Heeding The Lessons Of Another War

Team Infidel

Forum Spin Doctor
International Herald Tribune
October 2, 2008
By Maleeha Lodhi and Anatol Lieven
Forty years ago, the United States began to mount raids into Cambodia and to undermine the government of King Sihanouk in order to cut Vietcong supply lines.
As a result, America's war with Vietnamese Communism spread into Cambodia, leading to the triumph of the Khmer Rouge and the Cambodian genocide. But these horrors occurred after the U.S. itself had quit Vietnam and after the U.S.-backed regime in South Vietnam had collapsed. Washington's widening of the war benefited neither America nor its local allies.
The U.S. is now making the same mistake in Afghanistan and Pakistan. If continued, ground incursions by U.S. troops across the border into Pakistan in search of the Taliban and Al Qaeda risk drastically undermining the Pakistani state, society and army.
Many Pakistanis are berating their new civilian government and the military for being too supine in their response to the American actions. There have also been public calls for NATO supply lines through Pakistan to be cut, which could cripple the Western military effort in Afghanistan. The latest dreadful terrorist attack in Islamabad illustrates the danger of a wider conflagration and the price Pakistan is paying for its role as a U.S. ally.
The dangers involved in Pakistan are greater even than in Cambodia, where the disasters were contained in one country. The current war has already been driven into the Pakistani heartland. If turmoil increases in Pakistan then the forces of extremism will be strengthened, in the region and the world. Thus the long term implications of "losing" Afghanistan pale into insignificance when set against the risk of "losing" Pakistan.
Nor would undermining Pakistan, whether intentionally or not, in any way help the U.S. and NATO mission in Afghanistan. Pakistan has six times Afghanistan's population and is a nuclear state. The Pashtun population of Pakistan is greater than that of Afghanistan, and provides a large number of Pakistani soldiers. Far from saving Afghanistan, present U.S. strategy toward Pakistan will only risk sinking Afghanistan itself in a whirlpool of regional anarchy.
Instead of this approach, the U.S. and NATO should adopt a radically new strategy for Afghanistan that relies more on soft power. The approach should be based on the recognition that Afghanistan cannot be transformed along Western lines and that the U.S. cannot maintain an open-ended presence in that country without destabilizing the entire region.
Afghanistan must sooner or later be left to the Afghans themselves to run. Local actors should take the lead in carrying out counter-insurgency, as Western forces and an overwhelming reliance on military force are liable only to multiply enemies.
The terrible effects of bombardment on the civilian population have become a potent factor behind the will of many Afghans to resist what they see as an alien military occupation.
The next U.S. administration therefore should announce a return to America's original objective, that of hunting international terrorist networks and preventing them from creating safe havens in Afghanistan. This should in fact be America's only core objective. The attempt of the West to "transform" Afghanistan is already meeting the same fate as the Soviet attempt to do so. It is strengthening the insurgency, by creating the impression of a threat to the Islamic way of life and local tradition.
Instead of continuing with what is in effect a purely Western approach, Washington should initiate serious regional talks on Afghanistan's future.
The United States and the West need to remember that however long their forces stay in Afghanistan, sooner or later they will leave, while Afghanistan's neighbors will always remain. Tragically, their policies have in the past generally been directed against each other, with disastrous results for the people of Afghanistan.
The United States should instead seek to shape a regional concert that will stand some chance of at least containing Afghanistan's problems in the long term. None of this will be easy; but a continuation of present U.S. strategy promises only widening turmoil in the region, or at best war without end.
Maleeha Lodhi is a fellow at Harvard and former Pakistani ambassador to Washington and London. Anatol Lieven is a professor at King's College London and a senior fellow of the New America Foundation.