October 19, 2009

Afghanistan (updated)

Suppose 20 years from now France had a large Islamic population, and in a very divided three-way election the Islamic faction managed to elect a powerful parliamentary block and that a coalition government was formed including the Islamic party. Imagine that you are fervent French Catholic.

Now, stretching our imaginations farther, imagine the Islamic-friendly French government invited some Muslim troops from Saudi Arabia to be stationed in France to help "protect the rights of women to wear veils and burkas" or some such, and eventually there were Muslim troops stationed in Lourdes for instance. Suppose that Lourdes has taken on more religious significance to French Catholics. Suppose you often have to see these Muslim troops along your way as you go on your annual religious pilgrimages to special Catholic sites such as the Grotto of Massabielle.

Suppose you had been demanding for years to the French government and also to the Saudi government that these foreign Muslim troops be removed from Lourdes, and from France.

Suppose some half-crazed Christian radical group from southern Cyprus sets off bombs in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia to protest against Muslim troops near holy Christian sites in both France and northern Cyprus. (Yes, I know that such an act of terrorism isn't Christian.)

Now suppose you yourself don't believe in such acts of terrorism, but you watch in horror as the response to the bombings is that additional Muslim troops arrive from Saudi Arabia to "protect" French Muslims.

Suppose Saudi Arabia also launches a war against Cyprus to rid the nation of "terrorists." Along the way, many non-combatant Christians civilians are also killed.

Ok, yes, this scenario is far-fetched and fantastic, but our current situation with American troops in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan seems a little surprising historically, given the original heritage of the United States.

The real point is how would you feel, as a fervent Catholic, about the Saudi "war on terror" against Cypriot "Christian terrorists" -- would you feel sympathetic to the Saudi invasion of Cyprus, or outraged?

If the Saudi troops were powerfully armed, and "won" every battle in Cyprus, driving the Christian "militants" off the island in boats, would your feelings of outrage fade in time?

Or would you actually become more outraged?

The point here is that the United States cannot "win" hearts and minds in much of Afghanistan or in the neighboring region by fighting.

We cannot defeat a religious belief system with force of arms or by killing people.

Instead, the outcome of fighting for territory against a religious belief system is that we engender more and more hatred.

Analysts advising on the Afghan war generally cannot see the forest for the trees.

The real outcome of the "war on terror" is that more militants are inspired for the future. Worse, militants will be inspired in more than one country.

We cannot defeat ideas with guns.

But...we could defeat some ideas with a combination of better ideas and virtues.

It may even be that the better ideas and virtues that will eventually defeat the intolerance and power-abuse of the Taliban's ideology will come mostly from Afghans. We don't necessarily know how Afghans should live. It is up to them to decide this for themselves.


So what should the United States do in Afghanistan?

Let me offer two alternatives that would greatly improve our longer-term outcome in the battle of hearts and minds.

First strategy:

We should specifically advertise in a thorough and lengthy way that we have the over arching goal of capturing Osama bin Laden as a "criminal" for "killing children, Christians and Muslims in 2001."

In each village we should specifically ask the village elders or council whether or not they wish our troops to be on their lands. We should then draw up a map showing what areas would like to be non-Taliban. Some families might wish to relocate.

We should then seek peace with the Taliban itself, and demand it give up bin Laden, and respect the rights of Afghan villages to decide their own alignments. We should expect and entreat the Taliban to co-exist and live in peace with its neighbors, even though many of them do not want to.

We would then begin to enforce that peaceful co-existence (but read note below on this!) by allowing the Taliban to return to areas that strongly prefer the Taliban, and protecting the areas that do not want the Taliban.

We tell the Taliban exactly that they may be in any part of Afghanistan that democratically wants them to be there, and that we require they respect their neighbors' rights of self-determination. Even though many current Taliban do not. We could also arm local Afghan village self-defense forces.

In other words, we treat the Taliban with respect, and wait for them to gain maturity and tolerance, even if it takes a long time.

The war would become assertive, power-backed peacekeeping.

When I mention peacekeeping, I do not propose a foolish strategy such as checkpoints and bases, so that our troops become easy targets.

Not at all.

Instead, the American bases could be well back (2-10 miles usually) from this new, fluid border region. Instead of checkpoints, the Americans are a reactionary force, that watch the border in a variety of ways (drones, allies, interviews, occasional overflights), so that we know what is going on. Our troops can as needed conduct operations to counter any use of force by the Taliban. So, day-to-day, non-Taliban Afghans and Taliban can mingle, and the Taliban can try to convert people, and perhaps gradually take over some villages and towns. But the people would know that not far away the American guns are ready to back up their freedom of choice. If some towns become Taliban, that means both the towns and the Taliban are evolving, and the longer-run outcome isn't predictable.

The key is that the Taliban would be forced to operate through peaceful means. That's a world of difference.

If your ideology is attractive after years of time through peaceful means, then it is something the people want. An ideology that can succeed by peaceful means is a very different ideology than one that requires force to maintain.

We should begin treating everyone in that region with more respect, and allow them to choose and be responsible for their own fate.

Second strategy:

An alternative strategy for the long-term battle for hearts and minds is to withdraw from all Muslim lands around the world and let them be entirely responsible for their own fates, in every way.

We are now sufficiently able to gain progressively more independence from middle-eastern oil, and general oil imports. We could rapidly convert much of America's trucks and automobiles to natural gas, supplies of which are set to rapidly increase around the world due to new shale extraction technologies.

We would let the Taliban retake Afghanistan (if they are so strong), and show the world its style of governance, but this time under the inevitable spotlight of the media of an aware world.

Let them show their colors and let everyone see just how good the Taliban can be, or how bad.

This war is ultimately a war of ideas and ideals. We can only win it by using integrity and ideals, fully.

We can say we are satisfied we have fought the murderers of 9/11 and now will "go home in peace." Going in peace is explicitly in the Koran, and Muslims are required to allow an enemy to retreat in peace.

We can defend ourselves here, at home, on our own land. We would need to refocus a large part of our "defense" expenditures (Department of Defense) to actually be defensive, such as by effectively monitoring the cargoes of all incoming ships, and generally increasing our ability to detect and intercept any attack. I think at least 1/2 of our entire defense expenditures should be refocused in this way. This would be many times larger an effort than our current Department of Homeland Security.


This second strategy is more viable than many would think, and would take plenty of planning and teaching. We should be preparing technologies and strategies to do this scenario even if we don't implement it immediately, as we may need to use this strategy in time by virtue of cost.

I think the first strategy could be implemented immediately.


Update 10/27: U.S. official resigns over Afghan war: Foreign Service officer and former Marine captain says he no longer knows why his nation is fighting

"There are plenty of dudes who need to be killed," he said of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. "I was never more happy than when our Iraq team whacked a bunch of guys."

But many Afghans, he wrote in his resignation letter, are fighting the United States largely because its troops are there -- a growing military presence in villages and valleys where outsiders, including other Afghans, are not welcome and where the corrupt, U.S.-backed national government is rejected...

"At one point," Hoh said, "I employed up to 5,000 Iraqis" handing out tens of millions of dollars in cash to construct roads and mosques. His program was one of the few later praised as a success by the U.S. special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction....

Frank Ruggiero, the Kandahar-based regional head of the U.S. PRTs in the south, considered Hoh "very capable" and appointed him the senior official among the three U.S. civilians in the province. "I always thought very highly of Matt," he said in a telephone interview. ...

With "multiple, seemingly infinite, local groups," he wrote, the insurgency "is fed by what is perceived by the Pashtun people as a continued and sustained assault, going back centuries, on Pashtun land, culture, traditions and religion by internal and external enemies. The U.S. and Nato presence in Pashtun valleys and villages, as well as Afghan army and police units that are led and composed of non-Pashtun soldiers and police, provide an occupation force against which the insurgency is justified."

We cannot win this war by fighting.

Consider this from the NYTimes reporter who spent so much time close up with Taliban:

One evening, Abu Tayyeb declared that the Taliban treated women better than Americans did. He said women in the United States were forced to wear revealing clothes and define themselves solely as sex objects. The Taliban protected women’s honor by not allowing them to appear in public with their faces unveiled.
My captors saw me — and seemingly all Westerners — as morally corrupt and fixated on pursuing the pleasures of this world. Americans invaded Afghanistan to enrich themselves, they argued, not to help Afghans.

They ignored the fact that the United States helped build hundreds of miles of paved roads in Afghanistan and more than a thousand schools and health clinics. My captors denied widespread news reports that the Taliban burned down scores of newly built schools to prevent girls from getting an education.
I argued that the United States was not the menacing, predatory caricature that they believed.
I also tried to counter their belief that all Americans were astonishingly rich.
Nothing I said, though, seemed to change their minds.

These are not beliefs that fighting will change. These beliefs will begin to change when the stress of fighting disappears (and if not too many relatives have been killed), people move freely, and have a chance to learn more about how things really are compared to their beliefs.


  1. I'm afraid our only real option is the second one. No matter how we try not to act like it, we will always look like armed invaders to the Afghans, most of whom are poor, illiterate, and not versed in advanced notions such as democracy and freedom of choice. I think we have to pull out, and leave them to their fate, which - prediction here - will be a Taliban based theocracy ruling both Afghanistan and Pakistan. I don't see a way to stop it short of invading Pakistan ourselves and running it as a puppet state to protect the nuclear weapons.

  2. If I were President, I'd proceed on the second strategy, which has a few more pieces I'd use I didn't include in the post. For instance, the Koran prohibits Muslims from pursuing a retreating enemy that asks for peace...

    Just saw an interesting article. See the update in the post.