Are We Funding Tomorrow's Taliban?

If the Obama administration is going to honor its goal of troop drawdowns from Afghanistan by July 2011, it's going to need help. That President Obama scheduled it so close to his own November 2012 reelection may or may not be coincidental, but there's no question that failure to meet his self-imposed deadline would be politically disastrous. But few analysts seem optimistic about bringing stability to Afghanistan in 18 months. The resiliency of the Taliban, not to mention the severity of the underlying social and political disorder, are just too much for 100,000 or even 200,000 foreign troops to reverse on their own.

The U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan seem to think they've found the solution: the Shinwaris of Eastern Afghanistan. A Pashtun tribe of 400,000 whose leadership wishes to partner with us in driving out the Taliban from every village in the heart of its Afghan stronghold, the Shinwaris may just be the silver bullet to save Afghanistan. Which is exactly why the U.S. should be so skeptical.

As July 2011 draws nearer, the administration will be tempted to place America's money and arms, not to mention its faith, in the hands of the Shinwaris. As we learned with the Sunni Awakening in Iraq, for which the U.S. put 30,000 sympathetic Sunnis on its payroll, a broad-based and active local partner can work miracles in a country ripped apart by sectarian violence. Indeed, the Shinwaris could be Afghanistan's own Sunni Awakening. Or they could be another in a long series of poorly chosen American allies whose U.S.-backed ascent plunges its country into even further chaos.

The U.S. has a long history of backing the enemy of its enemy. Rather than risking American lives to fight bad guys, the logic goes, why not just have the CIA funnel money and arms to their most lethal enemy? This oft-repeated, post-WWII policy has secured many short-term successes that have turned into long-term disasters.

Our proxies, chosen for their willingness to kill and not their ability to govern, have become some of the modern history's most dangerous and oppressive regimes. In Latin America, we supported and in some cases directly trained the anti-communist death squads that ravaged Honduras and Argentina. Nixon-era CIA operations in Chile pushed the military coup by Augusto Pinochet, later arrested as an international war criminal for the mass murder and torture of thousands. The Nicaraguan contras, whom we backed in the 1980s to fight the Marxist government, tortured and killed civilians as a means of terror.

In South Asia, U.S.-backed South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem's persecution of Buddhists and his reign of terror, which killed at least 50,000, severely worsened the Vietnam War that resulted in 58,000 U.S. deaths. U.S. involvement in the rise of the Khmer Rouge, remembered for their genocide of nearly 2 million Cambodians, is far more complicated. If nothing else, they enjoyed America's tolerance as long as they fought Communist Vietnam.

Perhaps the most notorious case is in Afghanistan itself. In 1979, the CIA and U.S. State Department saw the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan as an opportunity to strike a deadly blow to Soviet power. They were right. A U.S.-Pakistan partnership funded, armed and trained entire armies of devoutly Islamist mujahideen who spent a decade driving out the Soviets. Even after the withdrawal, we spent years pushing the mujahideen's toppling of the stable, moderate and pro-Soviet Afghan government. Two favored recipients of U.S. money and weapons throughout the conflict were Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin Haqqani. Today we know Hekmatyar and Haqqani as the leaders of the two most violent and anti-American branches of the Taliban.

I don't mean to single out the CIA. Funding to Hekmatyar, Haqqani and others blossomed, reportedly to levels that even some at the CIA were uncomfortable with, at the behest of Reagan-era anti-communist hardliners in Congress, who wanted to kill Soviets and take romanticized trips to the Afghan border. One such congressman, Texas Democrat Charlie Wilson, was recently lionized in a popular, award-winning 2007 film--that's six short years after Taliban-shielded al-Qaeda launched the attack that Bush-era Republicans demanded we "never forget."

Author Gore Vidal is fond of referring to the "United States of Amnesia," even assigning a book that subtitle. Vidal was wrong about one thing--in America, we remember our victories perfectly. How many times have American successes in the Philippines, Eastern Europe, and even, a bit prematurely, Iraq been cited in support of a one policy or another in Afghanistan? It's the failures we forget. If we are to ship arms and resources to the Shinwari or any other little-understood would-be ally in Afghanistan, we'll have to study our past failures as well as successes.

But ultimately, neither provides absolute predictions for Afghanistan. The only thing we seem to understand for sure about Afghanistan's Pashtun tribal system is that we don't understand it. Centuries of geographic and cultural isolation between the scattered villages mean that two similar-seeming tribes may be anything but. Pashtun tribal loyalties are incredibly fluid and unpredictable, making long-term alliances unreliable. Who is to say whether they are the next Sunni Awakening, the next Taliban, or something else entirely? It is as foolish to believe that we understand the long-term goals of the Shinwari tribe today as it was when we made the same mistake about mujahideen in the 1980s. Even if their support secures Obama's July 2011 drawdown, there is no telling who they would become once we left.