Before the Surge Troops Leave Afghanistan, Do Waziristan

In 1986, in the wake of the multiple disasters of the Jimmy Carter Administration, two distinguished professors of the Presidency and of American government published a brave little book called Thinking in Time: the Uses of History for Decision Makers. The core argument of Richard Neustadt and Ernest May was that the proper use of history (especially the use of analogies) could improve the quality of outcomes for future presidents.

Now that Barack Obama has announced he will be withdrawing the 30,000 surge troops from Afghanistan over the next 12 to 18 months, Professors Neustadt and May's message couldn't be more relevant. As it appears, the President made his decision on purely political grounds, rejecting the advice of America's military leaders. But, even within the framework of Mr. Obama's timetable, a great deal of flexibility is available to improve the odds for a successful outcome.

That's because, within living American memory, there's a precedent for how to do this.  That precedent is the successful Vietnamization strategy of President Richard M. Nixon, 37th President of the United States.  As President Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger demonstrated, withdrawal does not have to mean surrender.  It can, if executed with sufficient nerve, mean something which looks a great deal like victory.

Between 1969 and 1973, after first announcing and implementing a phased American withdrawal from that conflict, President Nixon several times unleashed massive violence against the North Vietnamese enemy to insure a peace settlement favorable to the United States and its South Vietnamese ally.  Those tactics included the 1970 land invasion of the Parrot's Beak area of Cambodia, intensified bombing along the Ho Chi Minh Trail (both in Cambodia and Laos), the mining of Haiphong harbor and -- most spectacularly -- the Christmas Bombing of 1972 by B52 bombers.

The result of these tactics, undertaken even as American troops were exiting, was the achievement of a favorable peace settlement in 1973.  But for the Democratic Congress' determination to overturn that settlement and bring about a Communist victory (by cutting off all support of the South Vietnamese government), the military victory won by American arms in Southeast Asia might well have endured.  The result, instead, was the killing fields of Cambodia, the Vietnamese boat people and Laotian communities in the Midwest.

In Afghanistan, the equivalent of the Parrot's Beak, of course, is the Waziristan area of Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province.  There, by choice, the Pakistani Army does not go. There, some al Qaeda elements, the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistan Taliban all live, move and have their being.  In particular, there the murderous Haqqani network is centered.

 Like Cambodia, the tribal areas of Pakistan are a place of sanctuary for the enemy.  That sanctuary should be shattered as part of America's exit strategy from Afghanistan.

The precedent for such a punitive expedition -- technically, that's what an American raid into Waziristan would be -- is well settled in international law.  A "punitive expedition" is a military attack into a failed state undertaken to eliminate a source of violence in the attacking state which the targeted state, whether through complicity or weakness, has failed to eliminate.  The most recent example of a punitive expedition was Colombia's 2008 attack into Venezuela, which broke the back of the FARC insurgency and brought an effective end to Colombia's 20-year long  bloodbath.

Common in the 19th century (and thereby acquiring a bad rap as a cover for European colonialism), a punitive expedition by U.S. troops into Waziristan would fit the current situation in Afghanistan to a "t."  It would also put the Pakistani government and Army on notice that our patience with their duplicity is at an end.  More importantly, by temporarily eliminating the source of the major Taliban military activity in Afghanistan, it would give the Kabul government a "breathing space" to allow it time to take hold in the newly-cleared areas of southern and eastern Afghanistan.

I am mindful that this is a bold suggestion.  Geopolitically, it would create an international incident -- possibly ending America's relationship with a nuclear-armed Pakistan.  Yet, a successful American sweep of Waziristan offers the best chance of insuring that the thousands of Afghan, American and allied lives sacrificed since 9/11 were not in vain.

Militarily, the terrain in which this incursion would have to be carried out is perhaps the most challenging in the world.  It's true "Indian Country:" heavily mountainous, with some target sites located at an altitude exceeding that above which helicopters can safely fly.  Yet I have no doubt that, if ordered to do it, the American military can successfully destroy or disrupt the Taliban sanctuaries in Waziristan and Tora Bora.

Interestingly, there's actually precedent for such a U.S.' initiative in Afghanistan and Pakistan's own history.  That's the strategy which the British, at the end of the 19th century, finally adopted to protect the frontiers of their Indian empire.

Initially, starting in the 1840's, the Brits fought a series of wars in Afghanistan.  This strategy took the name the "forward policy."  It involved the conquest and occupation by British and native Indian troops of Afghanistan's national territory.  Sometimes, a British Resident and garrison were installed in Kabul to insure that the Afghan king was cooperative with British aims, rather than with those of Imperial Russia or the Shah of Iran.

The result of the "forward policy" for Great Britain was repeated disaster -- and high British casualties. As a result, the policy of Her Majesty's Government evolved.

British troops next tried occupying only the southern Afghan cities, such as Kandahar and Jallallabad, since the real problem -- just as today -- was the Pathan tribesmen.  The results, however, were mixed at best.

Finally, the Brits settled on using flying columns of highly mobile field forces (what we today call "combined arms") based in today's Pakistan to police but not occupy southern Afghanistan and to maintain the initiative in the Northwest Frontier Province, especially around the Khyber Pass and the Malakand Pass.  This worked.  The tactic employed was the repeated use of punitive expeditions.

Two such raids are described in the Rudyard Kipling short stories, "The Lost Legion" and "The Drums of the Fore and Aft."  Both are available on-line.  In 1898, a young subaltern named Winston Churchill published his first book, The Malakand Field Force.  It contained an account of his participation in just such a punitive expedition into the tribal areas of the Northwest Frontier Province and Afghanistan.

Robert D. Kaplan includes a chapter on The Malakand Field Force (as well as Churchill's eye-witness account of the British war against the Mahdi in the Sudan, The River War), in his important book, Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Requires a Pagan Ethos (2001).

As the U.S. begins to exist Afghanistan, it's entirely appropriate to learn from the examples of the British and Richard Nixon.  However, if you find those thoughts distasteful, here's an alternative analogy: think of the gunfighter in the Old West who backs out of a hostile saloon while firing shots into the mirror (and bottles) behind the bar to keep everybody's head down.

That's basically what an effective sweep of Waziristan and the rest of the Tribal Areas would involve: clear but don't hold.  Kill as many bad guys as possible.  Destroy communications, supplies and infrastructure. T hen withdraw.

If the opportunity presents itself, little drop-in on a meeting of the Quetta shura (like Osama bin Laden and Khalid Sheik Mohammed, the Taliban's high command lives in Pakistan) would be entirely appropriate as well.

If successfully executed, a hammer-and-anvil approach to an American punitive expedition into Waziristan could yield highly satisfactory, albeit temporary, results.  Let us see if Mr. Obama and his advisors have the wit to use it and thereby learn from history.

Even with the Presidential die cast, there's still time to win this thing.