Dividing Iraq into three separate entities, if not nations, emerged as an appealing option at the worst point of civil war in Iraq in 2006 and 2007. The split-up would have left effectively independent regions based on ethnic identities — the already largely autonomous Kurdish north, a Shiite-dominated south and a large, but oil-poor Sunni enclave — with a thin layer of national authority in Baghdad.
Even Joseph Biden, now vice president, was an advocate at the time.
Thankfully, the Bush administration rejected that alternative. For all its crazy-quilt 1920 borders, Iraq had developed a national identity over the years and its oil resources could not be easily carved up.
Today, as President Barack Obama nears a crucial decision on strategy to deal with the resurgence of the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan, some shift in the extent of lands under central government control might serve as a temporary framework to turn the tide.
Steps are already under way to abandon more isolated, rural outposts and bases as part of an earlier strategic reassessment by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force.
The U.S. and allied forces can not afford to relinquish large regions to the Taliban. And any retrenchment can’t allow neighboring states to meddle more than they do now. But, given the vast areas of mountains, desert and small towns in a country without a tradition of strong central government, a repositioning of military and civil affairs forces could allow time to rebuild local and regional governments in strategically critical areas, train Afghan forces more thoroughly and allow ISAF troops to go on the offensive more frequently.
Such a revised strategy doesn’t need to be a “decisive scaling back” of the mission, as proponents of such a “rump” Afghanistan, Charles Kupchan and Steven Simon, argued in the Financial Times recently. But, in addition to allowing ISAF forces to strike militant targets more unpredictably, such a strategy would reduce the sense of occupation and allow the coalition to “focus its efforts where it is most needed: creating a capable and legitimate Afghan state.”
President Obama faces a momentous decision in the next week or so. Although he inherited a fundamental error by the Bush administration to focus on Iraq instead of Afghanistan, Obama confronts a devil’s choice with no clear path to success.
Adding more troops to a country known as “the graveyard of empires” and a government widely seen as illegitimate can not assure progress despite Gen. McChrystal’s thoughtful tactics of building confidence and credibility among local populations; many experts argue it could lead to another Vietnam. A withdrawal or half-hearted commitment would lead to continued Taliban gains and further instability in nuclear-armed Pakistan.
Despite formidable obstacles, the United States can not shrink from the challenge that exists in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The costs will be high; but the stakes in terms of regional stability and consequences of retreat before a mindset that seeks to turn the clock back 500 years are much higher. Substantially more U.S. troops, perhaps 30,000 to 40,000 are needed, plus a stepped-up effort by other international forces.
The additional resources don’t need to be all military, but include more civil affairs and economic personnel to strengthen institutions and schools and fight a more effective information war. Certainly some benchmarks should press Hamid Karzai to adopt serious reforms and fight corruption; yet an exit strategy at this point would be illusionary.
Speaking of information and propaganda, that aspect of the battle against the Taliban is woefully under-resourced, often unimaginative. Despite operating on the run, the Taliban and terrorist groups produce slick videos in real time. In many cases, even if exaggerated and often full of lies, the Taliban produces instant accounts to blame ISAF forces for killing many civilians in their airstrikes — too often based on actual events.
One way to counter this and sway less ideological Taliban recruits would be to broadcast compelling human interest stories of courageous individuals who have risen up from poverty and repression in Afghanistan.
As they pull out of some towns and villages, U.S. and Afghan forces might leave behind hundreds of CDs of role models such as Abdul Ahad Mohmand, the first Afghan astronaut, or Khalid Husseini, respected author of “The Kite Runner.” Or Malalai Joya.
Ms. Joya, 31, the daughter of an anti-Soviet fighter, is one of the first Afghan women elected to Parliament. She established an orphanage and health clinic under the noses of the Taliban in 1998. She has survived four assassination attempts. And while she has been a harsh critic of Taliban excesses, she also sharply criticized both the U.S. and Hamid Karzai, so much so she was suspended by the Parliament for calling it no better than a “a zoo.”
Contrasted with blunt, no-nonsense videos of Taliban rituals such as beheadings, suppression of women and destruction of cultural icons, the question then could flash on the screen repeatedly: “What kind of future do you want?”
Fred Hill of Arrowsic was a foreign correspondent for The Baltimore Sun and worked on national security issues for the State Department. He can be reached at email@example.com.