Western officials are hoping the violent outburst after the carless Koran burning at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan will not happen again. Despite their deepest desires there is no doubt that it will.
This was not the first furious demonstration against the U.S. and its NATO partners, who Afghans consider occupiers, and it definitely will not be the last. No As-Salāmu `Alaykum or apology is going to help. Such blatant disrespect only further insights the anger and anxiety of endless war and violence that existed before the post 911 invasion and continues to thrive today.
The majority of foreigners, both civilian and military, should pack their bags and get out. Of course they will not. Afghanistan has this way of convincing even the savviest imperialist that there is hope the place might actually be tamed. This is an illusion. Afghans have their own culture and way of life and it doesn't coincide with the efforts of modernization by the West.
The U.S. and NATO will dismiss the signs of failure, much like Brits and Soviets, and, instead, "stay the course." That is because their idea of "stay the course" involves two things simultaneously. The first is negotiation with the Taliban and handing over Afghan security to the Afghans or replacing armed NATO soldiers with armed Afghan ones. Might as well go right back to the civil war where the Taliban and mujahedeen fighters killed and maimed while fight for power.
Basically, the U.S. will again prop up the really nasty guys in tandem this time. The Taliban will get the government back and the warlord members of the former Northern Alliance will get control over something we like to imagine called 'security.' The Taliban will probably keep its name while the Alliance will strategically be called the Afghan National Army and the Afghan National Police hoping no one will notice.
Although the Taliban is really vile, during the civil war, the Northern Alliance was brutal. These warlord/mujahedeen fighters raped women, burned up communities, and brutally murdered and tortured anyone who got in their way. Afghans hate the Taliban, but fear the leaders of the Northern Alliance. They do not trust them now and I guarantee that these feelings won't change in 2014 when the troops retreat.
A new goal, followed by a thought process and strategy, is long overdue. If the parties want to leave without all hell breaking loose they need to start thinking beyond war.
There must be an Afghan political solution. The U.S. must assist the Afghans in stabilization the country instead of turning it into a martial state. Holding the space so that the Afghans can structure their own government instead just training a "security" force and causing yet more war is the key.
Recent FY 2010 figures show that the U.S. is spending around $2 billion a week on this war. I am sure two years later that it is more, but for arguments sake, I'll leave it at that. With 52 weeks in a year, and two more years of battle, that comes out to around $208 billion (oh what I could do with $208 billion!).
I tried, but cannot seem to find out how much a Jirga or a tribal assembly of elders costs (A Jirga is a large group of people, sometime numbering up to 2000, that makes decisions by consensus), but after a bit of research I can safely assume that it costs less than a million a week. Since I like to overestimate, let's just go with that number. At a million a week, the US can save a bundle over the next two years.
Now, why a Jirga you ask? Well, because this is the Afghan next best thing to democracy (and actually includes more people in the decision making than its American counterpart). Further, a Jirga will finally allow the Afghans to sit down and hash out their own future. While the West saves money and the elders debate lives will be saved because they'll be busy talking instead of shooting or blowing things up. Historically Afghans have found one way or another to work out immense differences through this type of method.
Time gives another opportunity. One that would include bringing in regional actors so they too can participate and understand the benefits of dropping the "great game." Pakistan, India, China and even Iran must agree to stop playing tug of Kabul. Perhaps in the process the U.S. can kiss and make up with Iran (I know, wishful thinking, but why not?)
The Afghans can develop an Afghan government for the people, by the people with Western mentorship instead of imposition. Let's face it folks the Afghan government has done nothing but pretend to try to like the constitution and centralized American style government forced on them.
Will it be perfect? Probably not. Tell me one governance system that is. Afghans have had a pretty tough history filled with endless war and talk about post trauma stress... so it will all take time and patience. Reminds me of that saying, "good things come to those that have patience." (ok, so I changed the last part, but you get the picture).
It is, however better than more NATO and U.S. officers dying, an all out Afghan civil war, propping up more malevolent warlords, or bringing back the Taliban so they can beat women if their shoes make noise.
In the meantime, it is time for everyone else -- civilian and military alike -- to reevaluate the lack of impact they are having and leave. Afghans need their space and the world needs to allow them to 'ask' for help when they need it. After all, it is preferable to ask for things not have them shoved down your throat.
Besides, there are too many compounds surrounded by concrete and barbed wire enclosing too many people doing way too little. I am not saying that they don't mean well, I'm just saying in that type of environment a small stealth imprint makes much more impact. Fortresses with armored everything don't really encourage relationships at all let alone long-term reciprocal ones.
Civilians can bow out fairly gracefully, however, it is those left behind to tear down the monstrous bunkers and the military withdrawal that will be a bit more complex to remove. The Obama Administration will have to be very strategic as it brings back most of its troops while leaving a very small contingency just in case. Historically as troops pack up and leave Afghanistan fighters from surrounding villages sabotage them. Both those in the British and former Soviet military can attest to that. Therefore, any extraction must be carefully calculated. Nevertheless, it must be done.
After speaking to some people on the ground, it is clear that the protests that were triggered by the Koran burning were a built up reaction to the overwhelming presence of "the foreign occupiers" and the Afghan people are feeling helpless as things get progressively worse. They continue to struggle for even the basics -- electricity, water, and food.
Taking steps to allow Afghans to take the lead while supporting their efforts toward peace, governance and security will satisfy interests on both sides. U.S. and NATO troops can go home leaving a somewhat more stable nation while continuing a political partnership with the Afghans and their neighbors. We will all save money, but more importantly we will save lives on all sides by finally ending this war.