IV. Steps toward withdrawal
The US will ultimately have to withdrawal so the issues are not whether but when and under what circumstances. Looking back at insurgencies I have studied and those in which I have been somewhat involved, I think the most important task is to set a clear program of what one wishes to accomplish and then prepare well in advance the groundwork for the events; failure to do this presents what could be a frantic, last-minute rush in which the aims and objectives so long and expensively sought are lost. So here is the sequence that I believe makes the most sense and provides the maximum insurance again failure.
Set a clear, firm, unequivocal and reasonably proximate date for withdrawal. What can be said to fault this approach?
The Taliban will be encouraged to wait us out, knowing that at a certain date, they can advance and take over the country.
But this presupposes that the Taliban are uninformed about American and European politics and the growing opposition to the continued occupation. They know that we will have to leave sometime in the relatively near future; and their strategy is to hurry up the process. The chances are that they believe that the time span between what they can make us do and what we would do by ourselves is fairly short. Consequently, more precisely and less ambiguously setting a date is not likely to substantially affect Taliban policy.
Nor is it likely to have any serious effect on the “power elite.” They are already moving their assets and families out of the country and acquiring dual nationality.
So why do it?
The reason is that it would have a major positive effect primarily on those people who live where the war is being fought: the villagers in the rural areas. For them and for the urban lower classes, it would change the “political psychology” of the war. Let me explain:
At the present time, Afghans regard aid programs, even by non-governmental organizations, in the terms proclaimed by General David Petraeus: “money is my most important ammunition…” So, if a bridge is built, a school opened, even a clinic set up, it is regarded as a military tactic. That is what the Viet Minh also understood and that is why they set out to destroy the entire civil order of the South Vietnamese government in the late 1950s when they murdered even doctors, nurses and teachers. That is what the Taliban are doing today. We are shocked and disgusted, but their tactics are those insurgents have employed everywhere.
So, if we believe it is to our interest to move Afghanistan toward a degree of security, self-sufficiency and less hatred of us, we need to change the context of our activities: that is, we need to disconnect combat from programs to benefit the people. The crucial first move in this process is setting a date.
If a firm date in the reasonably near term is believed, then the Afghans can feel that their principal, shared objective has been achieved: we have agreed to leave. It is not precisely that we have left but that we have agreed in a believable and reasonably near-term proclamation, to leave. At that point, the construction of a clinic, a school or a farm-to-market road will no longer be seen as a tactic used to dominate them. Then these things begin to take on a new meaning.
At that point, village shuras, jirgas or ulus will see, or will rapidly begin to see, these things as intrinsically valuable. They will want them for themselves and for their fellow villagers. Particularly if much of the aid can be given to them unobtrusively by USAID, through NGOs and/or through the UN, there will be a rush to join the development process, each of Afghanistan’s 22,000 villages on its own. Will the Taliban not continue to do as it is doing now to thwart this process by killing the aid workers and those who accept their help or cooperate with them?
It is probable that they will try. However, if they do, they will lose the support they now enjoy from the villagers. In this new context:
They will be seen to be operating against public desires and needs and now no longer justified by opposition to foreign domination . In short, their cause will have become redundant and their opposition to beneficial activities will be clearly seen to be unpatriotic and anti-social. Thus, to adapt the famous description of Mao Zedong, the village “water” that now supports the insurgent “fish” will dry up. The villagers will see that the Taliban are not catering to their needs and that their fight is no longer for a cause since the battle is won.
Just as the villagers will begin to see their interests in a new light, so will people living in the town and cities.
This is in part because as in almost all Asian countries the cities are extensions of the rural areas (rather than the reverse). Then genuine aid projects, as distinct from such projects as the building of the Bagram airbase, will take on a new meaning. Particularly if projects are done with local labor and with emphasis on labor-intensive methods, a new sense of pride and ownership will grow. This new “political psychology” will also begin to affect the central government bureaucracy and the security forces. The sense that Afghanistan has arisen from the ashes of 30 years of war is precisely the elixir that they need to drink.
During this period, training of the security forces, particularly the police force, should go forward with all deliberate speed. What is significant is that even that will be accomplished in a new context: the “political psychology” is all important. We should remember that the South Vietnamese had one of the world’s most powerful armies, on paper, but it lacked the will to defend its regime. It is not so much numbers or equipment that count, although of course they are important, as psychology. Changing this context would invigorate and upgrade the current push to provide the central government with the means to survive.
Even the now blatantly corrupt power elite will begin to rethink their possible flight. A few at first and then others will begin to see less reason to leave and they will see new – and increasingly safe – opportunities here. As they begin to bring their families and at least some of their money back, this will have a ripple effect throughout the society.
Most important of all, Afghanistan’s most precious asset, its trained and educated people, will begin to return. They too will at first come only in small numbers, but as they take stock of the changed political climate, more will follow. Even today, a sense of nostalgia and patriotism are strong lures; if added to them is a sense of the new hope, a corner will have been turned.