Can we find clarity in the Afghan strategy debate?

President Obama has consistently declared Afghanistan "the good war" that is "a war of necessity" which is "fundamental to the defense of our people," although recently Obama also stated that "victory" was not necessarily the goal in Afghanistan. In an amazing declaration of historical ignorance, Obama explained "I'm always worried about using the word 'victory,' because, you know, it invokes this notion of Emperor Hirohito coming down and signing a surrender to MacArthur." How we win without "victory" is but one conundrum the US military leadership must solve to execute the president's policy.

In view of the president's ambivalence, it is small wonder that there is confusion, consternation, and disagreement from the commander in the field, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, to pundits like George Will, Frederick W. Kagan, and Thomas L. Friedman, to name but a few of the wide range of commentators jumping into the Afghan strategy verbal fray. But fortunately the debate has now expanded and cuts across the left-right divide, as liberals and conservatives line up on both sides of the question of strategy in Afghanistan.

The very complex problem of Afghanistan may be broken down into these issues as derived from statements by the Obama administration:

1) Taliban re-conquest must be prevented so that Afghanistan will be denied to al Qaeda as a base of future operations;

2) to achieve such denial, tribally ruled Afghanistan must be built into a modern state with a democratically elected representative government;

3) this "nation building" will entail robust US counterinsurgency to protect the population from Taliban intimidation and control until the Afghan government can independently maintain civil law and order;

4) while conducting counterinsurgency guaranteeing representative government, US forces must also train and equip Afghani military and police to enforce law and order; and

5) simultaneously with pacifying Afghanistan, US forces must also assist the Pakistanis in subduing the Taliban and al Qaeda who are threatening both the Pak and Afghan governments from regions on the Pak border adjacent to Afghanistan.

However, there are persuasive history-based doubts that:

1) the religiously motivated Taliban can be effectively and indefinitely denied power in this 7th century Islamic culture;

2) that Afghanistan can be lifted from tribal warlordism to a representative democracy;

3) that corrupt Afghani warlords can honestly and successfully administer a regime of law and order that will ensure the loyalty of a very ethnically diverse population;

4) that any Afghani military and police forces we can develop will be sufficient to maintain law and order in a forbidding land consisting of 251,772 square miles of mountains and deserts (about the size of Texas) with a population of 33 million; and

5) that the geographically adjacent corrupt Pak government can prevail over the primal Islamic forces embodied in the Taliban and al Qaeda that are demanding Shariah "justice" for Pakistan.

Additionally, even the most enthusiastic counterinsurgency advocate will admit that a successful counterinsurgency campaign requires seven to ten years, or longer. Are President Obama and the American people prepared to commit to such a lengthy conflict with the associated high costs in US blood and treasure? These are the primary issues that the Obama administration, the US military, the media punditry, and the US electorate wrestle with and attempt to clarify in their various policy declarations, plans, editorials, commentaries, and bumper stickers.

In all of these complex and interrelated issues there is one that is never addressed. Conspicuously missing is the most fundamental and important consideration in determining a viable strategy in the post-9/11 world of Islamic Jihad, whether in Afghanistan or elsewhere. It is an honest appraisal of the relationship between the US and a Shariah-inspired Islam. Islamic governments like those of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia are considered "allies" by the White House, State Department, Congress, Pentagon, and American public, but their "interests" widely diverge from ours with regard to Shariah and its ever present call for Jihad.

It must be recognized and acknowledged by Americans that all governments of Islamic countries, secular and sectarian, cannot divorce themselves from the religious Jihadist aspect ever-present in their societies. The yearly surveys showing large majorities in these countries favoring strict Shariah is but one piece of the evidentiary puzzle. Almost without exception, to a greater or lesser extent, the governments of Islamic nations, irrespective of their official ties to Islam, find themselves in a confrontation with a discontented Jihadist element in their respective populations. In order to preserve their iron grip on the national treasury and the security forces, these governments (examples: our "allies" Pakistan, Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia), either directly or through surrogates in the royal or landed aristocracy, direct and support the Jihadist hostility toward kafirs, unbelievers in Islam, that are most often represented as Israel and the US; although Britain and India are also frequent Islamic terrorist targets. Even Turkey, founded 86-years-ago as a secular state to free the Turks from their repressive Ottoman Muslim past, has recently come under increasing Shariah-Islamic influence. The unavoidable conclusion is that radical Islam (understood as Shariah-Islam), often manifesting itself in Islamic Jihad, is a fact of life in all of our dealings and endeavors in the Islamic world. This omnipresent jihad aspect of Islam is the element that must be added to the debate over our Afghan strategy to supply the much needed clarity.

So how does this reality factor into the military strategic equation? Primarily it means that no Islamic government can ever be truly counted on to affirmatively eradicate Jihadist violence against US interests. This in and of itself suggests at the very least that the objective of nation-building in Afghanistan is a fool's errand simply or so remote as to make it foolish. It also means that the likelihood that any Islamic government would be prepared to reject Shariah and embrace Western values is suspect at best. It is noteworthy, as mentioned above, that Ataturk and the Kemalists are losing ground in Turkey and this is true in "moderate" Indonesia and Malaysia. Jordan has been trying to move toward real representative government since King Hussein in the 1990s. Every advance is met by three steps backward because the Shariah-faithful Muslim brotherhood types gain ground in every election freely contested. Furthermore, it would mean that, while it may be to our tactical advantage to temporarily ally with Islamic governments, it would be blood and money wasted to invest in trying to change an Islamic society. Consequently and most importantly, it would mean that, while denying Afghanistan to al Qaeda as an operational base and assisting the Pak government in defeating the Taliban and al Qaeda within Pakistan are vital national priorities, the delusion that these Islamic societies can be "Westernized" must be re-thought. Our emphasis must be on kinetic operations to destroy this generation of Jihadists and on psycho-social operations that intensify kinetic results.

The American illusion that we can ever fight "a war to end all wars" is just that, an illusion. Shariah-driven Islam has been waging Jihad against the West for 1300+ years, why would we expect it to stop because we manage to facilitate democratic elections that empower corrupt Islamic leaders like Nouri al-Maliki or Hamid Karzai? We are just going to have to "shoot the closest bear" one at a time and reconcile our thinking that Jihad will reappear periodically like Haley's Comet.

Col. Thomas Snodgrass, USAF (retired) is Director of Military Affairs for the Society of Americans for National Existence (SANE) and an adjunct professor of history at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Prescott, AZ, campus.
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