The prevailing notion – at least in the mainstream media, if you know what I mean – is that we should stay in Afghanistan as long as decency absolutely requires, then scoot. What happens there after our troops leave is a matter of slight (read: no) interest.
I have been reading lately several left-wing commentators in the U.S. who provide the analogy of Iraq. In four words, their attitude is “it’s up to them” what to do when, as they recommend, the Americans leave. If the Iraqis want to build a democratic society, fine; if they want to have a bloody civil war, fine. “It’s up to them.” Why should we presume to advise them?
Now, Canadian journalists are more sensitive than that, and would never make an argument so plainly. Indeed, there are some arguments that do not benefit from candour.
For several years now, a proliferation of red herrings – including the feelgood rhetoric of politicians charged with justifying our Afghan mission to an electorate they imagine as gulls – has served to conceal its purpose. We are not really there to build a democratic Afghan state, in which girls can go to school. So far as we are contributing to that, it is only a means to an end. The connection between what we learned on Sept. 11, 2001, and what we are doing around Kandahar today, is buried in the slurry of words.
On that long-ago September morning we learned that it is terribly unwise to grant Islamist incendiaries a sanctuary, anywhere on the planet. We learned that under contemporary conditions of travel and technology, devastating attacks on, for example, New York and Washington can be organized from Central Asia. We learned that, in the post-Cold War, our physical security must depend less on the Mutually Assured Destruction of nuclear missiles, than on our ability to master and win “asymmetric” conflicts.
We are reading much less today about events in both Afghanistan and Iraq, because progress has been made. This can be measured in casualty figures, or shown on a map, but is most apparent on the ground, where the remaining journalists now wander around more freely, and have to expend more effort to find bad news. After six years of trial and error, we and our allies have finally gotten the hang of fighting insurgents effectively. Curiously enough, the trick turned out to be exactly what we might have remembered from British and other imperial histories, had we not suffered the mental blockage of “political correctness.”
In a word, “Anbar” is the answer. Under the pressure of really needing results, the U.S. military has mastered the old colonial art of making alliances – solid alliances based on tangible mutual interests – with local tribal lords. Of working with, instead of against, the grain of local society. This is a device by which far fewer troops can be much more effective than where “ignorant armies clash by night.”
Anbar was the no-hope province in Iraq – the vast, overwhelmingly Sunni, western region of the country, sharing long porous borders with Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. Anbar’s principal cities are Ramadi and Fallujah. As recently as one year ago, the media were citing the U.S. military’s own reports that the situation in Anbar was grim; that al-Qaeda and affiliates had established informal control almost everywhere; that the Marines couldn’t win.
One year later, even the New York Times concedes that this impossibility has been achieved. The Pentagon’s much-touted “surge” was accomplished with only 4,000 troops – but in intimate alliance with a network of Sunni tribal chiefs and agents, who had tired of being held to gunpoint by Islamist fanatics.
The happy experience of Anbar has been spreading. And our Canadian troops in Afghanistan have been, judging from such reports as I’ve seen, consistently to the fore of the learning curve. We can win in Afghanistan and Iraq—in the sense of establishing and maintaining order – with much smaller garrisons than we once thought we needed.
Yet if we leave, the insurgents return. This is because Iraq and Afghanistan are not planets of another sun. The Iraqi insurgency is fed by remote sponsors in Syria, Iran, and elsewhere. Similarly in Afghanistan, our troops can only chase to the sanctuaries the Islamists now enjoy in Pakistan’s Pashtun and Baluchi regions. And as I’ve been writing in this space recently, the threat Islamists present to Pakistan itself is more worrying than the threat they present to Afghanistan. For Pakistan is a full-fledged nuclear power, and if it falls, the hellgates open.
What I’m saying is, regardless of who is in the mood, a withdrawal from Afghanistan would be a catastrophic mistake. Instead, sooner better than later, we must extend Anbar methods all the way to Kashmir.