What is Winning?
In a nationally broadcast speech, President Trump announced a new policy for the fighting in Afghanistan. The main elements of the new policy (troop levels and our policy toward Pakistan) reflect the thinking of the Armed Forces chiefs. But the focus of the policy is to win the war in Afghanistan.
President Trump stated, “we send our bravest to defeat our enemies overseas — and we will always win.” And further, “But one way or another, these problems will be solved. I’m a problem solver. And in the end, we will win.” And finally, “Our troops will fight to win. We will fight to win.”
But how do we define this winning. President Trump had an answer, “From now on, victory will have a clear definition. Attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing Al Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge.”
But are these reasonable goals? We can surely obliterate ISIS. But what will stop Islamist extremists from forming a new group bent on destroying Western Civilization? ISIS itself was formed from the scattered remnants of Al Qaeda in Iraq after that group was obliterated.
How are we going to crush Al Qaeda when these terrorist groups metastasize creating Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and others?
And most directly to the point of President Trump’s speech, how are going to prevent the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan. We can, of course, prevent the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan by maintaining a constant military presence to smack down the Taliban whenever it raises its ugly head. But we have been playing Taliban whack-a-mole for 16 long years and still they control almost 40% of the country.
The root of this particular problem is that most of the Taliban are Pashtun. One could actually say the Pashtun are the Taliban because a Pashtun tribesman is more loyal to his fellow tribesman over any government in Kabul so virtually every Pashtun in Afghanistan is a Taliban fighter or a Taliban supporter (because the fighters are fellow tribesmen).
This is why Pakistan is so important in resolving the problems in Afghanistan, because, while there are 11 million Pashtun in Afghanistan (about a third of the population), there are 30 million Pashtun in Pakistan. The border between Afghanistan and Pakistan was created by a British civil servant named Mortimer Durand who created the “Durand Line” separating the two countries. He cared little about the ethnic makeup of the two countries and cared more about creating a buffer area between the British Raj on the Indian subcontinent and Imperial Russia. The Pashtun tribesmen at that time probably didn’t care about what some foreign infidel said was the border. As the former president of Afghanistan (and a Pashtun) Hamid Karzai said, it is “a line of hatred that raised a wall between two brothers”. The current US-supported government of Afghanistan does not recognize this border.
I know that countries do not like to change their boundaries especially when they have to give up territory but wouldn’t it be worth it to try and create an independent Pashtunistan? The colonial powers created a welter of borders and administrations that were just lines on maps in the home office. They thought little or nothing about the indigenes or their cultures and familial ties. The Durand Line was about Russia and Britain, not about the Afghans or the Pashtuns. In fact, if you look up "Afghan "on Wikipedia, you will find that there is actually no such thing as an Afghan. You just have Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks and many other tribes.
It is the same all across the Middle East (which is really only the Middle East if you are a Westerner). The Kurds are spread out over three countries (Turkey, Iran and Iraq), the Palestinians don’t even have a country, just a series of refugee camps. And all these various tribes and peoples supply Islamic fighters to try and kick out Western forces that are there to maintain peace within these imaginary boundaries thought up by the French and the British.
It would be wistful thinking that there could be a conference among all these feuding nations and tribes to try and redraw the borders of what we Westerners now call the Middle East. There are natural resources to divide, territory to carve out, cultural and religious treasures to apportion. And don’t forget that Shia and Sunni Muslims don’t get along very well. Add it all up and you have one unholy mess. Of course, even if it were possible to negotiate new reasonable boundaries the area might still be an unholy mess. But what we are doing now isn’t working.
Lacking a regional consensus conflict is likely to continue in the Middle East and South Asia for the foreseeable future. The best that we can hope is the creation of strong governments that have the will and ability to control the violence. These regimes are unlikely to be democracies as we define it. More likely they will be military rulers or hereditary monarchs backed up by tribal councils. Democracy doesn’t work when the peoples’ loyalties are to tribe and religions over country. When your loyalty is to your Pashtun speaking Pakistani fellow tribesman and not to your Tajik fellow citizen you do not have the solidarity needed to forge a nation except through force (that was Saddam’s strategy).
I know developing a regional consensus would be extremely difficult. It may even be impossible to create Pashtunistan. And it is something that has to be done by the people of this region. Our Western Enlightenment sensibilities won’t work there. And the end result may not be something that we particularly like. But that’s not the point. We might have the power but we don’t have the right to impose a solution on these people (as the British attempted to do but failed). But a unified Pastunistan (even one controlled by the Taliban) would be much easier to deal with than the agglomeration of tribes that make up current Pakistan and Afghanistan. That would not be a win. But it might be a win/win. In the meantime we fight.