Ken Guest Interview (Part 3) -- With Afghanistan, the Devil is in the Details

11/10/2009 11:16 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

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: Tell me specifically how having the Taliban in control of Kabul is antithetical to the interest of the United States.

Ken Guest: The U.S. strategy so far has made the mark of success overthrowing and expelling the Taliban as part of the necessary result. If the U.S. engages, confronts and then leaves, with Taliban back where they were in 2001, [it] makes the U.S. look weak to the rest of the world. A few poorly organized irregular forces, estimated at somewhere between, 5,000-15,000, would have defeated the U.S.

Kathleen Wells: Explain the dynamics between the Hazareh, which are Shia Muslims and the Taliban, who are Sunnis?

Ken Guest: The Hazzar are mostly Shia Muslims, unlike the majority of Afghans
who are Sunni (irrespective of being Pushtun or Tajiks.) Hazzara derive their name from their location, known as the Hazzarajut ("Land of the Thousand"). It comes down to the modern age as a relic of the 13th Century Mongol invasion by Genghis Khan. The horse mobile Mongolian army moved in units of one thousand known as Hazzara (meaning "thousand'). According to legend, when the Mongols finally withdrew, they left one of these units behind to retain control.

[Over time,] as the Mongolian empire dissolved, the contingent left behind in the central high plateau of Afghanistan was trapped and never left. So the land they occupied took its name from this contingent, Hazzarajut, "Land of the Thousand" or "occupied by the Thousand (Hazzara)." Hazzara remain distinctly different in appearance from other Afghans [because] they retain the epicanthic fold of the Mongolians as a clue to their exotic past. Within Afghan society, there has traditionally been much prejudice against them; based on ethnic and religious divides. During the Soviet Afghan War, they secured most of the arms that came their way from Iran (also Shia). The Hazzara constitute about only 12% of the Afghan population, so [they] are a long way from being the majority.

As an ethnic minority cruelly targeted by Taliban there is no love lost between them. Any Western driven attempts to force reconciliation between the Hazzara and the Taliban will face severe challenges and ultimately founder. They are opposing forces and the Hazzara will side with force that opposes their enemies, even if that means turning to Iran for support. That makes Hazzara interest an important part of Western strategy consideration.


Three Women of Herat, 2009

Ken Guest ©

Kathleen Wells: Given what Americans are enduring as a result of the Iraq war and since most of our allies are not showing any commitment to join us either in Iraq or in Afghanistan, do you actually believe the American people and the U.S. government in DC have the psychological, financial and political will to implement an agenda for the new strategy you've detailed?

Ken Guest: The failure of U.S. allies to demonstrate commitment has not been a universal response. The UK, Canada and the Dutch have all shown significant commitment and suffer losses in proportion to their deployment. However, I agree that, overall, there is commitment resistance and [I] believe at root this is based on a lack of faith in the [current] U.S. strategy, which even the senior U.S. [military] commander admits isn't working. Change strategy; adopt one that offers more chance of a better result. [Also] restructure how the war is managed -- presently confused between peacemaking, peace keeping, nation building, tackling governance, reconstruction, a war against al Qaeda, a war against the Taliban, war on drugs, war on corruption and an Afghan Civil war (harder to see but present) and all with differing chains of command and, obviously, different internal needs and priorities. You can see how this might cause mission confusion and work against holistic unity of purpose and action. Not surprising, commitment is an issue, which should not be confused with any lack of commitment to the U.S. The resistance is to the strategy.

Does the U.S. have the will for change? Being based in Kabul, I am poorly
placed to offer any significant comment on US will to continue the war. I know support is falling and the cost is crippling. As long as confusion commands the subject there will be weakness in US capacity to explain and persuade the US public to support the need for this conflict.

Does DC have the will to implement a new strategy? DC has a choice--chose to fail or chose to change. That sort of realization can help focus the debate. The real question is do they understand the nature of the change demanded? No public comment coming out of DC right now suggests clarity on this issue. To achieve it will take recognition of what is called for, clarity on how to achieve it and a determination to carry it through.

I do not envy [General Stanley] McChrystal or [President] Obama. Both have hard decisions to make, little time and a lot riding on the outcome. However, both realize the gravity of the situation, both strives to make the right decisions and both have the will to carry it through. What both [also] need, subject to owning the right strategy for comprehensive change in the way the war is fought, is support while they tackle the challenge.

Will they have the right strategy after the present period of debate is over? We must wait to find out what the outcome of the present debate is. In the search for a new strategy, let us all hope that all the options are considered, even those outside the box of conventional thought [because] that's where the answer lies. Harnessing and relying on the capacity of the tribes as the core tool and properly supporting that represents a very unconventional approach and most military systems resist change, more so in the middle of a conflict. Where that occurs, it would be well advised to [ask the question], can midstream change work in the Afghan dynamic?


Afghan Army, Kabul to Jalallabad Road, 2009

Ken Guest ©

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