Saturday, June 26, 2010

General McChrystal's dismissal glosses over the real issue

This past week, the mainstream media went abuzz when a Rolling Stone profile of Commanding General of Afghanistan Stanley McChrystal was released that had disparaging comments about many civilian leaders. In the article, McChrystal claimed President Barack Obama was detached from operations in Afghanistan, was quoted as saying Vice President Joe Biden can "bite me" and called National Security Advisor and Four Star Marine General James Jones was a "clown." McChrystal was dismissed less than forty-eight hours after the article was released and was replaced by CENTCOM leader and former hea of Iraqi forces General David Petraeus, who has been elevated to something of hero status since his successful surge tactic in Iraq.

However, while many reporters were reporting about McChrystal's ousting, what most media outlets failed to recognize was that for a large part, Petraeus desired strategy is the same counter-insurgency strategy that McChrystal has used during his tenure as General. Both Petraeus and McChrystal are proponents of counter-insurgency, and in fact, Petraeus co-wrote the Counter Insurgency Field Manual. Petraeus used to a large effect in Iraq and for the most part reaped great successes through the tactic.

Yet, there is a great difference between Iraq and Afghanistan. First and foremost, the main division amongst Iraqis is the fact that most Iraqis are Shia but the overthrown government and military was Sunni. The goal was to get Sunnis and Shias to overcome their religious differences and unite to create a proper Democratic government.

Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, the main division in Afghanistan is not religious beliefs; a majority of the nation is Sunni. Rather, the main difference amongst the people of Afghanistan is ethnicity and there are four main ethnic groups in Afghanistan. There are the Tajiks who descend from the steppes of Indo-Europe; have the same ancestors as Persians and speak Farsi. There are Turks, who migrated mainly in one of two eras, during the Ghaznavid era from 900-1100 AD and during the 20th Century before the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Then there are the Hazaras, who are considered to be descended from Genghis Khan's Mongols and in many ways have the most distinctive features to a non-Afghan. Finally, there are the Pashtuns, who are native to Afghanistan and Northern Pakistan, are thought to be descended from the people who fought Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, the British and the Soviets. The Pashtuns also make up a large part of the Taliban.

Most of these ethnic groups have been in conflict with each other for centuries on end and for some, there is over a thousand years worth of conflict in Afghanistan. The mountainous terrain of Afghanistan permits these differing peoples to live separate from each other and as a result, most of them would prefer to stay in their valleys and live autonomously from any form of centralized society. Therefore, it does not matter who is invading their valleys, whether it be Persians, or Arabs or Shi'ites or Americans; all that does matter is the fact that they feel their way of life is being intruded upon.

This nepotism is a large obstacle for the strategy of Counter-insurgency, which is completely contingent on "winning the hearts and minds" of the people, as General Petraeus been quoted as saying. When there is conflict between the various ethnic groups, it is virtually impossible to be able to win the approval of all of the people.

This is largely the reason why many Afghans prefer to rule of the Taliban over the occupation of American soldiers. While the Taliban has oppressed the people for years and has subjugated women, they are still one of them and for better or worse have been feeding and housing them and putting them in a sort of arrested development with secularism. They are at least familiar with the Taliban. Furthermore, as the drone bombings continue in Afghanistan, it tips the average Afghan's sentiment towards the anti-Western rhetoric of groups like the Taliban.

Furthermore, the Taliban is not the key enemy of the United States. The Taliban had very little involvement in 9/11. In his book the Looming Tower, Lawrence Wright explains that many in the Taliban were in fact concerned when Osama Bin Laden and his group al-Qaeda traveled to Afghanistan and Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar began allying with him. Their alliance has always been a tentative one and they had almost no hand in planning the actual terrorist attacks on 9/11; the reason we began a war in Afghanistan in the first place was because that is where we believed al-Qaeda was hiding. Yet now that it is revealed that less than 100 members of al-Qaeda are in Afghanistan and most are in Pakistan, the question must be asked, why is the US occupying Afghanistan?

In the end, it seems like America is in a horrible predicament when it comes to Afghanistan. Three weeks ago, the War in Afghanistan became the longest war in Afghanistan, surpassing the Vietnam War. In many ways, America faces the same crisis that it faced in Vietnam; the US is in a war not with a national force but rather with a stateless faction that will perpetually terrorize US forces. On one hand, America can choose to stay in Afghanistan and ride out the stalemate for hundreds of years or it will walk out without a victory or defeat and therefore give the Taliban and al-Qaeda exactly what they desire.