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My Exclusive Interview with Ken Guest -- Journalist/Analyst on Afghanistan (Part 2)

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Kathleen Wells: What is the current strategy being employed?

Ken Guest: The present strategy buzzword is "reintegration," which considers embracing aspects of the Pushtun tribal dynamic and drawing them back in. It is a beginning, but not enough -- not least as it is stumbles at the first hurdle. It assumes tribe can be reintegrated, but ignores that the tribe dynamic was never a force integrated into central government command. It was always an autonomous, cooperative alliance. For that to work, both sides need to feel an advantage, not just central government. As tribe was never "integrated" as part of central government, the concept of "reintegration" is something of a misnomer.

All attempts at this have foundered because, as structured into Western strategy, it is not really tribal at all. It is a device of central government, which the tribes consider to be a meddling outside force rarely to be trusted.

For the tribal matrix to work as part of US strategy, and it must if better results are desired, it is imperative to understand the view and dynamic of the tribes before planning how to use them. The rejected "Abdul Haq option" in 2001 did just that. It is time to go back and examine what he offered and if anything can be salvaged. Of course, some things have changed. There is now an elected Afghan government in the equation, Pakistan is significantly less stable, the U.S. has a large military footprint, and old warlords are back in evidence. However, let's not be distracted from the core concept, which still stands, as does the untapped capacity of the Pushtun tribes. The issue is having strategy planners, now in earnest debate in the White House, learned enough on the steep Afghan learning curve to recognize the value of effectively using the most abundant force on the ground. It has always been the Afghan tribes.

It will be hard to see from within the cloistered corridors of power, that Obama is unwittingly presented with what amounts to three ways to fail; remain the same, expand the footprint or reduce the scale and focus on al Qaeda. The prime difference between them is the time and cost it will take to fail.

The fourth option, the tribal path, is not being presented as it is so poorly understood, it is hard for Western strategy planners to support. It involves a strategy flip whilst already committed and deployed to a war. That is a fearful thing for strategy planners to contemplate, more so when the dynamics involved remain something of a mystery.

The path out of the Afghan quagmire lies in this fourth option, making the Afghan tribes the cutting blade of the strategy, not the US forces or the Afghan National Army. As this overturns conventional wisdom, which supports conventional means, it is resisted. That resistance leads to assumptions, by significantly expanding the Afghan Army and Police and throwing in some cosmetically attractive tribal militias you end up with nearly the same thing. You don't, as it fails to make the most of the prime resource, the Pushtun tribes, in the manner they are most geared to be effective.

It would also be a mistake to assume this makes supporting the prime force on the ground about 'buying off' the tribes. That assumes they are intrinsically, as a whole, opposed to the US. They are not opposed to support but are opposed to what they perceive as unsupportive. They seek that which most enables them to be what they want to be, autonomous and in command of their own domain. Taliban are far more effectively able to persuade them that such support is best served by Taliban. It isn't, as Taliban must first befriend the tribes and then undermine and overwhelm their traditional systems.

In the interim, most of the tribal mass sit on the fence waiting to determine who is winning. They will side with that as they, unlike the West, must remain in place after the result is called. In considering this, it is worth knowing it's a sharp fence and they can't sit on it forever.

Before decisions are carved in stone a deeper consideration of how to effectively tap into the potential of the tribes must be made. By that means, the strategy can be flipped and a better result attained. The mantra for the planners should be: knowledge dispels fear.

2009-11-03-Ken2

Jalalallabad, 2009 Ken Guest ©

Kathleen Wells: The U.S. presence in Afghanistan has resulted in a high civilian casualty rate. What effect is that having upon the Afghan mindset?

Ken Guest: In the Afghan conflict, whoever commands perception will win. So it is not just what we in the West intend or how we do it, because it matters more how our actions are perceived. The Taliban will do all to present Western presence and action in a bad light. They are very adept at Psyops in an Afghan context, far more so than us because they have the advantage of really understanding the culture and the grass roots dynamics in a way we do not.

Anything the West does that feeds them something they can exploit is a defeat for the West and a victory for Taliban. Where we cause, however unintentionally, civilian deaths, we batter our chance of a better result. The bitter pill for the West is having to be very restrictive in our deployment of air delivered kinetic response as it is this action that causes most of the civilian deaths and can so easily be used by the Taliban to suggest the Western approach to war in Afghanistan is every bit as brutal as the Soviet's. It's not, but that's not the point, the point is how it is presented by the Taliban to the Afghan civilians.

To find a better path, the West should mimic what works best on the ground, which means aspects of how the Taliban manages their campaign. This should begin with far greater investment in effective Psyops.

General [Stanley] McChrystal already advocates something similar, writing in the September issue of Mirror (the official magazine of ISAF), "If we harm Afghan civilians, we sow the seeds of our own defeat."

Kathleen Wells: UN official Peter Galbraith stated, "The [election] fraud has handed the Taliban its greatest strategic victory in eight years of fighting the United States and its Afghan partners." Is the Afghan government a legitimate partner with the U.S.?

Ken Guest: On the issue of Afghan election fraud, it is important to retain context and perspective. The turnout was in line with European Union elections. It was only the second government election in the history of Afghanistan. There were bound to be issues, not least as about 76% of the population is illiterate, unable to read or understand the ballot. Even U.S. 2000 Presidential elections were tainted by charges of election irregularities, a subject and debate that was overtaken by 9/11.

Karzai was also the favored candidate supported by the U.S. to be head of the interim government and during the first election. He was destined to win the present election irrespective of any fraud in his favor because there was no other candidate with the ability to construct a viable opposition. The collection of those who thought they could oppose Karzai and win threw away any chance they had by being incapable of forging an effective alliance. Even without any election irregularity, Karzai was going to win. In the real politic of the Afghan reality, it is unquestionably in U.S. interest to accept what the majority of Afghans accepted before the election--Karzai would serve a second term. Not to support him and try and achieve change from within risks greater instability, making the challenges facing US forces even greater.

If there are doubts about Karzai in Washington, the U.S. should still support him now as better than the alternative, chaos. Looking to [the] future, they should, as a precaution against adversity, be considering and grooming the next generation of Afghan politicians. None of the names that featured so prominently, in the Western media, as contenders for power in the present elections stood any chance of winning, other than Karzai. That's the reality from an Afghan perspective.

Galbraith's suggestion is a view forged in a bubble, isolated from connection to the common Afghans. Galbraith's "greatest strategic victory" for the Taliban remark may be useful as a confrontational quote or a sound bite, but as a measure to the Taliban's actual "strategic victories" it has no value whatsoever. It's a throwaway line that should be thrown away. It is far more useful to understand what was really the Taliban's greatest strategic victory, which has nothing to do with the results, of the present elections. It was the strategy the West used in the rush to enter Afghanistan. Lacking a good foundation, it was weak from the start and to the value of the Taliban it remained weak. The debate now is about fixing it, or better still, changing it.

There are many challenges facing Karzai, but let this not cloud [the fact] that he has been steadfast in something of great value to the U.S., his support for the U.S. at a time when the U.S. was reliant upon it.

Kathleen Wells: So, the Karzai government is not despised by the Afghan people?

Ken Guest: That's correct. Among a wide part of the ordinary Afghans, as shown by the election result, he is not despised. Do not be blinded by Western media on the issue of fraud. It occurred not just in Karzai's favor, it [also] occurred across the board, including in Abdullah Abdullah's home turf in Panjshir (which Abdullah, because that fraud favored him, lightly dismissed as no more than "over enthusiasm"). As a Pushtun leader, Karzai is less despised than simply accepted. What really matters to the ordinary Afghans is not who is president, but [whether] they will they have more or less stability.

Part 1 of my interview with Guest can be seen here.