Our Afghan Error


by Ralph Peters [author, novelist]

Miscalculating blindly, al Qaeda suffered a catastrophic defeat in Iraq. Now our approach to Afghanistan bears an uncanny resemblance to the terrorists’ failed strategy.

Certainly, there’s a vast difference between our humane agenda and al Qaeda’s monstrous appetite for blood. There’s no moral equivalence.

Yet our ambition to convince local populations to change their culture to suit us turns us into al Qaeda’s kindly twin.

In Iraq, al Qaeda was an alien presence enforcing values at odds with local traditions. And that, for all our protestations to the contrary, is what we’re up to in Afghanistan.

We claim we’re “only” trying to change the Afghan political system and economy, advancing the rule of law while introducing enlightened values. What on earth is that about, if not deep cultural change?

In its brief Iraqi heyday, al Qaeda also sought to reorder politics, commerce, law and human behavior. The terrorists believed their program was for the good of all. So do we.

But al Qaeda didn’t bother to consult the Iraqis — and, for all the glasses of tea shared with tribal elders, we believe we know what’s best for Afghans.

In Iraq, al Qaeda’s leaders were cocksure that the people would rally to them. We, too, believe that the locals will eventually see our light.

(We can’t bring ourselves to accept that al Qaeda’s core members believe they’re acting for humankind’s good; imposing Sharia law isn’t just ward politics. We’re more benign, but equally naive and headstrong.)

After a brief test drive, Iraqis rejected al Qaeda’s product line. And millions of Afghans don’t want what we have to sell.

Al Qaeda arrived in Iraq burning with missionary zeal. We bring the secular version. Al Qaeda butchered. We deluge the natives with expensive beads and trinkets. But, like the terrorists, we refuse to see the world through the eyes of those we’re set on reforming.

We offer roads, clinics, schools, agricultural programs and no end of strategic nannying (the failed Soviet development effort was even more extensive, by the way). But we refuse to grasp the fundamental truth that, like al Qaeda in Iraq, we’re outsiders and always will be.

In Iraq, the home team rose against the foreign intruders from al Qaeda. In Afghanistan, the Taliban are the homeboys.

Not all Afghans support the Talibs, of course. But brutal (to us) religious strictures have deep appeal for millions of Afghan tribesmen. Our values speak to English-speaking urban intellectuals who lived profitably in exile — and even they go native, when it’s to their advantage (prime example: President Hamid Karzai).

In Afghanistan, we’re engaged in a cultural struggle in which we can’t even count on the local allies we’ve enriched. The mission’s a muddle. Unlike al Qaeda in Iraq, we have no clear vision of the desired end-state. We’re just making it up as we go along.

“Classic” counterinsurgency strategy demands security for the population. But who are we protecting Afghan villagers against? Themselves. Does any US officer, apart from the greenest lieutenant, believe that Afghan hillbillies truly desire our presence?

Our current nonstrategy is neither fish nor fowl. To secure the Afghan population, we’d need at least as many troops as we had in Iraq at the peak of the surge, more than 170,000. We’ll soon have 70,000. That’s plenty to annoy the Afghans, but not to provide comprehensive security.

A more effective strategy would allow Afghans to be Afghans — getting us out of the aid-as-bribery business — while reducing troop numbers and concentrating on killing our enemies: al Qaeda terrorists and their protectors.

Instead, we’re putting our weapons on safe to focus on development in a country that doesn’t matter.

It’s tough to do nation-building where there’s no nation to build. Show me one convincing sign of Afghan unity or true national consciousness and I’ll eat crow raw and unplucked.

We’re not thinking. In Iraq, al Qaeda made the fatal mistake of trying to hold ground. Now we’re determined to “secure terrain” in Afghanistan. But the focus in every form of warfare, from counterinsurgency operations to general war, must be on the enemy. Anything else is just playing pretend — while soldiers die.

In Afghanistan, we’re asking people to change who they are. Al Qaeda made the same mistake in Iraq. But at least the terrorists knew why. ExileStreet

NY Post / copyright 2009 NY Post

Ralph Peters is Fox News’ strategic analyst. His latest book is “Looking For Trouble: Adventures in a Broken World.”

Peters is a retired Army officer and the author of 19 books, as well as of hundreds of essays and articles, written both under his own name and as Owen Parry. He is a frequent columnist for the New York Post and other publications.

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