The following article written by HLS Professor Noah Feldman, “Fighting the last war,” was published in the Nov. 30, 2008, edition of The New York Times Magazine. He is a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Change is so much in the air these days that it is easy to miss intimations of continuity. Even as the Obama administration forms its foreign-policy team, a new approach to the war in Afghanistan is emerging: more troops, stepped-up counterinsurgency tactics and negotiation with groups until now considered enemies. If this policy sounds familiar, it should. The Bush administration has been pursuing it in Iraq for the last 18 months. Implementing it in Afghanistan will be the final legacy of the outgoing administration’s shifting policies in the war on terror.
Exporting the Iraq model to Afghanistan has a certain logic. In both places, the long-term U.S. goal is to leave behind a stable, functioning state that is accepted as legitimate by its citizens and is capable of preventing terrorist groups from operating domestically or abroad. In both, a diverse range of ethnic, linguistic and denominational groups need to be reconciled into a durable balance of power. The Iraq surge has worked better than what was tried before in that country; so for the U.S. military, which is always fighting the last war, the temptation to rely on “lessons learned” is overwhelming — even if in this case the last war still isn’t over, and we are still far from having won it.
Yet despite the surface similarities between Iraq and Afghanistan, the differences run deep, as Gen. David McKiernan, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, has acknowledged. The very words policymakers use when discussing Iraq — “nation,” “tribe,” “radical,” “Islamist,” even “Al Qaeda” — mean different things in the Afghan context. In the complex world of counterinsurgency, getting these subtleties of anthropology and sociology right determines success or failure.
The accomplishment of the U.S. strategy in Iraq has been to separate Sunni sheiks from the Qaeda-affiliated radicals — many of them non-Iraqis — who came to dominate their locales during the insurgency. The sheiks knew their authority would be enhanced if they could deliver patronage from the U.S. and the Iraqi government — after all, that is how they secured their power from the era of British colonial rule right up through the reign of Saddam. You could almost say the Iraqi tribal structure was built for the very purpose to which the U.S. counterinsurgency eventually put it.
By contrast, Afghanistan’s tribes — a term that covers everything from large confederations to cousin-networks and extended families — are not natural vehicles for creating loyalty to a central government. To the contrary, for many years the tribal confederations have functioned as proxies for foreign powers. As a result, the tribes are past masters at playing international interests against one another. Even if we can revive the traditional tribal structures, the result might be more chaotic than the situation now; a tribal strategy is as likely to increase internal conflict as to effect reconciliation.
To make matters more difficult, the Taliban, unlike Al Qaeda, are not a foreign force in Afghanistan. Members of the Pashtun ethnic group, which makes up 40 to 50 percent of the population, the Taliban now have 15 years of experience in trying to unify the ethnic Pashtun community behind the banner of Islam — including several years of actual national rule. As a result, it will be more difficult to find Taliban leaders willing to negotiate with the central government than it was to peel off Sunni sheiks who had grown disenchanted with Al Qaeda in Iraq. Lacking independent claims to authority outside the movement, most Taliban leaders would probably lose their followers the moment they changed sides.
There are two ways to change the incentives of the many Pashtuns who until now have supported the Taliban based on the reasonable belief that they may someday return to power. One is to wage war more effectively, protecting villages from Taliban reprisals and persuading everyone that we will never allow the Taliban or other extremists to resume control. This would give Pashtuns a collective reason to seek accommodation with the U.S.-backed government.
But military advantage may prove elusive. The other way to change the calculus is to offer Pashtun leaders, Taliban or otherwise, something meaningful in exchange for promising to give up sheltering Al Qaeda and to allow basic freedoms, especially for women and girls. There may not be many Taliban leaders who are willing to renounce their ideology. But it is not too soon to start asking what, if anything, Pashtun leaders would be prepared to accept in such a deal, and if the members of the coalition could live with it in exchange for the chance to phase out the military occupation.
Offering a degree of autonomy to the Pashtun-dominated areas of southeastern Afghanistan may be the one carrot that could draw ordinary Pashtuns away from the Taliban or induce the Taliban to begin a process of internal ideological change. Weakening the Kabul government is risky — but the government is losing its hold on large parts of the country anyway. Meanwhile, in Pakistan, an affiliated Taliban movement is rising in the Pashtun-dominated tribal areas. Despite recent responses by the Pakistani Army, these new Taliban have so far held their own, murdering tribal leaders trying to organize against them. The Taliban, in other words, threaten not only Afghanistan but also the unified sovereignty of Pakistan.
In three years, President Obama will have to evaluate the situation as his re-election campaign begins. If the Taliban in Afghanistan fight the coalition to a standstill while their Pakistani counterparts improve their position, he will face considerable pressure to bring American troops home. But in that scenario, withdrawal would invite a Taliban victory on both sides of the border, and the Taliban will have even less incentive to compromise than they do currently. The time for change is now, lest Afghanistan become the quagmire that Iraq was once said to be.