The Pentagon last week floated a trial balloon suggesting that all U.S. Marines might pullout of Iraq and head to Afghanistan, while the Army would do the opposite and concentrate on Iraq. The rationale was mere administrative efficiency or neatness, which hardly justifies the turmoil the proposal would cause. I would personally be happy to see my Marine friends leave Iraq before the roof there falls in, but trading Iraq for Afghanistan is little more than a jump out of the frying pan into the fire.
If, however, a Marine Corps takeover of the war in Afghanistan were used as an opportunity to change the way we are waging that war, then it would be more than justified. What would meaningful change entail?
First, we would have to adopt a realistic strategic goal, one that might be attainable. The present strategic goal of turning Afghanistan into a modern, secular, capitalist state with “equal rights for women” and similar claptrap lies in the in realm of fantasy. The most Afghanistan can become is Afghanistan in its better periods, which is to say a country with a weak central government, strong local warlords, endemic tribal civil war, a drug-based economy and a traditional Islamic society and culture. The dominant tribe, controlling the central government in Kabul, will be the Pashtun, because it always has been.
There are two possible strategies for attaining this goal, neither of which guarantees success, but both of which have a potential for success, unlike what we and NATO are doing now. The first is to split the Pashtun from the Taliban, making the Pashtun our allies instead of our enemies. Since the Pashtun always win in the end, we must be allied with them if we are not to lose.
The second possible strategy is to split the Taliban from al-Qaeda and similar ethnically Arab 4GW entities and make a deal with them in which they would again get Kabul and the government. That central government will, as always in Afghan history, be weak, so we are not giving up all that much. This strategy has the advantage that it would reduce the pressure on Pakistan, which remains a de facto ally of the Taliban. If Pakistan goes, and it is going, our position in the region collapses overnight.
Of the two strategic options, I think the second is more likely to work. It gives us a central authority to make a deal with; other than the Taliban, who can deliver the Pashtun to the alliance we need? The same lack of an alternate legitimate authority — the Karzai government is not one — makes splitting the Pashtun from the Taliban a tall order. Most probably, attempting to do so will leave us enmeshed in endless local politics we can neither understand nor bring to any sort of useful conclusion. While we would have to swallow some of our (overweening) pride to give Kabul back to the Taliban, the Taliban is not in and of itself any threat to America, so long as it is not in bed with al-Qaeda.
Both strategic options require a radical change in American tactics, from “winning battles” defined by “kills” to the tactics of de-escalation. The FMFM-IA lays out in detail what a tactics of de-escalation means. Suffice it here to say here that it includes an end to airstrikes, trying to capture rather than kill those Pashtun we have to fight (and treating prisoners very well, as future allies), and replacing the American addiction to firepower with good light infantry tactics.
If the Bush administration is able to adopt these strategic recommendations, then handing Afghanistan over to the Marine Corps makes sense. The Marine Corps has generals who can think in strategic terms (if the Army has any, it has not sent them to Afghanistan). It is perhaps slightly less addicted to firepower than the Army, though Marine aviation may be a problem. While Marine infantry tactics are little if any better than the Army’s, it would be easier to retrain Marine infantry in true light infantry tactics, if only because the Marine Corps is smaller. Perhaps most importantly, Marines have learned something of the tactics of de-escalation in Anbar province in Iraq. Had they not done so, Anbar would still be an al-Qaeda stronghold.
The choke point, as always, is the Bush administration. The Marine Corps on its own cannot change our strategy in Afghanistan. It can advocate a change. Perhaps it can line up DOD and the State Department behind such a change. But in the end, only the White House can make the change. Will it? Only if it learns from experience, which so far is has shown no ability to do.
WILLIAM S. LIND, expressing his own personal opinion, is Director for the Center for Cultural Conservatism for the Free Congress Foundation.