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In Afghanistan, The Occupation Is The Problem

Posted by on November 22nd, 2010

From our partners at

By Steve Hynd

Your Af/Pak "must-read" for today is by analyst Alex Strick van Linschoten, who lives in Kandahar. In a piece entitled "Five Things David Petraeus Wants You To Believe" he sets out the problems with Petraeus happy-talk about "momentum" in Afghanistan. It's essentially un-excerptable so read the whole thing but Alex argues, convincingly, that the happy-talk points to endless occupation, not to any kind of exit strategy: 

–"the surge has failed to shift public opinion in favour of either the American presence or the Afghan government"

–"there are serious problems with decapitating the insurgency without a sense of where all of this is leading politically"

–"members of the Taliban’s political wing see Petraeus as one of the key obstacles to a negotiated settlement"

–"Mullah Mohammad Omar retains ample power to act as a spoiler in any negotiations, so any sidelining or retirement from the leadership would have to be agreed upon or instigated by him"

–"There is now a deep seated suspicion of the foreign involvement, rooted in a failure to understand western interests or goals in southern Afghanistan.  Unless this is addressed head-on, everything else being done is meaningless."

Alex isn't the only person who sees America's sytematic inability to look beyond its own nose as a spoiler for any Afghan exit. Anatol Lievin, the veteran British analyst, agrees:

“The NATO approach now reminds me of a version of the old Soviet strategy,” he said. “They are building up the army and trying to hold the center. COIN is dead.”

But NATO and the United States had lessons to learn from the Soviets, he insisted. The all or nothing, with-us-or-against-us approach is just not working.

“The United States’ military strategy in Afghanistan is deeply flawed,” he said. “In general, they understand Afghanistan much less well than the Soviets. They are even more arrogant. Their approach is kill and capture, or require absolute submission… But Afghanistan is not a place of clear battle lines. We cannot seem to get our minds around the full pragmatism of the ordinary Afghan.”

In many parts of the country, Lieven pointed out, families keep one son in the Taliban and another in the army or police. Depending on which way the battle goes, they will choose their side.

…“The United States is saying that we are building up the Afghan state, but then they treat that state with absolute contempt,” said Lieven. “It is farcical.”

NATO's 2014 timeline is already being called "aspirational" by the likes of Pentagon spokesperson Geoff Morell, easily sidelined just as 2011 is to be, and NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen officials has said the date is not a deadline. Even Politico has noticed there's no actual plan, just some vague hopes:

In fact, the transition plan is more of a hope than a detailed road map. The provinces to be handed over next year by NATO and U.S. forces have yet to be selected, officials said, and the prospects for transition in parts of the country facing the fiercest fighting are murky at best. Decisions about whether to negotiate with the Taliban have yet to be made and disagreements remain about what concessions could be made.

Some experts said the NATO meeting’s focus on a transition by 2014 effectively put the cart before the horse, setting a relatively distant goal for a handover while urgent issues about the current strategy remain unresolved.

“What concerns me is a dangerous mix of false optimism and a basic misunderstanding of the problem in Afghanistan, as well as a bias toward process solutions to political problems,” said Joshua Rovner, a professor at the Naval War College. “The reason it's so popular is that it lets us skip to points C and D … without resolving A and B.”

When it comes to ending the occupation of Afghanistan, the main problem isn't the Karzai government or even the Taliban – it's the occupiers. Despite admitting that there will be no purely military settlement, time after time, they continue to roadblock any political options that don't involve getting things their own way. So we're looking at another $485 billion and untold numbers of lives because America's powerful people cannot countenance the word "defeat" in any shape or form. That's the very definition of hubris.

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