Not one of the 42 nations involved on the ground in Afghanistan wants to stay the course until the birth of a new nation, cleansed of Taliban insurgents, and a reasonable facsimile of democratic rule. To begin with, no one believes this would be possible short of another 10-year commitment. And untold billions more in economic aid when donor nations are already awash in red ink.
A wise veteran Arab intelligence hand said Afghanistan is now tailor-made for deals with the principal tribal chiefs designed to detach them from the Taliban they fear more than U.S. and NATO troops. Tribal maps are more important than provincial demarcations under a despised central government. This would cost several hundreds of millions of dollars, he said, not the tens of billions that are now being wasted on an unwinnable war.
With much experience dealing with Afghanistan when the mujahedin guerrillas were fighting Soviet occupation troops in the 1980s and again with the Taliban regime when it seized power in 1996 and before it got kicked out by the U.S. invasion in 2001, the former Arab intelligence chief says it may still be possible to suborn lukewarm Taliban supporters into a compromise coalition.
The 1893 (Mortimer) Durand line, named after the foreign secretary of British India, cosigned by the Emir of Afghanistan, drew an imaginary 1,610-mile border that artificially divides the same tribes. It was part of the “Great Game” of nations designed, by the British Empire, to contain Russian expansionism. The 100-year agreement expired in 1993. A more realistic division would keep the same tribes together in a renegotiation that is long overdue.
This is more important than redoing the Afghan presidential election at a time when President Hamid Karzai is not only known to have stolen it, but, more seriously, has a drug-dealing brother tarred and feathered by a CIA connection brush.
U.S. President Barack Obama presumably has studied the history of the Vietnam negotiations. They began shortly after the February 1968 Tet offensive, hailed as a Communist victory by the Western media but seen as a defeat by the post-war memoirs of North Vietnamese generals. Vietcong troops attacked 27 cities and towns simultaneously but, in each case, were repulsed with huge losses (45,000). Hopefully, Obama has talked with John Negroponte, a Vietnamese-speaking young diplomat who pioneered the secret negotiating track as a Kissinger scout. Negroponte was also the first director of national intelligence, in charge of 16 intelligence agencies and 100,000 people with a budget of $50 billion.
On-and-off talks took place over the next four years interspersed with military action, e.g., the incursions into Cambodia to disrupt North Vietnam’s supply lines and a major South Vietnamese offensive without U.S. involvement. Finally, Henry Kissinger announced Oct. 26, 1972, “Peace is at hand.”
In an interview this reporter conducted with Ho Chi Minh’s successor, Pham Van Dong, it soon became clear North Vietnam and the United States read the peace accords differently. This led to the 1972 Christmas bombing of Hanoi, which, in turn, produced the revised agreements that were signed Jan. 23, 1973, in Paris.
Two more months saw the last U.S. soldier out of Vietnam. And South Vietnam held its own for two more years — until the U.S. Congress yanked the rug from under our allies and cut off any further military assistance.
Nor is there a fast track to peace in Afghanistan. As President Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of State George Shultz said this week, “Initial military successes by the U.S. and the coalition forces were compromised by an attempt to create an Afghanistan that has never previously existed — one with a centralized government and a strong national army. Any future approach must recognize the fact that Afghanistan is a bottom-up, rather than top-down, country, and thus change must be instituted on a local rather than a national level.”
With a majority of the American people against any widening of the war with more blood and treasure, the best card Obama has in hand at this time is to make deals with some of the major tribal leaders who don’t approve of the way the Taliban enforces its feudal religious writ by cowering the rest of the population. Anyone suspected of cooperating with U.S. and NATO forces is dragged out and beheaded or shot in front of villagers.
The CIA and U.S. Special Forces — together 410 men — with a helping hand from Russian intelligence liberated Afghanistan in October 2001. The Taliban regrouped in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Bankrolled by the opium poppy trade, they rearmed and went back into Afghanistan. The Pakistani army, under U.S. prodding, tried to dislodge the Taliban from their safe havens but failed. Now, stung by the Taliban’s brazen attacks close to Islamabad, the army has launched a major offensive and met with initial successes.
So this is no time to be accusing the Pakistani intelligence service, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton coyly suggested on a visit to Pakistan last week, of concealing the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden.
Working with Pakistani intelligence, this would be a propitious time to contact major Afghan tribal chiefs and work out the kind of deals that the former Arab intelligence chief was talking about. They must be made to understand that NATO and U.S. forces are not there to occupy Afghanistan and want to leave as soon as we are reasonably certain that al-Qaida will not be allowed back. What kind of government the Afghans wish to give themselves should be of no concern to Obama and the allies.
Tribal loyalties are much stronger than the shaky Afghan nation-state. There is an urgent need to upgrade knowledge of the dominant Pashtun tribe. It was one of the keys to the Bush administration’s success in 2001. It is still a key, this time for a successful exit for 42 nations that don’t belong there. And to make sure al-Qaida does not return.
Arnaud de Borchgrave, a member of the Atlantic Council, is editor-at-large at UPI and the Washington Times. This essay was previously published as “Bridges Too Far” by UPI.