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The party’s over in the Hindu Kush: It’s time for the US to call it a day

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  • September 26, 2011

    On the tenth anniversary of 9-11, a multitude of ceremonial events and media recapitulations took place across America, focused especially on New York, where the twin towers of the International Trade Center were demolished by two hijacked airliners, in Washington, where a hijacked airliner was flown into the west wall of the Pentagon, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where another hijacked airliner was only minutes away from careening into the US Capitol until some of its passengers decided to fight back by storming the cockpit and overpowering the fanatics at the controls, then perished in a thunderous crash in the hills of Somerset after having failed to fully wrest control of the plane from its Allah-Akbar-chanting captors.

    As the reminiscing and memorializing on 9-11 has been taking place, echoes of a deeper, more analytical dialogue has become increasingly audible in many quarters of the country; thoughtful people are asking whether the ten year war America and its allies have been waging against politicized Islamic fundamentalism has been as successful as was hoped, or indeed as it should have been.

    Scepticism about results has now reached a point where the indeterminacy of the campaigns in Iraq, and now especially in the AfPak theatre, are being compared with Vietnam. That is, in both instances massive American military power essentially failed to subdue an adversary who possessed a mere fraction of the military resources which America could bring to bear against them. In the case of Vietnam, two successive administrations (Johnson and Nixon) took up the cudgel against a grass-roots Communist insurgency and in the end were compelled to accept defeat. In the present, two successive administrations (Bush and Obama) also took up the cudgel against a swarm of grass-roots Muslim fundamentalists, including al Qaeda (the perpetrators of 9-11), both in Afghanistan where they openly do battle against their American adversaries, and in Pakistan where they are surreptitiously asylum-ed and subsidized by the country's military class. As in the case of Vietnam, the battle has gone on far too long and with results that no longer justify the price that has been and is being paid in lives and treasure.

    Before the final act becomes as stark and tragic as it did in Vietnam, the US should take the lead in orchestrating a political settlement in which the Karzai regime and at least the saner elements of the Taliban share political power; and once this has been accomplished within manageable parameters, the US should radically reduce its military presence in the Hindu Kush. As for the political settlement that facilitates this, it must be taken for granted that many of the loftier goals which the US sought in the first place are no longer going to be attainable in any final settlement; rather it will have to reflect the fact that the Taliban, if not al Qaeda, have proved to be resilient enough, thanks in part to Pakistani duplicity, to politically and militarily survive the fray.

    This undoubtedly means a loosely integrated, quasi-theocratic Afghan state interspersed with an admixture of Islamic fundamentalism, grass-roots tribalism and a fragile semblance of modern-oriented civil society embedded in the urban sector, all competing for a place in the political sun. It will, as the saying goes, not be pretty; undoubtedly a bitter pill to swallow for those who had hoped for so much more; but it will be all that's available until the emergent political cacophony plays itself out.

    Despite assurances by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, outgoing military commander General Petraeus (now head of the CIA), and Leon Panetta (the new head of the US Department of Defense), that enough progress both in military and nation-building terms has been made to assure that Afghanistan is now ready to move toward reasonable socio-political stability, the facts largely point in the opposite direction. The Taliban have not only survived a decade of efforts to eliminate them; they have in fact, especially in recent months, evolved into a formidable insurgent force that has deeply embedded itself into the grass-roots fabric of Afghan society and shown itself capable of conducting military operations almost at will not only throughout the countryside but in Kabul itself, as the assassination of Prof. Rabbani vividly testifies.

    In this sense, the Taliban are replicating the pattern of grass-roots endurance by indigenous, tradition-oriented, tribal-level populations that have throughout history resisted and survived efforts to subdue them and replace them with higher level, more sophisticated political institutions. The fate of Alexander the Great, the British Raj, and the Soviet Union is being repeated before our eyes. In all these instances the ultimate outcome has always been the same: intrusive outsiders, regardless of the political motives which brought them to the Hindu Kush, having in the end been compelled to settle for a modus vivendi which accepts the grass-roots social order and factor it into whatever final solution is arrived at.

    As this process goes forward with all its perils, one question that many analysts will be, indeed are already, asking about AfPak is the same one that ultimately followed upon the Vietnam disaster: Where did it all go wrong?

    Immediately following 9-11, everything seemed to be ripe for a rapid and decisive victory over both al Qaeda and the Taliban. Bin Laden and al Qaeda were cornered in Tora Bora until America's devious ‘Non-NATO Ally', Pakistan, provided them asylum on its side of the border. The Taliban meanwhile were driven out of Kabul and routed by the non-Pashtun Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance in concert with a comparatively small contingent of American Special Forces; this created an opening for at least the rudiments of quasi-popular, secular government. Elections followed and the foundation was laid for some type of parliamentary system.

    However, strategic blunders came home to roost that in the end turned what hope there might be for final victory into an aborted dream. The Vietnam syndrome once again reasserted itself and joined hands with the historical legacy of foreign military intrusions into the Hindu Kush and failing there because transforming Afghanistan's remote montane world into anything resembling a viable modern state inevitably requires greater inputs of time, personnel and resources than its would-be political saviours were henceforth willing or able to commit once the critical mass had been shifted to Iraq.

    Just as fundamental to the consequences of the diversion into Iraq has been the US's childish refusal to face the facts about Pakistan. It was obvious that Pakistani military and intelligence resources would, in the more ambiguous political environment facilitated by the Iraq-driven force reductions, be able to more effectively undermine and compromise the Afghan campaign. Not only did this implicitly strengthen the hand of the so-called "deep state in Pakistan," – i.e., the country's military class which actually runs the country – it also made the US even more dependent than ever on the infrastructural resources which this class controls, and thus compelled to tolerate ISI manipulation of the extremist cadres on both sides of the border.

    Strictly speaking, declares one commentator, "We should have declared the Afghan war won last May 3, the day after a U.S. Seal team killed Osama bin Laden." However the US could not capitalize on this achievement not only because of objective political circumstances but because for half a century they had naively strategically shackled themselves to Pakistan's anti-democratic "deep state" so irrevocably that they have now denied themselves any latitude for political manoeuvre. It is this which more than anything has made them heir to the Vietnam syndrome and which as a result makes departure from the AfPak theatre the costly debacle it is destined to become. Left behind will be a quasi-theocratic Afghan state compelled to accommodate Talibani-style eighth century cultural medievalism, and a Pakistani state teetering on the brink of political self-destruction and social chaos.

    Harold Gould is a Visiting Scholar in the Centre of South Asian Studies at the University of Virginia.