With Woodward's new book about the discussions in the Obama administration it is good to list the facts amid the many myths.
Myth 1 concerns the Taliban. Many people claim that as it is a strong factor in Afghanistan we should negotiate with them. This is based on the old notion that a guerrilla movement is rooted in the population and a such involving them is kind of democratic. Problem is that this does not apply to the Taliban: in opinion polls it comes below 10%. The Taliban does not represent the opinion of a considerable part of the Afghan population: it is just the creation of the Pakistan's intelligence service ISI. And the ISI has repeatedly killed Taliban leaders that it believed too soft.
This brings me to myth 2 that we can work with Pakistan to fight the Taliban. Pakistan's trauma is the 1971 independence of Bangladesh. It is fearful that a similar split will happen at its west side. It has good reasons to do so because the Indus in the heart of Pakistan is often seen as the border between the Persian and the Indian worlds. West of the Indus are the Beluchi and the Pashtun who just as nearly all Afghans speak Persian languages. Pakistan has adopted two strategies to compensate for that. It's first strategy is stressing the Islam: the only thing its citizens have in common. The second is to keep those Persian speakers - both in Pakistan and Afghanistan - poor and backwards. The Taliban - both the Afghan and the Pakistani - is serving those goals.
This fear is heigthened by fear that India might help such a splitup - just as it once helped Bangladesh to become independent.
Myth 3 is that we need a strong administration in Afghanistan to take over when we leave. This has brought us to impose on Afghanistan an extremely centralized constitution and - except for some grumbling - to ignore the corruption of its government. Both have proved ineffective against the Taliban but a major obstacle to a more effective government.
Behind this desire for a strong administration is the desire to keep strong American influence. Provincial governors with strong local support would be much less sensitive to American desires than Karzai, the corrupt "major of Kabul".
Myth 4 is that Al Qaeda is gone from Afghanistan and that we are now fighting only the Taliban. So if they win it will be just a problem for the Afghans. In fact recent reports mention that there are many foreigners fighting among the Taliban. It can be expected that when the Taliban wins many of them will move to other countries to fight there. Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan look very vulnerable at the moment.
So what lessons can we draw:
- ad 1: forget about negotiating with the Taliban. They will only accept the kind of outcome that will enable them later on to take over all power. If the Taliban was a real political movement some compromise would be possible that gave government jobs and political concessions to the Taliban. But while we can co-opt individual Taliban leaders we will never be able to do so with the Taliban as an organization; Pakistan will sabotage such an effort.
Forget also about winning this guerrilla war. As long as Pakistan is spending money there will be Afghans who are prepared to fight for the Taliban.
- ad 2: We have to address the root of Pakistan's behavior and force it to accept development of both its western regions and Afghanistan. This means abolishment of the agencies - that remainder of colonial rule in Pakistan's west side. It also means more local autonomy. To achieve this the US has to become involved in internal discussion in Pakistan: this is something you can't just impose. The US should address Pakistan's fears and ambitions: it is stupid for Pakistan to think that it should be India's equal. Instead it should strive for cooperation. And the best way to improve life for India's Kashmiri's is to stop supporting guerrilla fighters there.
For a long time the US has considered Pakistan as a counterbalance to India. This made sense in the time of the Cold War when India was considered an ally of the USSR. But the Cold War has been over for 20 years now and the real dichotomy in Asia is nowadays between India and China. The balance is in favor of China and that is generally considered to be not in the US interest. Yet Pakistan is serving as a pawn for China and the US is supporting that. This policy doesn't make sense neither from a regional nor from a geopolitical perspective.
- ad 3: we should aim for a decentralized Afghanistan. And forget about US influence: truly democratic leaders will be focused on their voters - not on US interests. The US should encourage that, take a servile role and keep in mind that this is a necessary step if it wants to leave Afghanistan with a strong governmental system.
- ad 4: as long as Pakistan keeps up training Muslim extremists and keeps up allowing training camps of Muslim extremist organizations it will be a source of danger for the world and the next 9/11 may be just a matter of time. There is no clear boundary between Al Qaeda and the Taliban.
Postscript: readers of this post may also like the article Allies in War, but the Goals Clash in the NY Times. According to the article Pakistan prefers to have Pashtun dominance of Afghanistan while the northern tribes are India's traditional allies. Unfortunately the article describes the Pakistan-India conflict as nearly unsolvable and completely ignores the role the US has played in antagonizing the two.