Some thoughts on Afghanistan, now that the election’s come and gone.

I don’t usually find inspiration in the pages of the Washington Times, are rarely if ever in the writings of Tony Blankley, the former spokesman for Newt Gingrich, but his recent column on the mess in Afghanistan struck me as intelligent and provocative. It’s called “Empower the local tribal chiefs,” and it makes sense to me. Blankley says that the United States is fast making enemies in Afghanistan of the very tribesmen who expelled the USSR, and he makes this essential point about the faulty thinking behind US strategy there:

“It would appear that a policy that calls for substantially increased troop strength for both the American and Afghan forces implies a policy that aspires to build a strong central government in Kabul capable of permanently suppressing the Taliban. But the long history of Afghanistan suggests that, unlike Iraq (or Japan and Germany after World War II), Afghanistan is not likely to accept a strong central government.”

Blankley, whose right-wing credentials are impeccable, adds:

“We are not hated quite yet. But we need to leave soon, or we will be.”

He suggests that we simply buy up the poppy crop (cost: $2 billion to $3 billion), stop “trying to prop up an inevitably corrupt and feeble Kabul central government,” and “support the tribes that have cheerfully and courageously driven out all foreign intruders for thousands of years, not try to build a national government that they will equally cheerfully massacre.” I’m not sure what Blankley means by “support” them, since it appears to me that the most effective thing we can do is leave them to their own devices. But he’s on the right track that if the choices are either to spend decades, and hundreds of billions of dollars, creating a democratic Valhalla based in Kabul, or start winding down our presence while allowing some sort of province-by-province, warlord-based (and in the south, Taliban-leaning, Pashtun) local fiefdoms to emerge, then I’d pick Option Two.

Over at the AfPak Channel, an interesting debate between Steve Walt and Peter Bergen is underway. A few days ago, Walt — the ultimate, thoughtful realist and co-author of The Israel Lobby — made the admirable point that there is reason to question the almost universally acceptable notion that we have to fight in Afghanistan because that country would otherwise become a “safe haven” for terrorists and Al Qaeda, who would then attack us again. (His piece was called “The Safe Haven Myth,” and you should read the whole thing.) In it, Walt suggests that the Taliban and Al Qaeda are not the same thing, that the Taliban has no interest in “following us home” or attacking targets abroad, and that even if Al Qaeda could reestablish itself in Afghanistan, it would still have to operate underground, under constant threat of US attack. And he adds:

“The 9/11 plot was organized out of Hamburg, not Kabul or Kandahar, but nobody is proposing that we send troops to Germany to make sure there aren’t ‘safe havens’ operating there. In fact, if al Qaeda has to hide out somewhere, I’d rather they were in a remote, impoverished, land-locked and isolated area from which it is hard to do almost anything.”

That piece was lambasted by Peter Bergen, and then Walt replied. Bergen, who’s grown increasingly hawkish on Afghanistan, says that indeed the Taliban and Al Qaeda are two sides of the same coin, and he endorses President Obama’s “Do It Seriously approach” — otherwise, Al Qaeda will be back in the saddle and plotting attacks against us again. In fact, he argues that the Taliban itself has changed from an Afghan-only group to a terrorist-with-global-reach organization:

“The Taliban were a quite provincial group before 9/11 but since then they have adopted Al Qaeda’s worldview and tactics and see themselves as part of a supposedly global jihadist movement.”

So the alternative, for Bergen and for supporters of the president’s policy, is to spend huge amounts of blood and treasure over decades to extirpate the sprawling Taliban movement and its allies, not just Al Qaeda. Obama, of course, has sometimes tried to stress that America’s goal in Afghanistan is to root out and destroy Al Qaeda, and he’s proposed some form of dialogue with the Taliban, at least with its “reconcilable” elements. But if the Taliban and Al Qaeda are both worldwide terrorist plotters, then America’s goal in Afghanistan (and Pakistan) means eliminating not just a terrorist band with a few hundred members but a massive, and growing, movement of tens of thousands.

As Walt says, in response:

“Bergen thinks the threat is very, very serious, and he is admirably candid about his willingness to spend hundreds of billions of dollars over the next decade or more to try to ward it off. He also believes that a large U.S. presence in Afghanistan is the best way to do that, while skeptics tend to think that reducing the U.S. military role is a better long-term bet.”

And his conclusion:

“The real questions to ask are: 1) how much blood and treasure are the United States and its allies willing to invest in Afghanistan, and 2) is the way we are currently investing those lives and money are going to make things better or make them worse? Bergen thinks the danger is bigger than I do — so he’s willing to spend a lot more — and he thinks a combination of counter-insurgency against the Taliban and massive external assistance to strengthen the central government is the best way to head his nightmare off. I have no objection to our using special forces and other assets to go after al Qaeda wherever it might be, and I don’t object to foreign aid programs designed to repair or improve Afghanistan’s woeful infrastructure (building roads and expanding electrical grids is something we do know how to do, whereas designing a legitimate and minimally effectve central government are tasks we seem singularly ill-prepared for). So I’m with those who believe that trying to ‘defeat’ the Taliban and create a strong central state in Afghanistan is a fool’s errand.”

Ultimately, we all have to face the fact that we’re going to have to sit down and talk turkey with the Taliban. Ugly as it seems, we might have to sit across the table from some fairly unpleasant characters, from Gulbuddin Hekmatyar to, perhaps, one-eyed Mullah Omar himself. Even if those top-level commanders prove impossible, we’ll be chatting amicably with other, lesser chieftains who are nonetheless equally unpalatable. For all his faults, President Karzai seems prepared to do exactly that. His brother, along with Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan, did in fact spend a fair amount of time talking to top-level Taliban officials in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, in talks that were facilitated by Great Britain and France. Kai Eide, the UN representative in Kabul, has said explicitly that talking with the Taliban’s top leadership is critical. Earlier this week, Eide told the New York Times:

“You have different views, those who believe you can do it locally, from province to province, district to district. I don’t think that is the case. I think you have to have a wider process.”

It seems like Karzai gets this, and it seems like his US backers don’t get it. Karzai has come under criticism from right-wingers and lefties alike for his alliances with warlords, chieftains, thugs and thieves, but I’m not sure I get the point of that criticism. Who else is left in that godforsaken country but folks like that? The Wall Street Journal, in its editorial this week on the Afghan election, blasted Karzai for his “political dalliances with religious extremists” and his “feckless denunciations of coalition forces.” On both cases, though, I’m with Karzai. His “dalliances” with Pashtun thugs and pro-Taliban chiefs may be exactly what saves Afghanistan from unending civil war, provided that Karzai (or his successor) can get Uzbeks, Hazaras, and Tajiks to buy in to a deal with the Pashtuns and the Taliban.

I can’t read Karzai’s mind, and I don’t know what his strategy really is. Certainly, because his electoral base is centered on the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan, his support for talks with the Taliban and his “dalliances” with the religious right may be mere electoral posturing. Of course, it’s unlikely that Karzai, with all his erudition, sophistication, and Westernized modernism, can be the rallying point for a brutalized nation with no functioning economy, no middle class, and a perverse allegiance to warlordism. If he can’t, he’ll fall. But as Blankley says, there may be no real alternative to a vastly decentralized Afghanistan. In the end, it may be ruled by the likes of Muhammad Qasim Fahim, the Tajik warlord; Haji Muhammad Moheqiq, a Hazara chieftain; the thuggish Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek militia leader responsible for the murder of hundreds of Taliban; and people like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a pro-Taliban Pashtun hiding in Pakistan who operates a network of fighters in east Afghanistan near Kabul. Or, in what would be a better outcome, Afghanistan’s tribal elders — some of whom are just as bloody-minded, others just self-interested — might come up with a loose federation of Afghan districts and provinces that can forge enough stability to allow for economic rebuilding. (Actually, it’s just “building,” since there’s little to “rebuild.”)

It’s incredibly depressing, and hugely complicated. But I’m still waiting for the political strategy for Afghanistan to emerge from Washington. So far, all the talk is about counterinsurgency.