In 2001, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum and his men loaded as many as 2,000 people–“suspected al-Qaida and Taliban”–into metal cargo containers. Most suffocated; Dostum’s lackeys shot the others. The general’s men buried them in the desert. When word got out about the mass grave this year, they used bulldozers to exhume and remove corpses to hide the evidence. NATO forces and the U.S. Defense Department kept silent because Afghan warlord Dostum helped oust the Taliban. The CIA funded Afghan warlords to the tune of millions of dollars. They killed “suspected Taliban and al-Qaida” for us, and we said nothing when they slaughtered thousands via suffocation and close-range execution by firearm.
One would be hard-pressed to exaggerate the dark situation in Afghanistan. Some estimate that the Taliban hold a permanent presence in 72 percent of the country. Conventional wisdom says the Taliban retrenched and recuperated because the U.S. lacks enough troops in Afghanistan. Thus, the proper response is fairly straightforward: the U.S. should simply increase the number of troops to perform a proper counterinsurgency operation.
This is the fantasy of the easy answer. Even if a lack of troops were the problem in Afghanistan, Americans would be dangerously delusional to believe the snake oil being sold by proponents of an Afghan “surge” for the purpose of counterinsurgency operations (COIN). Standard COIN requires 20 troops per 1,000 locals. In Afghanistan, that would require more than 650,000 troops. For only Pashtun areas, COIN requires more than 280,000 troops—far more than we maintain in Iraq. Due to the cost and manpower requirements, though, few propose a full counterinsurgency strategy. A “surge” of 25,000-40,000 troops—as proposed in a paper for Small Wars Journal by Lieutenant Colonel Robert A. Downey,
Lieutenant Colonel Lee K. Grubbs, Commander Brian J. Malloy and Lieutenant Colonel Craig R. Wonson—would only provide about half the troops required for COIN only in certain volatile areas of the country.
But even this undermanned, overexposed effort would be enormously expensive. As Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz pointed out in The Three Trillion Dollar War, “defense” spending in the current economic crisis would further damage our already reeling economy. We don’t have the troops and it would be self-destructive to send them if we did.
These considerations only become worth debating if we accept a false premise: that the source of the Taliban’s resurgence in Afghanistan is a troop deficit. This premise is wrong, and it brings us back to Gen. Dostum. As Sarah Chayes wrote in The Washington Post this past weekend, the Taliban could only revive and insinuate itself into Afghan political life because they are marginally preferable to the behavior of the warlords we pay to fight the Taliban and al-Qaida. Our “allies'” egregious behavior, the Kabul government’s ineptitude and failure to provide basic services, and the U.S. forces’ spectacular inability to avoid persistent civilian casualties combine in the minds of Afghans to create a picture so noxious that they prefer those who programatically throw acid into schoolgirls’ faces.
Reckoning with General Dostum and our stunning silence in the face of an Auschwitz-style death convoy has an importance beyond the salvation of our national soul. There are policy implications buried in the desert with the suffocated thousands. The U.S., in cooperation with a thoroughly corrupt Kabul regime, plans to funnel large amounts of cash to local militias as a method of fighting the Taliban. This effort, innocuously dubbed the Afghanistan Social Outreach Program, aims to make up for the absolute impossibility of the U.S. fielding an excess of 600,000 troops in theater. But if we implement this plan, the Afghan people will hold us accountable for the new General Dostums, and we will further energize the process feeding the Taliban’s frightening resurgence.
“Elections have consequences” became a popular sound-bite in recent election cycles. In the case of our Afghanistan policy, though, it might be more accurate to say, “campaigns have consequences.” Democratic candidates used the flagging U.S. effort in Afghanistan to attack the president’s Iraq war policies without becoming “anti-war.” What emerged was a simple rallying cry: “Get our troops out of Iraq so we can refocus on the fight in Afghanistan.”
President-elect Obama refined this anti-Iraq war, pro-Afghanistan war frame into a plan that includes an Afghanistan escalation and a partnership with Pakistan to “stamp out” extremists. But all indications are that the winning Afghanistan policy on the campaign trail is divorced from the reality on the ground. Richard Barrett, the head of the U.N.’s Taliban/al-Qaida monitoring group, warned in September that the coalition military presence helps drive the insurgency and that flooding Afghanistan with more of our troops will reunite splintering Taliban factions, who would in turn be more inclined and better able to aid al-Qaida. Pakistan’s military (which receives a healthy chunk of U.S. funds designed to convince them to help hunt terrorists) and intelligence services have long-standing ties to the Taliban and a long history of destabilizing their own country’s civilian government. Presidential candidate Obama may have found a politically effective groove in the “out of Iraq, back into Afghanistan” line of argument, but a great deal depends on his being able to get out of that groove before it deepens into another mass grave.
Flooding Afghanistan with foreign troops and funding warlords and militias will not win the war. The United States has much to offer that could encourage the growth of civil society and good governance in Kabul. The U.S. also has a great deal it could withhold to cajole the central government to be more accountable and to seriously address rampant corruption and abuse of power. These are tools with which we can begin to build real peace in Afghanistan. But reliance on the movers of jungle politics–guns and bribes–can only build the peace of the grave.
We have killed enough wedding parties. We have paid for enough graves in the desert.