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The Word Obama Left Out of His Afghanistan Speech

5 years ago
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There was a word that President Obama did not use once during his speech on Afghanistan last week. This word also did not appear in yesterday's long front-page New York Times article (full of White House-leaked details) chronicling the back story to Obama's decision to send 30,000 more U.S. soldiers to Afghanistan. And that word is Pashtun.

Obama repeatedly referred to the Taliban, noting that "the Taliban has begun to take control over swaths of Afghanistan." (Actually, the Taliban, after being booted out of Kabul, has held control in parts of Afghanistan for years.) The way Obama talks about the Afghanistan war -- as an effort to push back the Taliban -- makes it seem that the Taliban is a not-too-large band of unpopular extremists. And if that were so, it might indeed be wise policy for Washington, looking to protect its own national security interests, to take on the Taliban in a counter-insurgency mission.

But Afghanistan isn't that simple. The U.S. endeavor there is not occurring in a vacuum. In fact, it's playing out on territory -- both physical and metaphorical -- that has been the product of byzantine and deep-rooted conflicts for hundreds of years. The main narrative is not the USA vs. the Taliban (and al-Qaeda). The fundamental reality is that various ethnic groups have long been vying for power in this region.

The Taliban is made up entirely of Pashtun, a group of 41 million or so people, many of whom live in the mountainous border regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan. For centuries, Pashtun have yearned for a Pashtunistan, with Afghan Pashtuns desiring territory that was handed over to Pakistan when the British set up a disputed border between the two countries. Consequently, Pashtun generally do not regard Western outsiders (or the Pakistani government) kindly. It's complicated.

During a pre-speech conference call with reporters, two senior White House officials -- who were speaking on background -- said that Obama's surge would focus on securing key population centers in the south and east of Afghanistan. These are largely Pashtun areas. The question is, can Western interlopers really come between Pashtun and the Taliban?

Graham Fuller, a former CIA station chief in Kabul and a former vice-chair of the National Intelligence Council, thinks not. He observes:

The "objective" situation in Afghanistan remains a mess. The details are well known. Senior commanders acknowledge that we are not now winning hearts and minds in Afghanistan; indeed, we never can, and certainly not at gunpoint. Most Pashtuns will never accept a U.S. plan for Afghanistan's future. The non-Pashtuns -- Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, etc. -- naturally welcome any outside support in what is a virtual civil war. America has inadvertently ended up choosing sides in this war. U.S. forces are perceived by large numbers of Afghans as an occupying army inflicting large civilian casualties. The struggle has now metastasized over into Pakistan -- with even higher stakes.

Obama's policies would seem an unsatisfying compromise among contending arguments. Thirty thousand more troops are less than called for and will not turn the tide; arguably they present more American targets for attack. They will heighten traditional xenophobia against foreigners traipsing through Pashtun villages and homes. It is a fool's errand to persuade the locals in Pashtun territory that the Taliban are the enemy and the U.S. is their friend. Whatever mixed feelings Pashtuns have toward the Taliban, they know the Taliban remain the single most important element of Pashtun political life; the Taliban will be among them long after Washington tires with this mission.

Fuller is skeptical that American involvement in this region can resolve centuries-old conflicts that befuddled the British, the Russians and other outside interveners. He contends,

As in so many other elements of the Global War on Terror, the U.S. has become more part of the problem than part of the solution. We are sending troops to defend troops that themselves constitute an affront to Afghan nationalism. Only expeditious American withdrawal from Afghanistan will prevent exacerbation of the problem.

Afghans must themselves, as adults, face the complex mechanics of internal struggle and reconciliation. They have done so over long periods of their history.

A few years ago, I wrote an article reporting that no one in the Bush-Cheney White House was in charge of the Afghanistan war. While reporting that piece, I interviewed a leading American expert on Afghanistan who told me of a conversation he had had with Meghan O'Sullivan, a deputy national security adviser, who was handling Afghanistan policy. Discussing the complicated relationship between Afghanistan and Pakistan, this expert had referred to the Durand Line -- that disputed border decreed by England in 1893 that separates Afghan Pashtun from Pakistani Pashtun -- and O'Sullivan had no idea what he was talking about. He was stunned: the most senior Bush administration official overseeing Afghanistan policy was ignorant about a basic point.

This is not to say that the Obama crew is as clueless. To his credit, Obama has spent months drilling deep on Afghanistan policy. Still, his policy seems to be all about America. Sure, that seems reasonable for an American president. But as they say about politics, all wars are local. And the locals always know the territory best.

You can follow David Corn's postings and media appearances via Twitter.
Tagged: pashtun

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