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The Political Class is Falling Off the War in Afghanistan

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Have you noticed? More and more people are falling off the war in Afghanistan: George Will, Andrew Bacevich, Gary Wills, John Mearsheimer, and now...Karl Eikenberry, former American commander Afghanistan and present Ambassador there. The latter, though not advocating a pullout, is reported to be not in favor of a troop increase unless President Ahmed Karzai will reform his government with new and competent people, and eliminate the rampant corruption. The Ambassador's position goes distinctly against the recommendation of the Spartan-limned Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the present American commander in Afghanistan, who wants to put in upwards of 40,000 more U.S. troops into the country.

Have you read the McChrystal report? It is quite an eye-opener. It says relatively little about al-Qaeda, which President Obama has rightly singled out as the enemy. Al Qaeda is not even in Afghanistan anymore but in Pakistan's tribal regions. Al Qaeda's strength may not number more than a couple of hundred. The retrospective truth is that Afghanistan ceased to be a "necessary war" in late 2001, when al-Qaeda escaped into Pakistan.

The McChrystal report lists three principal opponents: the Quetta Shura (the Afghan Taliban, based in Quetta, in Pakistan's Baluchistan Province); the network of Jalaladin Haqqani, operating in Afghanistan; and the followers of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, also operating in Afghanistan. What do these three groups have in common? They all have had connections with the Pakistani Intelligence Service (ISI). The Afghan Taliban were created by the ISI in 1994 in order to bring Afghanistan out of anarchy and assure that country as Pakistan's "near abroad," away from Indian influence. Haqqani and Gulbuddin are former Mujahidin comanders in the war in the 1980's against the Soviets, supported by the ISI and behind it, the U.S. and several other interested countries. One may ask, what are we doing in this galere? We seem to have gotten ourselves involved, almost by inadvertence, in a civil war in Afghanistan.

The three groups mentioned above are an expression of discontent on the part of the leading ethnic group in Afghanistan, the Pashtuns, comprising some 40 per cent of the population. Their discontent is focused on the government in Kabul where, though the president, Ahmed Karzai, is a Pashtun, the main security and military positions are held by the Northern Alliance, the expression of the second largest ethnic group, the Tadjiks. It was the Northern Alliance, together with American conventional and unconventional forces, that overthrew the Taliban as the protector of Al-Qaeda in the Fall of 2001, after the 9/11 atttacks.

What we should be thinking about, and what more and more observers are talking about, is how do we get out of this mess? If the Taliban were to take back control in Afghanistan, would they allow al-Qaeda back in, considering what happened to them in the fall of 2001? Perhaps not. In any event, and what seems to escape the public, is that in today's world, you don't need training camps in Afghanistan in order to carry out terrorist attacks.

If the Taliban were to take over in Afghanistan, would the ISI stand idly by or would it try to assert some kind of control over, or at least strengthen its relationship with, the Taliban? Probably.

Gordon Brown has said it, and Karl Eikenberry has aparently said it too: why throw more troops into the fire in Afghanistan to support a corrupt government?

...Especially when the main enemy isn't even there.

Editor's Note: Charles Cogan was the chief of the Near East South Asia Division in the Directorate of Operations of the CIA from August 1979 to August 1984. It was from this Division that was run the covert action operation against the Soviets in Afghanistan. He is currently an Associate at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School.