One of the reasons why most counterinsurgency campaigns fail is that they’re run by foreign occupiers who don’t know the culture of the invaded country. This usual cultural ignorance, latent for eight years of the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan, came into sharp focus during the recent election campaign.
The American foreign policy elite blanched at the massive fraud allowing President Hamid Karzai to win a second term handily. The election fraud then led to a thorough examination by the American media of Afghanistan’s corrupt government and questions about whether such a venal government could ever win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. Of course, the implication was that it couldn’t and that the U.S. war effort, attached to this sinking anchor, would ultimately fail.
Odds are that the U.S. war effort will ultimately fail, not primarily because of a tainted election or a corrupt government—but because the U.S. elite and ordinary Afghans have such different worldviews that they might as well live on different planets.
Two things that Afghans have gotten used to in the last 200 years are wars caused by foreign occupiers and corruption from their own rulers. The impact of the fraudulent election, as an example of the latter, probably has not disillusioned Afghans as much as it has Westerners. That is because in Afghan culture, elections and majority rule don’t have that much legitimacy anyway. People in Afghanistan usually solve their political issues by inviting tribal leaders and warlords to a grand assembly called a loya jirga. Rather than majority rule governing, a consensus is hammered out.
Furthermore, what is considered corrupt in Western countries is just good clean fun in Afghanistan. In the West, to soothe our consciences, our leaders disguise fighting for loot, territory, influence, or national interest in terms of high national principle (peacekeeping, nation-building, spreading democracy, etc.), and then people actually start believing the malarkey. In Afghanistan, fighters who switch sides for money may seem corrupt to the Western eye, but may be more honest with themselves than are Westerners.
Because of this vast cultural divide, the United States should realize that a foreign occupier can never really win hearts and minds in Afghanistan. Afghan factions loyal to the U.S. will only be so until the cash or in-kind payments run out. Thus, the Obama administration needs to realize that it probably can never bring about long-term stability in Afghanistan—which should have been obvious since the Russians, Soviets, and British all failed to do so. The Afghans will somehow have to do that themselves.
However, tactically, the United States could take advantage of Afghan culture to bring about enough short-term stability to wisely and quickly get out of Dodge. In the 20th century, the few successful counterinsurgency campaigns run by an outside power—the Americans in the Philippines after the Spanish-American War at the turn of the last century, the British in Malaya in the 1950s, and the Americans in Iraq—have one thing in common: the insurgency became divided.
The Obama administration is using Iraq as a template for success in Afghanistan without focusing on how the U.S. achieved this qualified success (in Iraq, the U.S. has not withdrawn rapidly and could yet be caught in an ethno-sectarian civil war). The surge of troops in Iraq might have helped—infusing a similar number of troops in 2005 didn’t—but the real reason that violence is down in Iraq is that al-Qaeda’s indiscriminate violence became too great even for Sunnis to endure, and the United States simply paid the Sunni tribes to change sides and fight the group instead of the U.S. military.
In Afghanistan, although the tribal leadership has been weakened by years of war and assassinations, the U.S. could still pay off many Taliban to switch sides. Contrary to conventional wisdom, many Taliban fight for money rather than because of ideological zeal.
Reading between the lines of his recent speech, President Obama seems to be looking for a minimal level of stability in Afghanistan in order to politically sell getting out of Afghanistan. Buying off and dividing the Taliban is the way to do that.
President Obama then needs to rapidly take advantage of any lessening of violence, while using the cover of the temporary troop surge to rapidly withdraw from Afghanistan. Also, he should more rapidly pull out of Iraq in order to avoid being enmeshed in a likely civil war. In sum, being more honest with ourselves about getting bogged down in such unnecessary and ill-advised quagmires is needed. Simply put, we need to pay off some of our opponents and head for the door.
This article first appeared in The Independent Institute and is republished with permission.