With a deteriorating security situation and deteriorating relations between the Afghan and U.S. Governments (caused largely by continuing American mistakes), the Obama Administration may be preparing to commit yet another blunder instead of fixing the fundamental problems in its Afghan war strategy. Events suggest that the U.S. may publicly shift its support away from the Afghan Government and back to its old allies among the Panshiri Tajiks. With President Hamid Karzai scheduled to leave office on December 7, 2014 (which is “Pearl Harbor Day” in the United States), and with the fear that no viable successor exists, the Obama Administration appears to have concluded that a second Pearl Harbor-type disaster is looming. Its poorly thought out solution is to support one minority group, even if such precipitates an Afghan civil war.
The events of the past few months have fueled fears within the Obama Administration. There are rising fears of Taliban infiltrators and fears of more rogue U.S. troops. These fears heightened last week as a result of the catastrophic trip to the region by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. It began with his visit to Kyrgyzstan, where he learned first-hand that the Kyrgyz Government will close down Manas Air Base in July 2014. What that means is that the base (through which more than half a million American, NATO and contractor personnel pass each year) will have to begin winding down operations in about January 2014. Secretary Panetta experienced a near tragedy in Kandahar where there was a major security breach at the airfield as he arrived. He then had to deal with an angry President Karzai who was outraged at the secret removal of the massacre suspect (Sgt. Robert Bales) back to the United States. President Karzai vowed to restrict U.S. forces to their main FOBs (forward operating bases), which is a humiliating prospect. In the aftermath, an ashen-faced and physically drained Panetta then had to face reporters in Kabul. That picture is worth a thousand words.
Secretary Panetta flew into Afghanistan because, over the past three months, the U.S. has seen its exits from Afghanistan blocked. There are no longer any overland exit routes west and south through Pakistan nor are there any overland exit routes north and east.
Faced with a looming debacle, which could quickly unravel, there is growing evidence of a U.S. shift from President Karzai and the Pashtuns to a group with long CIA ties, which is the Panshiri (Panshir Valley) Tajiks. What we know is as follows:
1. The CIA has long had close ties with the Panshiri Tajiks, who formally operated under an umbrella military group called the Northern Alliance.
2. While the United States has been forming and training the Afghan National Army for ten years, it is not a national army because it remains dominated by Tajik officers. That would not be possible without American support. In 2009, NPR news broadcast an interview with Selig Harrison, Director of Asia Programs at the Center for International Policy. He criticized the U.S. training program because 70% of the battalion commanders were Tajik, which was harming recruitment of a national army. As usual, all criticisms have been ignored.
3. The Afghan economy, with U.S. assistance, remains dominated by Tajik companies, many of which (such as Zahid Walid and Ghazanfar) are owned by Tajik Marshal Qasim Fahim and his brother and family.
4. During the past year, neighboring Tajikistan (which is a sham democracy) has had an incredible array of visiting Obama Administration officials. What we publicly know is that CENTCOM commander General James Mattis visited in February 2011. The U.S. Embassy in Dushanbe stated that this was an “unannounced visit.” That was followed in April 2011 by a visit by Robert Blake, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs. Then in October 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived for an official visit, which was followed in February 2012 by the arrival of a large multi-agency delegation of Pentagon and State Department officials. The agenda for this February 2012 visit has not been disclosed. It appears that a covert agreement was reached between the U.S. and the Tajik Governments in October 2011, and that the goal of the February 2012 meetings by technical experts was to iron out the specifics for this new arrangement. Sources reveal that the U.S. has begun to train the Tajik OMON (Special Interior Ministry Police). As the Tajik government is a dictatorship, this type of training may have negative future repercussions.
Last month Nathan Hodge of the Wall Street Journal reported that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (without any fanfare) quietly lifted the ban on military sales to one or more repressive Central Asian governments, apparently just in advance of the February 2012 visit by the U.S. delegation to the region. The timing of Secretary Clinton’s announcement clearly suggests that the Obama Administration has decided to begin providing military equipment to one or more of these governments, apparently as part of a wider deal currently being finalized.
An American shift to the Tajiks, both in Afghanistan and in Tajikistan, requires a figurehead in Afghanistan. Such a figurehead may be Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, who was one of the 2009 candidates for Afghan President. While seemingly a good person, and with a mixed Pashtun/Tajik ancestry, Dr. Abdullah is perceived to be a Panshiri Tajik and to-date he has not garnered much support by the Pashtuns (which are the largest ethnic group in the country).
Dr. Abdullah represents a group called the “National Coalition of Afghanistan” and he remains active in Afghan politics, meeting just last week with the visiting Swedish Foreign Minister. His annual trips to the United States are a subject of interest. Beginning in at least 2008, he has traveled to the United States at the invitation of several “think-tanks” that have close relations with U.S. security agencies. These think-tanks include the Brookings Institution, which is a virtual arm of the Department of State. There is no way that Brookings officials, such as Bruce Riedel, would extend such an invitation without the approval of senior U.S. officials. The trips (which sometimes last for weeks) are shrouded in mystery and in undisclosed meetings.
The shift to Dr. Abdullah is very subtle at this point. The White House has a standard practice of indirectly floating new ideas to the American public. One tactic is to use a friendly news media source to put forward a potential shift in U.S. policy, with senior officials then assessing reactions to the proposal. One of these media sources is the Huffington Post. On March 13, 2012, the Huffington Post carried a story by Bernard-Henri Levy regarding Afghanistan. It praised Dr. Abdullah and concluded with an interesting statement. Mr. Levy argued that supporting him: “is perhaps the very last card left to play.” This statement may very well reflect Administration thinking. It could be the beginning of a public relations effort to prepare the American public for a radical shift in U.S. policy.
There are multiple problems with this anticipated new American strategy:
First, the U.S. has a terrible record at installing or supporting dictators. Manuel Noriega did not turn out well, nor did the Shah of Iran, nor did U.S. support for Saddam Hussein or Hosni Mubarak. These are all the “bad puppets” that Frances Fitzgerald wrote about in “Fire in the Lake.” Supporting the minority Tajiks would be similar to supporting President Assad and his minority Alawite sect in Syria or the minority Sunni Royal Family in Bahrain (both bad ideas).
Second, the U.S. Government has never had a united and coherent strategy in Afghanistan. As a result, the Pentagon, State Department and CIA all have gone in different directions. This fractured command structure has seen U.S. officials working against each other, with some supporting Afghan ministries and a strong central government, while others are supporting local warlords or are funding private ethnic militias or simply endorsing local criminal gangs who promise security. The NATO command, called ISAF, has been equally divisive. For one thing, NATO is a bureaucracy that feeds on self-promotion. It and the Pentagon have huge publicity machines that promote American, French, British, Canadian and other efforts. The idea is to eclipse the Afghans by show casing how the West is winning the war. A truly thoughtful war plan would send all of the Western media experts home and have all news reported through and by the Afghan government. Such a proposal would surely shock NATO and Pentagon officials and has no chance of being adopted, which shows how wide the gap is between Western efforts and a winnable war strategy.
Third, the American public has no stomach for nor can it afford involvement in someone else’s civil war. The American people will also not support the abandonment of Afghan women, nor will they endorse the inevitable targeting of minorities such as the Hazara by both sides, which is a real risk.
One of the central candidates for Afghan President in 2009 was Dr. Ramazan Bashardost. He is an ethnic Hazara and a highly respected member of the Afghan Parliament from Ghazni Province. Dr. Bashardost might well be an acceptable compromise candidate for the 2014 elections, but there has been no effort made by the West to court him as he would not be the puppet that the West is looking for.
The Kabul Press and this author have championed numerous solutions over the years to the growing U.S. debacle. Everything happening today was generally foreseen in 2009. One solution we proposed years ago was that the Pentagon and NATO adopt the recommendations of the late General Edward Lansdale, America’s top counter-insurgency expert. Fifty years ago he briefed President John F. Kennedy regarding the looming Vietnam War. Lansdale’s key recommendation was: Do not send any Americans to South Vietnam as part of the “Country Team” who do not like Asians. For half a century, in every country that the U.S. has intervened, the Pentagon and the State Department have ignored this simple yet crucial recommendation. None of the scandals that have dogged the U.S. efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan would ever have happened if this recommendation had been implemented. While such screening would certainly result is a much smaller pool of soldiers and diplomats who could be assigned to Afghanistan, the people deployed would be more effective and would not be hampered by the current scandals. This author, who was designated in 2008 by the U.S. State Department as a civil governance expert, would certainly volunteer for such an assignment. As it is almost never too late to fix a problem, President Obama should seek his guidance from the writings of General Lansdale both for the current war and whatever next war the Pentagon launches or is pushed into.
What is missing from the Afghan debate today is the same thing that was missing in 2001, an honest discussion by the U.S. Government with its citizens about why we are in Afghanistan, what the strategy is, how that strategy is to be competently implemented, is that strategy working or failing, who is to be held accountable for failures and when should that strategy be modified. Instead the American public is victimized with daily speeches about “progress” and “challenges” when everyone knows the situation is deteriorating. Secret deal will not save a failed strategy. An honest discussion of alternatives is a better choice. The Obama Administration needs to begin by disclosing all its deals with Tajik officials.
FINAL NOTE REGARDING AFGHAN MASSACRE SUSPECT ROBERT BALES:
This author served in the U.S. Air Force as a military prosecutor and at times as an Article 32 investigating officer. If there is clear evidence against Sgt. Bales, the Article 32 preliminary investigation could be concluded within a day and formal charges issued by the General Courts Martial Convening Authority within a few days after that. The assigned military judge could then announce an initial trial date. What this means is that Secretary Panetta should face the cameras this week and announce that Sgt. Bales’ trial will begin within 60 days (which is a reasonable speedy trial time-frame). That would be a positive step and might help to quell some of the current Afghan anger, but the Pentagon almost certainly will bungle that. It never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity.