The Afghan Rubik’s Cube

Afghanistan is a gatherer of metaphors: “crossroads of Asia,” “graveyard of empires,” and the “Great Game,” to name a few, although it might be more accurate to think of it as a Rubik’s Cube, that frustrating puzzle of intersecting blocks that only works when everything fits perfectly. The trick for the Obama Administration is to figure out how to solve the puzzle in a time frame rapidly squeezed by events both internal and external to that war-torn central Asian nation.

At first glance, the decision to send 21,000 more U.S. troops into a conflict that has dragged on for almost 30 years seems to combine equal parts illusion and amnesia: illusion that the soldiers could make a difference, amnesia in trying something that failed disastrously in 2005.

But then, Afghanistan seems to have a deranging effect on its occupiers.

In the spring of 2005, British Lt. Gen. David Richards, then commander of North Atlantic Treaty Organization  (NATO) forces in southern Afghanistan, told a press conference in Khandahar that quadrupling the number of allied troops in Helmand Province would spell the end for the Taliban. Three years later Helmand is unarguably the most dangerous province in the country.

As former British Foreign Service officer Rory Stewart argues, “when the decision to increase the number of troops in 2005 was made, there was no insurgency.”  Indeed, it was the surge—and the civilian casualties which accompanied it—that ignited the current resistance movement. Back then the Taliban controlled 54 percent of the country. Today that figure is 72 percent and rising. In February, Taliban soldiers attacked Kabul, killing scores of people and besieging several government buildings.

The illusion is that adding 21,000 troops to the 38,000 U.S. soldiers and 50,000 NATO soldiers could possibly make a difference. The U.S., with 500,000 soldiers, could not prevail in South Vietnam, a country of 67,000 square miles and 19 million people. Afghanistan has half again that population and 250,000 square miles of some of the planet’s most unforgiving terrain.

As Brig. Gen. Mark Carleton-Smith, Britain’s top military officer in Afghanistan, bluntly told the Sunday Times, “We’re not going to win this war.”

So has the madness that seems to seize Afghanistan’s invaders infected the White House?  Maybe not.

First, if Obama were serious about a military victory in Afghanistan he would have sent 40,000 soldiers, not 17,000 combat troops and 4,000 trainers. The former figure—which the Administration initially discussed—would fulfill the Pentagon’s formula of soldiers to population counterinsurgency strategy.

Second, unlike the Bush Administration, the White House included Iran in a regional conference on the war, and the President has hinted he is open to talking with at least some of the Taliban. Neither of these moves suggests the Administration is only thinking in terms of a military “victory” in Afghanistan.

In a sense the Administration has little choice.

The price tag alone should give the White House pause. According to the Congressional Research Service, Afghanistan has cost $173 billion and is on track to cost $1 trillion.

And, increasingly, the U.S. is on its own. In recent NATO meetings the Europeans made it clear that they would not be joining the “surge.” Polls show a substantial majority of Germans, British, French and Italians are opposed to sending any more troops to Afghanistan.

The U.S. is also facing trouble among its regional allies.

The 2005 surge not only revitalized the Taliban, it spread the war to Pakistan and sparked the creation of a Pakistani Taliban that now has a major presence in the Swat Valley and most of the Northwest Territory and Tribal Regions. This war has killed over 1500 Pakistani soldiers, innumerable civilians, and cost Islamabad at least $35 billion. With the country’s economy in serious trouble, pouring money into the U.S. war on terrorism is deeply unpopular. According to polls, 89 percent of the Pakistani population opposes it.

The widespread use of U.S. drones to assassinate Taliban leaders has also angered Pakistanis , in part because one wing of the local Taliban has responded to the attacks by launching a bombing campaign. Pakistanis are also unhappy with Washington’s cavalier attitude toward their nation’s sovereignty.

According to senior officials in the Obama Administration, the U.S. intends to increase the use of drones and expand their attacks into Baluchistan, which will almost certainly increase civilian casualties. While the U.S. strategy of using drones avoids fatalities among its own forces, Pakistanis caught up in the retaliatory bombings and attacks are not so lucky.

The war has also ratcheted up tensions between Pakistan and India.

India has deployed the paramilitary Indo-Tibetan Border Patrol in Afghanistan to protect its road building projects from Taliban attacks. But for the Pakistanis, their traditional enemy now has troops on both borders. Indian and Pakistan have fought three wars since the 1947 partition of the two countries, and India is currently in the middle of a major expansion of its military.

Another point of tension is the 123 Agreement between the U.S. and India that allows New Delhi to bypass the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and may ignite a nuclear arms race between the two countries, a race which neither can afford and which will measurably increase the possibility of nuclear war in South Asia. Both countries came perilously close to one in 1999.

There is widespread suspicion that the 123 Agreement was a quid pro quo for India’s growing involvement in Afghanistan. The Bush Administration needed regional allies and India was only too willing to play that role—for a price. The price was a nuclear agreement that allows India to import uranium for its civilian nuclear power industry, while using its domestic supplies to fuel its nuclear weapons program.

The right wing Hindu fundamentalist BJP, jockeying for position in the upcoming Indian elections, has called for a military retaliation, including the blockade of the port of Karachi, for the recent attack on Mumbai by Pakistan-based militants.

In the meantime, the political situation within Afghanistan is growing increasingly unstable. President Harmid Karzai, once the darling of Western powers, has come under intense criticism for his regime’s widespread corruption, and the U.S. and NATO may not back him in the upcoming August elections.

And ominously for the allies, a BBC poll of Afghans shows 73 percent are opposed to an increase in U.S. military presence, with a majority now supporting a negotiated end to the war, even if that means a coalition government that includes the Taliban.

While Afghanistan looks increasingly unstable, the Taliban appear to be getting their act together. According to Saeed Shah of the McClatchy newspapers, Mullah Omar, the leader of the Afghan Taliban, has forged an alliance with the fractious Pakistan Taliban that will direct the power of both organizations toward fighting “the occupation forces inside of Afghanistan.”

The pact declares a truce on attacks against “the Pakistan security forces” and “fellow Muslims in the tribal areas and elsewhere in Pakistan,” which Omar says is “harming the war against the US and NATO forces.”

According to retired Pakistani General Talat Masood, the pact is the reason for the recent truce in the Swat Valley and an end to the fighting in Bajaur Province in the Tribal Territories.

The recent round of attacks by the Taliban in the Punjab appears to be a response to U.S. drone attacks, not a breakdown in the Mullah Omar-negotiated peace pact.

With NATO falling away, regional allies at each other’s throats, growing turmoil inside of Afghanistan, and the Taliban uniting, this is a “lions and tigers and bears” moment for the Obama Administration .

But manipulated just right, the Rubik’s puzzle is solvable.

For instance, while the Taliban have united to fight, Mullah Omar, through Saudi Arabian King Abdullah, also made a seven point peace offering that no longer requires the western forces to withdraw before opening talks. The plan proposes setting a timetable for withdrawal, forming a “consensus government,” and consolidating the Taliban forces into a national army.

The inclusion of Iran suggests that U.S. is correctly viewing the Afghan war as a regional problem, but one that will force the White House to grasp one of South Asia’s thorniest problems: Kashmir. While New Delhi says this issue if off the table, if the U.S. is serious about resolving regional tensions it will eventually have to visit the what may be the most dangerous flashpoint on the planet.

To make all the Rubik’s cubes fit together, the Obama Administration will have to recognize that the U.S. is only one player at the table, and that the interests of other parties, both inside and outside of Afghanistan, must be given equal weight. It will also need to reconsider the Bush Administration’s ill-advised nuclear agreement with New Delhi, which not only increases tensions in the region, but also threatens to unravel a critically important international nuclear treaty.

What the Obama Administration must avoid is an aggressive military surge like the one in 2005 that will only further destabilize Afghanistan, as well as the dead-end tactic of refusing to talk with people you don’t agree with.

CONN HALLINAN can be reached at:

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