by Michael Granger
When Al-Qaeda launched the 911 attack from bases in Afghanistan, few people questioned the response of a major invasion by the United States that began the Afghan War. Those who questioned the invasion of Afghanistan were quickly drowned out by broad national support for the retributive and preventive measures it represented. Ten years hence, there is much uncertainty whether our effort in that untamed part of the world can bring the war to an agreeable conclusion. As soon as the CIA determined that the suicide bombers, who hailed from throughout the Middle East, all from Arab, Muslim countries, were trained in bases in Afghanistan by Al-Qaeda, it was game on. The Bush administration unleashed massive and lethal force, air, ground and naval, turning the military, command and control and any known Al-Qaeda hiding place into rubble. With the Taliban government quickly deposed, the U.S. replaced it with a government led by our ally and the former leader of the Northern Alliance, Hamid Karzai.
With the Taliban and Al-Qaeda on the run, we gave chase. But soon the intensity of combat power deployed in Afghanistan gave way to the invasion of Iraq. And with Iraq the center of a political controversy and raging war, we forgot how to spell Afghanistan. But Afghanistan reared its ugly head again in the 2008 Presidential election season, when candidate Obama lambasted the Bush Administration for taking its eyes off the “War on Terror.” Given that we had already committed to Afghanistan, Obama felt that we should have finished that war before starting another one, namely Iraq, a war whose very premise he disagreed with. But we can only speculate what would have happened had we focused singularly on Afghanistan. In the aftermath of 911, anyone who felt the need for dissent regarding the invasion of Afghanistan would have been advocating a very unpopular cause. With the Afghan War having lasted for 10 years, it begs the question whether that war has any clear, achievable objectives and if so are they realistic in the current military, economic and political environment.
President Obama’s stated objectives for the war is to prevent Al-Qaeda from ever using Afghanistan as a heaven for launching another attack on the United States. To accomplish that goal, it is presumed that there is a military solution to be had. But we know from experience that an insurgency seldom ends because of outright military defeat, but by negotiations. That usually happens when it becomes sufficiently painful for one or both parties and someone sues for peace. There is no indication that we will have a decisive victory against the Taliban in the foreseeable future, or that we have a government that can achieve a monopoly on the use force in the absence of the U.S. military. So to achieve our stated objectives in Afghanistan, we must maintain an indefinite presence in that country and region. But having decided that this war is not winnable with the current military assets and, given that U.S. domestic politics does not permit a further escalation and indefinite deployment of a large military force, this might be the time to transition into a covert war. A covert war assures an indefinite presence and the fear that we can strike at any moment.
A covert war would recognize that we are not fighting an organized state with a traditional military force, but a sometimes ragtag group of jihadists. It would also be an acknowledgement that one of our best weapons is the stealth by which the United States can fight and strike the enemy at will. We know that intelligence plays a dominant role in this war. The ability to locate and attack targets in Afghanistan with the use of intelligence and special ops has been the hallmark of the success we have achieved so far. We acknowledged that success by putting General McChrystal in charge of the war, until dissension caused his removal. It is unclear what 150,000 troops can accomplish that a few thousand special operations forces cannot. Unless the United States is prepared to triple or quadruple that existing force, it seems logical that we should seek to transition to a reduced footprint as soon as possible.
A covert war recognizes the difficulty of getting the Taliban to the negotiating table because we have not been able to demonstrate decisive domination of the Afghan theatre of operation. That is because we are operating in a very elastic situation where the enemy can expand and contract its territory almost at will and where support from our Pakistani allies is tepid. The United States military has no equal in its ability to project combat power, but that is not the kind of war we are fighting. Also, we do not have any natural alliances with the people in that region. There are too many factions of the Taliban for us to really have any meaningful negotiations with any faction which the others will be bound to observe. The Taliban fighters are in that region to stay; no amount of military force can expel them from the regions they populate. Until the culture of that region changes drastically, the Taliban are an institution that is there to stay. So we are left in a state of “inbetweenity,” wanting to leave and not knowing how to exit gracefully. This is why we should reduce our footprint in Afghanistan to a covert operation, with the certainty that we can strike at any time. This would be the smart and courageous thing to do.