against foreign military forces and the ineffectual and corrupt Karzai regime which stands further delegitimized in the eyes of many Afghans as well as many in the international community, for blatantly rigging the recent general election. Afghanistan is called the graveyard of empires. It would be prudent for Obama who is considered an astute politician, not to fall further in this bottomless pit like the others before him.

So what can be done? The US must initiate a dialogue with the Taliban beginning with their leader Mullah Omar. A senior British diplomat whom I had invited recently to lecture to my class told them that at the height of the British conflict with the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the British kept up contacts with them. When the IRA was ready to talk with the British authorities, they utilized an already established channel of communication.

Today the centuries old Anglo-Irish problem is largely resolved. Regrettably, the US has not evolved politically to set up such mechanisms with its antagonists such as the Taliban, al-Qaeda, Hizbullah and Hamas. They have forgotten British Foreign Secretary’s Lord Palmerston’s sage advice tendered 150 years ago: in international relations there are no permanent friends or enemies- only interests. Today it is patently in America’s interest to explore the diplomatic option in Afghanistan as the military option has failed. It is the road to a dead end.

- S. Azmat Hassan

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1 comment

#1

To say no foreign army had decisively conquered Afghanistan is false. Genghiz Khan and the Monggol troops finished off the whole Afghanistan and razed the city Herat to the ground. On the whole the article is commendable.

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