Recent developments in Afghanistan – discontent over the elections, increased violence, likely US military calls for additional manpower, growing U.S. public disaffection with the effort – have all coalesced to increase the intensity of discussions about what the United States seeks to accomplish in that far distant country

, what the barriers are to achievement, and how long it may take to get to wherever we want to go. The general consensus among decisionmakers and supporters of the war outside the government is that the effort will be long and hard. No one seems to dispute that assessment. What the assertions leave out, however, are two crucial elements to analyzing and reaching some reasoned judgment about the whole thing: what are the barriers to getting to a desirable end state, and is it worth it?

Answers to the first question can be enumerated, based on past experience that the United States and others have had in these kinds of situations but which the defenders appear either to be unaware of or choose to ignore–mostly because they do not like the answer they get. The second question asks for a more subjective judgent, although it is one that is best informed if one fully understands the barriers along the way.

Let me suggest that there are analytical ways to approach the problem of what can be done in Afghanistan. It is the purpose of this, and subsequent articles in this series, to raise some of the things that must be addressed and resolved before a reasonable, realistic assessment of the road ahead in Afghanistan can be determined. Almost all of the elements in the analysis are based in prior experience, most notably in Vietnam but alsewhere as well. For analytical purposes, let me propose the following “model” to help organize the discussion. It can be represented by a simple heuristic formula:

Goal Attainment = Successful COIN (both military and political) + Successful Post-COIN Development (State-building)

The formula suggests three complex sets of concerns: what do we (and the Afghans) want as an outcome? how do we overcome the insurgency and provide a framework for post-conflict Afghanistan? and what activity is required to produce a post-conflict that achieves the overall goals?  This posting will begin to address some of the complexity of the first element in the formula; subsequent posts will will address the other elements.

The question of goals is the situation in the target country, in this case Afghanistan, that is dictated by the interests of the various parties to the conflict. It is the definition of Sir Basil Liddel-Hart’s “better state of the peace” (hereafter BSOP, a concept developed in Snow and Drew, From Lexington to Baghdad and Beyond). What kind of post-war Afghanistan is one in which the United States can say it has won?

Here the problem begins, because what the United States wants out of the Afghanistan experience may well not be the same thing that Afghans want. This is a familiar problem that occurs whenever an outsider interferes in an otherwise internal war, and resolving differing visions of the BSOP may complicate a successful resolution and may even make a resolution acceptable to both the outsider and the side it is assisting impossible (of course, the U.S. BSOP is fundamentally incompatible with that of the opponent, the Taliban, although that also may be a variable in the deliberations).

For the United States, the preferred BSOP is a free, stable, preferably democratic (although what that means is negotiable), anti-Taliban Afghanistan that fulfills the most basic American interest, which is an Afghanistan that excludes and facilitates the destruction of Al Qaeda. The real basic American interest, of course, is the last one, and the other elements of the BSOP are what we see as conditions that will facilitate the basic interest of Al Qaeda destruction.

It is not so clear what the Afghans see as the BSOP or if, indeed, there is any single set of conditions that would form a national consensus. It is not, for instance, at all clear that many Afghans care much one way or the other about political democracy or that they actually want a strong, stable central government unless their particular ethnic group has sufficient authority within that entity to protect their group. That rejoinder in mind, one can hypothesize an Afghan set of conditions that constitute their BSOP: an Afghanistan that is stable, prosperous, and which ends the occupation by the outsiders, including the United States.

Clearly, these sets of objectives are not the same. Since the Afghan BSOP is my own construction, one can argue that it is biased to make my point regarding incompatibility, but I would suggest that regardless of how one constructs the Afghan BSOP, one is unlikely to find a set of outcomes that is clearly entirely compatible with those of the United States. Most importantly, any set of objectives that does not include removal of the occupiers represents a distortion about how any country feels about outside interference, and that is especially true in Afghanistan, given its history.

Are the goals reconcilable? If so, how? It is the general practice of an outside party to find “natives” who share their worldview and to promote them to power and counsel. Hamid Karzai fulfills that role in Afghanistan. But does what he wants represent the desires of the rest of the country? Probably not, and support for Karzai is almost certainly inversely related to the degree of his association with the Americans (a dynamic the al-Maliki government is learning in Iraq).

One of the differences is certainly about what kind of postwar stability the country wants. From an American perspective, the answer (although rarely phrased this way) is the westenization of the country: a strong central government with popular support that can engage in the kinds of orderly development that can transform Afghanistan into a vibrant, secure, and anti-Al Qaeda place.

But is this what the Afghans want? Afghanistan has NEVER had a strong central government, and the ethnic basis of Afghan politics suggests that the emergence of a government that represents the aspirations and loyalties of most of the population is a pipe dream, or at least a long-term goal well beyond the immeidate or near-term horozon of possibility. What if the best one can expect in Afghanistan is a reversion to the very loose, tribally based system of government (based around the loya jirgas) that existed in pre-Soviet Afghanistan? Such a structure would be, as it always has been, highly decentralized, with great degrees of regional autonomy and tribal control. What if this is what the Afghans want? And what if that autonomy included the continued de facto provision of sanctuary to elements of Al Qaeda?

These are not fanciful questions to ask. They are also indicative of the kinds of conflicts that almost always emerge between the indigenous elements in the kinds of states where outsiders intervene and the intervenors. If there was agreement about how to run the place, after all, there would probably not be a full-scale insurgency that required countering. The indigenous population eventually has to sort out the situation and reach its own accord, which may or may not have much to do with the interests and desires of the intervening party.

In these situations, who prevails? There are two additional dimensions of the question of how to resolve incompatibilities between the BSOPs of the indigenous population and intervenors. One is to whom this the outcome more important? The other is the value-laden question of which set of objectives should prevail.  These questions will form the base for the next posting.
Donald M. Snow, Professor Emeritus at the University of Alabama, is the author of over 40 books on foreign policy, international relations and national security topics.  This essay was originally published at the What After Iraq? blog as “The Long Road Ahead in Afghanistan, I.”