Small Wars Journal

Defining U.S. National Security Interests in Afghanistan

Fri, 04/15/2011 - 7:31am
Defining U.S. National Security Interests in Afghanistan

by T.J. Buonomo

On 15 March 2011, General Petraeus testified at length on the situation in Afghanistan before the Senate Armed Services Committee. While the majority of the four-hour hearing can be summarized as the general's cautious but optimistic assessment of progress on the security and political fronts, two of his comments in particular are deserving of serious scrutiny.

Starting at 203:00, Senator John Cornyn, questions General Petraeus about the Taliban's aspirations for acquisition of nuclear weapons and regime change in Pakistan. General Petraeus responds, "With respect to the Afghan Taliban, Senator, I think that their aspirations truly are within Afghanistan. In particular it would be to reestablish the kind of state that they had established there in the wake of the [post-Soviet era] Afghan civil war." He then states that while extremist groups might value access to them, "There is quite considerable security for the Pakistani nuclear weapons."

At 234:00, in response to comments from Senator Mark Udall on liberalization of trade ties between India and Pakistan as a path to more amicable diplomatic relations, General Petraeus expresses his support for Afghan President Hamid Karzai's aspiration to position Afghanistan as an energy resource transit route between Central Asia and the "very rapidly growing economy of the Subcontinent" [referring here to India via Pakistan].

Beginning at 176:15, Senator Joe Manchin III (D-WV) expresses dissatisfaction with the thought that while the U.S. is "paying for the security" in Afghanistan, China appears to be reaping the economic rewards. He notes that China is making an investment of $3.5 billion and "it looks like there will be a return of $88 billion." Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy responds that the U.S. is also working to invest in the strategic mineral resources of Afghanistan through the Task Force for Business and Stability Operations (TFBSO) and is encouraging other Western nations to do the same.

These three points raise several important questions, the first of which is, how is the Obama administration defining vital U.S. national security interests in Afghanistan? If General Petraeus believes that the Afghan Taliban's aspirations are limited to Afghanistan, as he clearly states in his testimony, it logically follows that there should be room for negotiation with them on their relationship with Al Qaeda, which is the core- and perhaps only --threat to the security of the American public.

Americans should be asking our congressional intelligence committee members if there is a consensus view within the intelligence community on the Afghan Taliban's potential responsiveness to high level diplomatic overtures in exchange for their leaders' abandonment of Al Qaeda. They should further request declassification of documents pertaining to such assessments. NATO may not win over Mullah Omar but such a diplomatic thrust might be enough to splinter the Afghan Taliban leadership and isolate the irreconcilable elements.

Thus far U.S. policy has required the Taliban to accept the Afghan Constitution as a quid-pro-quo for seats in the government, a prerequisite the Taliban have rejected ostensibly because it violates Sharia law. While it may not be pleasant to think of abandoning Afghans to the Taliban's ultraconservative legal code, the use of force is a dubious way of addressing widespread societal problems such as disregard for the rights of women that are rooted in Afghanistan's patriarchal tribal culture. A patient long-term focus on social evolution through education and exposure to Western media is more likely to fundamentally change this culture than forced social engineering experiments.

The second question General Petraeus's testimony raises is, Can the U.S. "drain the swamp" of potential terrorist recruits in Afghanistan by playing a role in developing its economy, to include positioning Afghanistan to serve as an energy resource transit route from Central Asia to Pakistan and India?

Senator Scott Brown (R-MA) notes that there are potentially trillions of dollars worth of resources in Afghanistan and that revenue raised from the extraction of these resources must be injected into the Afghan economy to enable it to become self-sustaining. But are U.S. officials prepared to ensure that what is injected is not largely siphoned off by corrupt Afghan officials? Past experience gives reason for skepticism. The U.S. depends on these officials as much as they depend on the U.S. This mutual dependence constrains anti-corruption efforts to a significant degree when that corruption is systemic and institutionalized at the highest levels of the Afghan government.

As we learned in Vietnam far too late, finding the right balance between sovereignty and accountability is a difficult thing for an occupying power. Afghans will only tolerate so much corruption and economic oppression before their loyalties quietly shift, reinforced by propaganda- accurate or not -that foreign designs over their resources are to blame for their misery. Given the current deplorable state of the Afghan government and Pakistani intelligence service's continued support for the Afghan Taliban, it might be worth considering cutting a deal with the senior Afghan Taliban leadership in exchange for a guarantee that they will disavow any pan-Islamist ambitions and enable a permissive operating environment for our special operations forces to hunt down what remains of Al Qaeda within territory under their control.

Such a solution, however imperfect, is not inconceivable. As Afghanistan expert Ahmed Rashid has noted in his book "Taliban", prior to September 11th, 2011 the moderate wing of the Afghan Taliban's leadership "despised the Arabs [referring here to Al Qaeda]" and "was opposed to international terrorism". Rashid further notes that although Mullah Omar's decision to continue to harbor Osama bin Laden after September 11th ultimately prevailed amongst the Afghan Taliban leadership, Omar "knew the Taliban leaders were deeply divided on the issue, and he faced the possibility of a revolt from within his own ranks. Omar was also bolstered by the reassurance from his supporters in Pakistan and Al Qaeda that the USA might launch a bombing campaign- which the Taliban could survive --but it would never send ground troops into Afghanistan." (218-219)

U.S. overtures to the Afghan Taliban leadership would reduce the possibility of various militant groups with safe havens on the Pakistani side of the border from coalescing into a single ideological force as an unintended consequence of U.S. interventionist policies in the region. Even if they fail, they would at the very least have one advantageous political effect- they would demonstrate to the American public, whose support for the Obama administration's current counterinsurgency strategy is waning, that the nation must renew its determination to see the mission to completion after 10 years of war. The Afghan Taliban leadership would be given a final opportunity to come to the negotiating table with only one pre-condition and if they refused, the only future they could look forward to would be as hunted men living in a perpetual state of fear.

T.J. Buonomo is a former Military Intelligence Officer and graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy with a degree in Political Science and Middle East Studies.


Bill C. (not verified)

Mon, 04/18/2011 - 4:43pm

T.J. Buonomo:

When looking for what drives U.S. policy in Afganistan, and elsewhere in the less-integrated world, I think we may need to look beyond (as I have attempted to articulate above) the specifics regarding each individual country and, instead, look more toward what are U.S. foreign policy objectives overall re: these outlier states, societies and regions.

Thus, discussions about specifics such as foreign investments in Afghanistan -- and Afghan perceptions and understanding regarding same -- much like discussions about whether the Taliban should be allowed to govern if they gave up Al Qaeda and would support/allow pipelines, etc.; these would seem to be less important matters in the overall scheme of things (to wit: as relates to U.S. foreign policy objectives overall/writ large).

The more complete, critical and correct question might be: Whether the Taliban in Afghanistan -- or Gaddafi in Libya for example -- will be allowed to govern considering that U.S. foreign policy is focused on attempting to ensure that whoever governs must allow, support and actively work toward achieving fundamental state and societal change; this, so as to better meet the needs and interests of these countries' societies, our society and those of the world generally. ("Better meet ... " from our perspective, of course.)

Thus, it would seem that it is this overarching issue/question that today drives our foreign policy train.

Accordingly, one might suggest that the Taliban, at least, would not be expected to sign up for this "fundamental state and societal transformation" task. And that, I believe, in the overall scheme of things, is the reason that we have and will work to deny them governance.

T.J. Buonomo (not verified)

Sun, 04/17/2011 - 9:32am

Bill C.,

It is unclear to me what U.S. policy is regarding foreign investment in Afghanistan, much less how various political factions within and outside the Afghan government perceive it or the degree to which they accurately understand it. E.g. have our diplomats in Afghanistan lobbied for unrestricted foreign investment in Afghan natural resources, etc. etc. I do know that this issue caused considerable distrust in Iraq and there is certainly a history of imperial exploitation in both Iraq and Afghanistan that has profoundly shaped each nation's approach to its foreign relations.

If you can point to resources I would be very interested to review them.

Bill C. (not verified)

Sun, 04/17/2011 - 9:22am


So why can't the Taliban and their ilk (the more-conservative, radically conservative or otherwise obstructive elements) be allowed to govern in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the less-integrated world?

Because they stand in the way of our objective, which are to bring about a more-liberal, more-open, more-accommodating and more-cohesive order to these parts of the world and to the world overall.

Bill C. (not verified)

Sun, 04/17/2011 - 8:31am


I do not believe that "nation-building" is about maintaining the status quo.

"Nation-building" would seem to be about causing and bringing about fundamental economic, political and social change -- and having adequate security forces in-place to deal with the resistance that is common to such a "change" initiative -- especially when such an initiative is seen as being the idea of, initiated by and undertaken to appease a foreign entity.

But I might have to concede that it is the Americans, at present, who are more upset with Karzai; specifically because he has been so inept at implementing these "nation-building" (state and societal change) initiatives exactly as we require.

Bottom line however: In order to appease the Americans -- and to satisfy their ambitions for the region -- it would appear that the Taliban and the Afghan people generally would have to compromise not only re: Al Qaeda and "pipe-line routes" but, more importantly, re: aspects of their present way of life. Such would seem to be what "nation building" is really all about. To wit: to transform the state and society fundamentally such that it might better "fit in" and better accommodate the modern world.

And this (fundamental change in the desired direction) the Taliban, and the other more conservative/radical elements of outlier states and societies generally, should they govern, would not be expected to support or allow.

Bii C:

Re this:

<i>Because they are viewed as being agents of foreign powers who, acting in these foreign powers behalf, are attempting to implement fundamental economic, political and social changes that the population does not fully understand, does not really agree with and does not necessarily desire? </i>

Has the Karzai government attempted to implement any such fundamental change, or any change at all? Why should we suppose that the populace is upset over change if there isn't any significant change? Isn't it really pretty much business as usual, governance Afghan style, just with a different set of guys in charge?

Bill C. (not verified)

Sun, 04/17/2011 - 12:31am

"If the political leaders NATO is backing in Afghanistan are viewed by their own people as inept, repressive and corrupt..."

What if the political leaders NATO is backing in Afghanistan are disliked for a different reason, to wit:

Because they are viewed as being agents of foreign powers who, acting in these foreign powers behalf, are attempting to implement fundamental economic, political and social changes that the population does not fully understand, does not really agree with and does not necessarily desire?

What if this perception of unwanted and forced state and societal change is being reinforced by the fact that the population sees the foreign power bringing in significant numbers of foreign security forces -- and recruiting, training and equipping even greater numbers of local security personnel -- whose job it appears to be is to hold the population at bay while these unwanted economic, political and social changes (which appear to be designed to meet the wants, needs and ambitions of the foreign powers) are put into place?

Accordingly, should we take a moment, step back and look at our activities in Afghanistan -- and elsewhere in the less-integrated world -- and our problems related thereto -- and see them more in terms of our overall, broad national security and foreign policy objectives re: outlier states and societies (as noted at the second paragraph of my comment above) and less in terms of other factors?

T.J. Buonomo (not verified)

Fri, 04/15/2011 - 6:25pm

After 10 years of war with the West, It is likely that the Taliban would present an obstacle to regional economic integration on NATO's desired terms, which could mean lost financial investments for some interested parties.

That said, they are apparently not opposed to foreign investment and economic development per se. They were in negotiations with the Clinton administration and then then Bush administration- nearly up until the September 11th attacks -over pipeline routes from Turkmenistan through their territory. They would almost certainly want to exert strict control over how Afghanistan developed and the internal political and cultural implications of that development model but I don't think that that should necessarily be viewed as a problem unless they intended to also begin fomenting pan-Islamist movements in neighboring countries.

If the political leaders NATO is backing in Afghanistan are viewed by their own people as inept, repressive and corrupt and the Pakistanis cannot be convinced to stop playing a double game with the Taliban, it might be better to allow the chips fall where they may in Afghanistan (again, so long as the Afghan Taliban renounced their ties to Al Qaeda) rather than risk fueling the fire the harder we push.

Bill C. (not verified)

Fri, 04/15/2011 - 12:39pm

The overall mission in Afghanistan, for a long time now, would not seem to be just about Al Qaeda, per se.

Rather, the overall mission in Afghanistan, consistent with our national security and foreign policy agenda generally, would seem to be about transforming the state and society such that it might become (1) less of a problem for the global economy/international community and (2) more of a conduit/resource that the global economy/international community might access and utilize in the pursuit of its interests.

If one reads this article carefully, then this would seem to be clear.

Thus, could we say that the overall problem with the Taliban is not, per se, their support of Al Qaeda but, rather, their insular, anti-modern nature and philosophy, which, should they govern, would preclude us from achieving our objectives (see my paragraph 2 above) in Afghanistan and elsewhere in the less-intergrated world?