Friday, March 9, 2012

Afghanistan, Iraq, and the American Withdrawal


Remarks for Great Decisions -  Foreign Policy Association, 8 March 2012
Bulverde, Texas

Dr. Donald S. Inbody
Captain, United States Navy (Ret.)


Thank you for the kind invitation to speak with you this evening.  Afghanistan has been at the core of American foreign and military policy for a long time, now, and it appears that it will remain so for the near future. Its position in American national security interests seems to be all out of proportion to its lack of economic, diplomatic, and military capabilities.  So, this evening I want to discuss this apparent paradox and invite your commentary.


Afghanistan has never been a nation-state the way we think of that term. Being a nation-state would imply some sort of unity.  That unity might be in the form of a similar culture or historical background, a strong central governing system, or a pervasive ethnic identity.  We have none of that.  Indeed, Afghanistan has been a traditional tribal society for as long as we have records.  However, it is untrue to say that there has never been a power political power in the region.

Afghanistan comprises about 250,000 square miles of territory and has a population of about 30 million.  The geography is made up of mountainous regions, arid deserts, few cities or towns, and has a sparsely maintained road system.  It has a Gross Domestic Product of about $18 billion with a GDP per capita of under $1,000.  
The average age in Afghanistan is 18.  Compare that to the average age in the United States which is 36.

As you can see from the slide, the people of Afghanistan are comprised of at least 9 different ethnic and linguistic groups.  The majority, mostly living in the south of the country, are Pashtun, the group from which the traditional leaders of Afghanistan have come. Indeed, the current President of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, pictured here, is a Pashtun.  This tribe considers itself to be the natural leaders in the region. 
What has made the country so violent and difficult to govern are the other tribes that do not consider the Pashtuns as the natural leaders and, indeed, often view them as oppressors.  For example, the Hazara, who live in the central highlands of Afghanistan, speak a completely different language and have a distinctly Mongol or Chinese appearance, have been the object of suppression for a very long time.  Only their relative isolation in the mountains have kept them safe.

The Mix of tribes in the northern half of the country, often referred to as “The Northern Alliance,” are essentially the non-Pashtun tribes who have banded together in opposition.  Prior to 9/11, Afghanistan was essentially involved in a civil war between the Pashtuns, backed by the Pakistanis, and the northern tribes, backed by India.  That dynamic has not markedly changed and drives politics in south Asia, complicating any negotiations.
"Our overarching goal remains the same: to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to defeat its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future."  (President Barack Obama, West Point, December 1, 2009)
So, just what are we doing in Afghanistan and what is American policy there?  President Obama, essentially repeating the policy of the Bush administration, stated that we were there “to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qa’ida.”  Note that he combined Afghanistan and Pakistan in his statement.  That is not an oversight or an overstatement.  Understanding Afghanistan requires understanding Pakistan to a great extent.  More on that later.

By January2002, just four months after the events of 9/11, there were about 4,100 American troops in Afghanistan.  Most of those troops were in Khandahar, in the south.  By the end of that year there were about 10,000 troops deployed and by the end of 2004, over 20,000 troops were assigned to Afghanistan.  With the growing violence in 2007 and 2008, President Obama surged the American presence to over 60,000 troops and then again in 2010 to nearly 100,000.

According to announcements by the President and the Department of Defense, some 30,000 troops will leave Afghanistan by September of this year, reaching about 68,000.  Official policy says that the number will continue to decrease at a steady pace after that, but no specific numbers have been released.  General John Allen, the NATO commander in Afghanistan, has publically said that he wants the number to remain steady at 68,000 through the end of 2013.

The announced policy today is that Afghanistan will take over primary responsibility for security by 2014.  Some here in the United States have interpreted that statement as we will have withdrawn by then, but that does not appear to be true.  The DOD has already begun talking about establishing “Joint Facilities” in Afghanistan and that some level of American military presence will remain after 2014.

So, it appear that American policy with respect to troop levels in Afghanistan is to draw down to about 68,000 by the end of the summer and to continue a slower paced drawdown in the months following that.  However, there is no clear policy for after 2014.  And that is the heart of the Afghanistan dilemma.

We often hear complaints about the lack of support for Americans by Afghans.  One that was making the rounds recently in numerous forwarded emails was a well-written article in the Armed Forces Journal by Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Davis.  His critique is hard-hitting and points out one of the principal problems we face in Afghanistan – the Afghan people don’t want to cooperate.

To understand that we must look at some recent history of the region.  Remember that if you are an Afghan under the age of 40, you have only known war.  Simply stated, that means that the overwhelming majority of the population of Afghanistan, at least three quarters, has never known anything but war.  They have seen the Russians and the Americans come into their country, make promises, and then leave.  Anyone who made deals with either the Americans or the Russians found themselves at least isolated if not actually killed for their efforts.

The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, remaining there for the next decade.  Their intervention was in response to civil unrest and a desire to stabilize the government, supporting a pro-communist administration.  After ten years of warfare, they were unable to overcome the Mujaheddin – largely backed by American military aid.  You do remember Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson and his famous “Charlie Wilson’s War” where he campaigned for and largely succeeded in providing arms to the Afghans fighting against the Russians.  However, once the Soviets left Afghanistan, the promised made by Charlie and the Americans were largely ignored, leaving those who relied on those promises high and dry.  They remember that today and are reluctant to get too close or to rely too greatly on American promises of support.

Upon the withdrawal of the Soviet military in 1989, the preexisting civil strife broke out into full-fledged civil war, lasting until the American intervention in 2001.  The basis of that civil war remains today and underlies the instability of the Afghan government and their inability to provide for their own national security.

Afghan policy rests on American policy.  Our policy is pretty clear for the next year or so, but is unclear beyond 2014.  So, if you are an Afghan trying to decide whether or not you are going to trust an American, not knowing if that American is going to be around in a year will have serious impact on the decision.  When your decision can literally mean a life or death decision for not only you but your family, you will tend to be reticent about getting too close to Americans. 



Without a firm American policy beyond 2014, it is essentially impossible for the Afghans to have a firm policy.  Remember, Afghanistan borders Pakistan and Iran, two countries with a great national interest in what goes on in the region, perhaps far more interested than even the United States and certainly going to actually be in the region long after the United States departs. 

So, where is the United States after more than a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq?   We have largely broken up Al-Qaeda.  The relentless attacks, most of which were secret “black” operations, have essentially weakened the organization developed by Osama bin Laden to the point of near irrelevance.  American and allied intelligence operations world-wide are much more robust than they were ten years ago and all serious terrorist attempts at violence have been either disrupted or stopped.  The attacks that have occurred are largely those by amateurs with little training, as sign that the “professional” terrorist operations are either completely broken up or have been so disrupted that they are unable to operate.

Afghanistan is, as has been true for centuries, led by a Pashtun dominated government opposed by an alliance of non-Pashtun tribes, none of whom believe that a central government in Kabul will adequately represent their needs.  Afghanistan will remain unstable in the foreseeable future.

Saddam Hussein has been removed from power in Iraq and replaced by a reasonably democratic regime.  It is unlikely that Iraq will pose a threat to any country in the region in the foreseeable future.  However, Iraq will clearly be unstable for some time to come.

It has already cost us about $4 trillion.  The price will undoubtedly continue to climb if we include the costs of long-term promises and engagement in the region, not to speak of the costs of caring for those injured in the war.  To date, nearly 33,000 U.S. service members have been wounded by combat action.  The time, effort, and expense of treatment for those injuries will be part of the American budget for decades to come.

Pakistan remains a problem.  Any solution in the region must necessarily include Pakistan. The Taliban base themselves in the western tribal regions of Pakistan and are the targets of American drone attacks.  Those drone attacks are the cause of tension between the Americans and the Pakistanis.  Providing bases for those drones will drive American basing in Afghanistan even after we have largely left the region.

Despite all the attention we pay to Iraq and Afghanistan, and regardless of our future level of effort in those countries, the state that dominates the region, now, is Iran.  Note where it sits geographically.  It borders on Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.  It lies on the north of the Persian Gulf and dominates the Strait of Hormuz, through which about 20% of all the world’s oil, and over one third of all sea-borne oil passes.  Recent issues with nuclear power and the potential for nuclear weapons have begun to dominate American politics.

Now, why should we care about all this? 

Let’s examine the nuclear issue alone.
  • Iran clearly has a nuclear development program.
  • Their public announcements say it is only for nuclear energy – the production of electricity.
  • Most intelligence assessments are reasonably sure that Iran is planning on developing nuclear weapons.
  • Public announcements from Iran have threatened Israel. Israel takes such announcements seriously.
  • Israel will not sit still for a nuclear-armed Iran.
  • Unless they can be sure that Iran does not develop nuclear weapons, they will probably take measures to destroy the Iranian capability, i.e., they will attack Iran.
  • Regardless of American involvement in any such attacks, Iran will assume that we are involved.
  • The United States will defend Israel from any attacks by outside forces.
  • Many in the region will assume that the United States is involved.
  • American security will be decreased and the need to increase military spending will rise.
In my view, we can’t afford the expense, monetarily or otherwise, therefore we must take all efforts to reduce the conflict between iran and Israel.  The problem is I don’t have a good answer about how to do that, but international pressure on Iran is the only way to make that happen and much of that pressure must come from Russia and China.

So, what do I believe the take-awaysought to be from the discussion this evening?  First, that the threat by Al Qaeda, while not gone, is minimal and manageable.  Second, that Iraq will remain unstable for decades to come, but will be unlikely to fall under the type of authoritarian rule we saw under Saddam Hussein.  Third, Afghanistan will remain unstable in the foreseeable future and the likelihood of the government being able to provide security throughout the country is low.  Fourth, that solutions to instability in Pakistan is the critical piece in the puzzle to finding stability in Afghanistan.  And fifth, Iran is the future flash point and the country to which we need to be paying close attention.

I thank you for your invitation to talk and for your kind attention this evening.  I am ready to respond to your questions and engage in any conversation about this fascinating and important topic.