What Next in Afghanistan?

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Taylor Marsh Political writer and cultural voyeur, author and speaker.

I have no idea to whom the "sources close to the Administration" refers in this U.K. article, but a headline screaming "Barack Obama furious at General Stanley McChrystal" seems to come backed with its own agenda, if you ask me.

Everyone is meeting, listening and thinking about Afghanistan. From the president meeting with McChrystal to Clinton meeting with the administration's AfPak team, and beyond, everyone is bearing down to get to an answer. Peter W. Garbraith, the newly sacked U.N. representative for Afghanistan has more thoughts on the issues. I spent the late afternoon on Friday at the New America Foundation continuing to gather information from experts on Afghanistan, this time Peter Bergen hosting David Loyn, solidifying my thinking on what is the smartest way forward, based on information I've accumulated and digested. One thing is certain, it's time for Obama and his national security team to make a decision. The word "dithering" ricocheting everywhere to describe the administration's lack of decision making. It's also clear that Biden's plan is not the answer. However, neither is McChrystal's request for 40,000 troops. The answer lies beyond.

David Loyn, author of a new book titled In Afghanistan, got my attention immediately when he made a point of mentioning the Mujahadeen before the Taliban as having cemented women's subjugation in Afghanistan, as well as the insistence of women wearing burqas (which was confirmed by a woman in the audience who said she wore the burqa as a young woman, long before the Taliban took power). Since Reagan backed the Mujahadeen, it's where I believe America's moral obligation to Afghanistan begins, also marking the moment of Afghan women's bondage. I've been writing and talking about that for several years, putting the onus on the Reagan administration, because it was the Mujahadeen that wanted to mimic the Saudi's "vice and virtue" committee, also saying "women should not walk with pride", to quote Loyn. This is the foundation of my Afghanistan philosophy and analysis, something that began in the 1990s, back when Mavis Leno was leading the charge to help Afghan women.

David Loyn has spent a lot of time in Afghanistan, now considering himself a "journalist turned historian." One of the things he made perfectly clear answered a question I've been wrestling with that no one else has yet answered for me sufficiently. It has to do with Joe Biden's weight inside the administration on Afghan policy and what this will mean for the women there. Loyn was particularly blunt on Biden. He called the Biden plan "crazy and morally reprehensible," particularly where Afghan women are concerned.

After Loyn's opening discussion, later when Peter Bergen nodded in my direction so I could ask David a question, I began my introduction by saying, "Hello, I'm Taylor Marsh, a very lonely feminist progressive hawk on Afghanistan," which brought laughter from Peter, David and the rest of the audience. Of course, my question was about the women of Afghanistan specifically related to the battle going on between the COIN (counterinsurgency) crew v. counterterrorism bunch represented by Joe Biden. I basically then threw it open to Loyn, starting with the troubles women had voting, but asking what fate waited for them depending on what happened on Obama's strategy. Loyn mentioned a ardent feminist in the Afghan parliament. (I believe he was talking about Malalai Joya, who is the only one that comes to my mind.) Joya says it's worse for women now than during the initial Taliban take over and rule. Loyn saying change will be "incremental," "security" build up by Afghans needed most, but right now it's getting worse for women, which mimics reports coming out of Afghanistan.

Remember, without women developing countries do not succeed in maintaining stability. It's now clear to me that Biden's counterterrorism strategy would likely be devastating to the women in Afghanistan, so I cannot support it on any front and I say this as someone who has supported Biden on many other issues, specifically Pakistan.

However, contrary to what you might expect when thinking of security, Loyn made it very clear that whether it's 30-40-50,000 more American troops, these numbers are far too small to matter. Sobering, isn't it? There are many progressives against troop escalation, but what they get wrong is the total withdrawal part, with smart leaders like Sen. Russ Feingold asking for a complete withdrawal, something that is absolutely absurd to consider. But Loyn said it would take hundreds of thousands of troops to tip the balance. Loyn added that other priorities are more important than adding troops.

Another point that I've been making lately is that the talk of the civilian surge in Afghanistan has disappeared. That's because there isn't any happening, according to people I've talked and listened to, including Peter Bergen and David Loyn.

Below are the notes taken during the session, which are strictly David Loyn's analysis, with no added editorializing here from me, except that the bold areas highlight what I believe to be most important.

LOYN: US Administration "appears to be dithering."

Key mistake after 2001 is that US didn't understand tribal roots.

By the time Pakistan understood radicalism after 9/11 it was too late, with Taliban too strong by 2007.

Low turnout in northwest frontier was the story of the Afghan election.

"Close the loop" with regard to Islamist information engine. We need to break into that, because they're using DVDs in bazaars, the internet, flooding the zone and beating us.

Fundamentalism: "Holding Afghanistan is harder than taking it."

Taliban a special vein of "Afghan consciousness."

Corruption: The largest form "comes from misuse of foreign monies."Next is the allocation of money for rebuilding Afghanistan is reallocated again and again, wasting capital. Population impacted by this cycle. Kabul "aid juggernaut" to foreigners there is "destructive." Third, the "petty police corruption" and the need for Afghns to pay bribes comes next.

Our failure to apply any rule of law has helped Taliban power explode.

How to change what's happening now:

  1. Talk to the Taliban, but not just moderates, which is not a strategy that will work;
  2. Deal with corruption and warlord issue in a big way, pressuring Karzai;
  3. Protect "good middle ranking" Afghans who are getting squeezed;
  4. Obama's civilian surge idea is very flawed, going in the wrong direction; Afghanization of aid program is what is required;
  5. Understanding where things are corrupt in establishment
  6. Real support for the private sector; mobile phone one example, which is being used for payroll
  7. "Significantly improve rule of law and land ownership" which will help Afghans versus warlords
  8. "Respect" civilians, as McChrystal stated in recent speech. Afghan's wanted to reform madrassas, but we didn't get it
  9. Coordinate international effort much better; Mentioned "sacking" of Galbraith and the humiliation of this event.
  10. "More troops is a side issue." 30-40-50,000 troops won't make that much difference, with hundreds of thousands actually needed. Other issues need to be addressed, starting with those listed above being more important than more troops.

The statement "nobody wins not quite true," but you could say that Afghanistan is "confounding the optimism of people who go in there."

Tribal structure "murky" and "un-stitched" at this point.

Peter Bergen says our actions are sustainable; again, Loyn says we have responsibility, "especially for the women." Civilian surge not happening.

Security problems have always been worse in Iraq than Afghanistan; then Loyn related eating outside in a restaurant in Kabul recently, something that's still very dangerous to do in Iraq.

Referring to Karzai, including his ability to get Galbraith "sacked" for talking about the tainted elections: "Astute tactical player" and someone with whom we'll have to negotiate since he's still on top.

David Loyn also talked about Gen. McChrystal's recent speech, which he felt was important on many fronts, especially on the focus of "respect" of the Afghans. Loyn told an anecdote about McChrystal that talked about him going into a village and talking to a local Afghan man, telling him that the U.S. is there to stay. The man nodded, then said that he had heard the same thing twice before.

Afghanistan is now up to Obama, with his decision fateful on many fronts. Biden's got it wrong, no matter how learned his position to be. But so does John McCain. And regardless of McChrystal's request, it seems very clear to me that more American troops are not the answer. However, Feingold's insistence on withdrawal is dead wrong as well. So what to do?

Stay. Get money directly to Afghans. Build their security forces. Talk to the Taliban, all of them ... and realize we're there for the foreseeable future. That is unless you want to see Pakistan unravel completely.

Taylor Marsh, with podcasts available on iTunes.