11/24/2009 09:09 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Ken Guest Interview -- Journalist and Analyst on Afghanistan (an Essential Excerpt)

Ken Guest has been immersed in Afghanistan, since the inception of the Soviet - Afghan war. As an expert journalist and analyst, Guest has also covered war zones in the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Africa for CBS, NBC, BBC and ITN.

Kathleen Wells: General James Jones has indicated that al-Qaeda's presence in Afghanistan has decreased dramatically to about 100. Talk to the significance of this change?

Ken Guest: al-Qaeda was always far smaller than United States government and the media made out and with no connection to Iraq before the 2003 invasion. In effect, the mass 'marketing' of al-Qaeda gave them brand- name status among Wahabi Jihadists. By creating the impression of an enemy as a global behemoth, it affected the United States approach to strategy, resulting in one poorly suited to the task (blunt instrument not surgical tool.) General (Retired) James Jones recent estimation of al-Qaeda as numbering 100 or less in Afghanistan questions why and the wisdom of U.S. deploying such vast resources to tackle this small force. It's pretty much a sledge hammer to a flea.

If General [James] Jones proposes the U.S. should focus all energy tackling al- Qaeda, ignoring Taliban, why? At what point is al-Qaeda considered to have been effectively eradicated in Afghanistan? Is it when every single one is killed or reduced to something less than 100? He argues for reduction of force but retains desire to commit U.S. forces to the chase. A kinetic strategy committed to a chase through Taliban controlled terrain, which means kinetic impact by U.S. forces with Taliban.

The Taliban are significantly larger than 100 and can't be ignored as part of any U.S. theatre for tactical deployment. For the U.S. in any guise, to get at al- Qaeda, in any number no matter how small, they must be prepared to encounter Taliban. Where the strategy is kinetically led (as has been U.S. strategy so far) it must contend with kinetic resistance. Where the strategy proves unable to encourage local support it risks a quagmire -- force enough but not strategy enough.


ISAF Patrol

Ken Guest ©

Kathleen Wells: Critics indicate that fighting in Afghanistan is neglecting the real threat and "war on terror", which is in Pakistan. What do you say to these critics?

Ken Guest: Mixing Afghanistan and Pakistan into one Af/Pak war and designing a universal strategy as one size fits all is understandably desirable but also a mistake as it skims over the ground dynamics (the mistake of the 2001 strategy still in force.) Afghanistan represents the beachhead, to prevail in the larger inland campaign represented by Pakistan, it is an absolute that you must first prevail in securing your beachhead. Anything less is called a war on two fronts, which history teaches us is never well advised.

The Afghan beachhead involves trying to puzzle out a conflict that embraces a population of, at the top of the scale, about 35million Afghans.

Allowing the undertow of strategy drift to distract you from the first prime objective of any beach landing, securing the beachhead, and you are sucked into embracing a war involving a Pakistan population of no less than 172 million, plus no less than those 35 million Afghans. This means a war that will impact on 207 million people. That is one very complicated campaign. More so when you realize the beachhead is not secured and worse, when you realize that the beach you are on is on a peninsular with the potential for a mission with a need to consider other fronts, i.e., expanding unrest in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kirgizstan and Iran. Unless there is absolute focus to quell the brush fire on the beachhead it can spread both fast and unpredictably.

To prevent this, the 'new' strategy must first focus on the beachhead. Remember what happened when the focus left Afghanistan in 2003 and drifted over to Iraq? Did it help? The beachhead was far less complicated in 2003.

The other advantage of evolving an effective strategy for the Afghan beachhead is that what works on the Afghan side of the border has potential (with adjustments) to next flip across to the Pakistan side as that shares a cultural similarity to the Afghan field. If that can be managed, you are working towards forging a Pushtun buffer between Afghanistan and the deeper field of Pakistan. Down to the west, it would be a Baluch buffer. The Baluch are a little different from the Pushtun and have been at loggerheads with the centralized Pakistan government for decades.

To set all of this in frame, it is necessary to understand the wrap and weave of the Afghan carpet made up of Afghan Pushtun tribes. At present, that understanding is absent from U.S. strategy planning. There is increasing recognition that tribes must be embraced, but the viable mechanics of the type of embracing needed remains a mystery to strategy planners. That must change at speed.

Kathleen Wells: Whose interests are served by the war in Afghanistan?

Ken Guest: Everybody for different reasons!

al- Qaeda: Oxygen of publicity. By drawing the U.S. to the 'battle space' it claims legitimacy and commands a reason for resistance to what it describes as 'the Great Satan.' U.S. footprint deployment provides a target within reach on a tactically accessible scale. It has and will largely continue to sub- contract kinetic encounter, thus preserving itself and creating the impression of a larger entity than actually exists.

Taliban: Similar to al-Qaeda -- the publicity and attainable targets within a manageable scale. Also, the Taliban benefits from collateral damage, even though the term collateral damage is odious in that it masks what's involved i.e., very human tragedies to civilian population. All of this enables Taliban growth and prepares them for any subsequent deeper civil war phase sans U.S. deployment.

Pakistan: Continued U.S. commitment to preserving that malfunctioning nation -- which, since creation in 1947 has never had one single legitimately elected government serve a full term. Pakistan has had a history of dictatorships, assassinations, and coups. Pakistan possesses nuclear weapons, is unstable, near failed nation status, sponsors of terrorists, incubators of terrorist groups, host of al-Qaeda and creators of Taliban. The list of negatives for Pakistan, are impressive and yet the dynamic of the Afghan war, results in United States commitment to massive aid and military support. Without U.S. regional commitment and support for Pakistan, as a nation, Pakistan risks imploding.

Afghan Government: As structured, it owes its birth to the U.S. and as supported its continued existence.

U.S.: The U.S. has staked its international reputation on an acceptable result. To lose in Afghanistan, is to lose everywhere. Lose international credibility and perceptions of capacity and, although it may not be widely recognized, defeat will damage domestic morale. Even losing an unpopular war affects domestic morale. It questions competence of government, irrespective of which government committed the nation to the war.

Having deployed in the manner it did, it is in U.S. interest not to lose (which is a little different from must win.) To not lose, translates to mean an acceptable status quo -- an acceptable level of domestic Afghan violence that can seen to be contained by Afghan government. This will be a delicate balance and determined by the nature of the local dynamics. If U.S. adopts a strategy more suited to the location, they stand to gain more than pressing on with expansion of a failing strategy -- which demands more fudging and goal post shifting.


Herat, winter heat from wood fires

Ken Guest ©

Part 1 and 2 of my Guest interviews can be seen here and here.

And Part 3 here.