Unlike the Obama Administration, I do not have armies of Pentagon brass and Congress trying to pull me one way or the other, nor intelligence experts of various levels of credibility feeding me contradictory data, so I have had a fairly easy time coming to a conclusion. In fact, I did so and posted my recommendations a month and a half ago--see "How Afghanistan Can Win" in my post "Khartoum to Kabul". I stand by that post, but will take this opportunity to elaborate a bit more on it.
The Mind of the Taliban: Real Evidence
There has been one particularly relevant update in my database since then, the piece in Newsweek's October 5 issue titled "The Taliban in Their Own Words". I would give a link to it, but it seems Newsweek has already dropped it from its website; I recommend tracking down the issue and reading it, if you have not done so.
First, I have to say that I am in awe of the courage of the reporters who went behind enemy lines and interviewed the six unit-level commanders whose words make up the story (the reporters' names are Sami Yousafzai and Ron Moreau). To me, this is Pulitzer Prize-quality stuff, if one considers what happened to Daniel Pearl when he started getting too close to the story on the other side (he was beheaded). In editor Jon Meacham's notes, he suggests the most dangerous part of the task for Yousafzai (the lead interviewer)was traveling from Kabul's airport into town, shortly after the road had been bombed; that suggests that his contacts with the Taliban were so secure that he didn't feel in imminent peril of his life the whole time he was interviewing them--I find that kinda hard to believe, but more power to him. Consorting with the enemy it may have been, but the purpose--to understand our foe--was worthwhile for all of us.
So, what have we learned from what the Taliban are saying? Here are my key takeaways:
o) The Taliban have no love for the Arabs of Al Qaeda, whom they disparagingly refer to as "the camels"; as I suggested in my previous post, the Taliban resent that their leaders' willingness to host them in 2001 caused them to lose power in Afghanistan, and they are not likely to repeat that mistake;
o) Militarily, we can beat the Taliban almost anytime they mass to battle us--the flight to Pakistan in 2001 was not a strategic retreat for them, but an all-out rout, and we had a lot less troops in Afghanistan at the time than we do now;
o) The life of a senior commander in the Taliban is "short, nasty, and brutish"--all the superiors/recruiters these guys referred to have been taken out;
o) That being said, we will never wipe them out through military force, nor are they likely to give up their struggle anytime soon, because
o) These commanders, at least, are fully committed to their cause, impossible to buy out, and earnestly seek to re-impose Islamic rule; and
o) They believe time is on their side, and they are winning this time. There is more than a little revenge in their mix of motivations.
Let's Get Specific
In my last post, I reacted against those Americans who foolishly asked, "How Can We Win in Afghanistan?" by saying, first, we can't, and second, let's think about what's best for Afghanistan. If, however, we take a look at this from the US' national interest, the first point to emphasize is that what happens in Pakistan is much more important than any result--good or bad--in Afghanistan. The one exception to that rule is that we have our troops in Afghanistan, that their fate is hugely important, and that our forces are unlikely to be invited into Pakistan in any significant numbers. So, the objective is to use our forces wisely, from the Afghanistan side, and ultimately get them out of that hellhole safely.
The first question, then, is: How can what we do in Afghanistan help lead to success in suppressing our foes in Pakistan? The answer, it would seem, would be to beef up our military capabilities in Eastern Afghanistan, between Kabul and the Pakistan border. As the Pakistani forces begin now to take on the hostile enclave of Waziristan, we should make sure their hammer blows can strike the "anvil of evil" without the bad guys slipping away.
Second, as I've said before, I'm not one to put the blame for Afghanistan's weaknesses on its President, Hamid Karzai. I don't think he's responsible for the recent ballot box stuffing, and he had little choice but to ally himself with those corrupt provincial warlords who opposed the Taliban. His rule has never gone much beyond Kabul--we've just become acutely aware of that fact recently. If one of our conditions for increased assistance to Afghanistan is improved performance from Karzai--and it should be one--then we really can't much more of him than a) his efforts to have a clean recount, and a clean runoff if the recount requires it; b) that he ease out his brother, supposedly the drug kingpin of Kandahar; and c) that he keep on trying, in spite of great personal danger and incredibly long odds. It seems to me that's asking a lot, already.
Third, as another condition for the ramp-up (tipping my hand a little, here), NATO needs to stand up and be counted. We need to increase our military strength in the eastern part of the country, but NATO has to fill the void some in the rest of the country. They can't be looking to slip out the back door while we're marching through the front one. I would like to see something from our new best friend, France, and maybe from Turkey (that one, I admit, I'm not sure about: xenophobia runs deep and wide in this part of the world, and I don't know if Turks would be about the same as getting the Russians--i.e., a p.r. disaster--or better, or worse. Maybe in the northern part?) I've read the Turks are the best military forces in NATO, apart from our own. We should set up a NATO school of counterinsurgency skills in Kabul (or somewhere else), and get our allies and the Afghan Army officers to attend: maybe they'll learn something that they can even use somewhere else in the future. We cannot, should not, must not, have to do this all on our own, and frankly, I'm not sure this is the last war of this kind we're going to have to be involved with, even if GWOT is in the dustbin of history.
Finally, I don't know Afghan geography well enough to say exactly where, but I still say we should set up a zone for Taliban fighters who want to give it a rest. All prisoners from the fighting go there (after any interrogation), and free entry to any other Taliban and their families who agree to lay down their arms (exit would be a tougher hurdle). Sharia rule OK! there, they can worship as they please, imprison their wives, whatever (but no poppy exports). The characteristics of this Taliban Autonomous Zone would be: not on the strategic Kandahar-Kabul highway, far from Pakistan, a couple of peaceful, fertile valleys--someplace where the Karzai regime already is a non-factor--with mountains, preferably impassable, around them. Something like Utah for the Mormons; in time they could even become civilized and give up polygamy.
Bottom line is, I would give McChrystal the 40,000 more troops he wants, but only half of them should be American. And ours would have a strict time limit. The Afghan war has a seasonal quality; it basically shuts down in the winter, the forces build up in the spring, and the battles climax in tne late summer and fall. We should give the Afghans two years of increased forces, starting next spring with a sharp drawdown planned for the winter of '011 (that's "oh-eleven" and into the spring of '012). By election day 2012, the Obama Surge should be over. And, as in Iraq, out.