Dispatched magnificently by US Navy Seals, Osama bin Laden’s well-deserved demise will surely demoralise Islamist terrorists and may disrupt Al Qaeda worldwide, but it can quickly win the Afghan war and bring the troops home if American leaders pay attention, which they seem to be doing.
Knowing how to play the strategic cards, and in which order, requires first understanding Afghan-American strengths, and then addressing the real threat from Pakistan whose generals sheltered Osama for years and lied about it to America.
First, our strategic strengths. We enjoy controversy on television, so we get all the bad news that we pay for and miss the good news from Afghanistan: there is lots of it and the failures are reversible.
Afghans have always had a special love for Americans and the vast majority are desperately thankful that America is there. When America rescued them from the Taliban in 2001, more than 80% of Afghans were grateful. Now more than two-thirds still agree: it could easily rise beyond 90% but some are frustrated at why peace takes so long.
Meanwhile, Afghans take to democracy like ducks to water. Millions risk their lives to vote. Many Afghans insist that women vote as a religious responsibility as well as a civic duty. Ethnically-driven voting (as Irish-Americans once did in Boston) declines as more Afghans in ethnic majorities support minority candidates and vice-versa, demonstrating their real national identity.
More Afghans go to school than ever before, around 7 million, between a third and half of them girls: some schools are bad but it is a start and demand is enormous.
Most Afghans now have radios, in electrified cities many have satellite or cable television, and almost every family has mobile phones: before 2001, not 5% had telephones and the whole country only had three international land-lines (two for the president and one in the Kabul Post Office).
Afghan refugees settled around the world, so entrepreneurs phone cousins to set up business deals in carpets, cashmere wool, dried fruit and nuts. Calling relatives in California, Germany or Australia, or watching television, they import new ideas and modern attitudes.
Media modernizes them, as with ‘Arab Spring’ in the nearby Middle East. Afghan news broadcasts are free and aggressive; their game-shows, soaps and comedies (all with pretty women) are popular and high-quality. Drive-time radio mullahs explain that good Muslims must ‘protect Jews and Christians.” Not just tolerate, but protect.
Afghans are as tolerant as they are quietly devout. Naturally respectful and polite, most are hurt and confused at why an American would burn a Koran. Few got angry and protested; armed and radical-religious insurgents turned some demonstrations violent; and from their president on down, Afghans are ashamed at their own violence.
Corruption is a big problem. President Karzai thought the fastest way to make peace was to include all regional power-brokers, many of them crooked war-lords. Now Afghans may be stuck with them until Karzai finishes his second and final term in office and a better consensus can form. Chronically underpaid bureaucrats hear that America wants to run away fast, so they are incentivised to steal for their families, enough to last 25 years if the Taliban comes back. Afghans think the solution lies with time, with strengthening democracy and accountability, and with economic growth to fuel fairer government salaries. They may be right: England had centuries of predatory corruption but grew out of it, as India and Thailand do today.
Meanwhile the Afghan economy is growing fast, more than tripling family incomes since 2001. An ultra-modern factory now sells concentrated juice to Europe, Canada, India and the Arabian Gulf. Afghans controlled 20% of the world’s raisin market and now export them again, even to America. Staffed by aggressive, educated young Afghans returned from abroad, the recently-dormant Agriculture Ministry, assisted by American experts, builds irrigation work; introduces new crops, farm credit and marketing; and teaches new technologies in an 80% agricultural economy. A dozen new crops, including saffron, earn farmers more than growing poppies. Women learn to raise chickens or plant their own orchards because every dollar brought home increases their prestige and power.
Afghanistan is on the way to becoming a mildly prosperous little democracy if the security problem can be solved.
Understanding 30 years of war is easy if your community closed its schools for a generation, fired the police and gave every bully, criminal and town-drunk a machine-gun: Afghans could not have survived without their big, mutually-supporting families, strong work-ethic and resilient moral values including religious ones.
But in a typical small Afghan province (like an American county – Afghanistan is as big as Texas), only about 200 militants sneak in from their safe havens in Pakistan but each hires 15 unemployed young thugs: 2,500 gangsters can create a reign of terror and, with the police driven away, frightened families have nowhere to turn. Afghans from such provinces think their government and their American friends could eliminate the threat in a few days each, then under law and order local thugs could take honest jobs digging irrigation ditches.
Security can be restored by correcting two strategic mistakes. In 2009, then-US commander General Stanley McChrystal proposed cleaning the Taliban out of their many weaker provinces, letting government services and economic growth take root there before head-butting in Kandahar, the insurgent stronghold. His replacement, General David Petraeus, reversed the plan and nobody seems to know why: failing to end Kandahar’s insurgency, his surge drove many Taliban into new provinces.
Second, as America’s Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair complained before he got fired in 2010, the strategy toward Pakistan is “all carrots and no sticks.” According to the prestigious London School of Economics, Pakistan’s all-powerful generals sit on the Taliban board deciding where to attack Americans and Afghans. Al Qaeda and Taliban leaders move freely in Pakistan’s undeclared war against us, while America pumps billions even into Pakistan’s military, afraid that Pak nuclear weapons may ‘fall into the wrong hands.’ This strategy is going nowhere.
This became obvious when brilliant American intelligence, analysis, police work and military action killed Osama bin Laden in what may have been a Pak military-intelligence guest-house, where he had lived for years almost next door to Pakistan’s military academy. As I know from experience, foreigners in Pakistan literally cannot pick up the phone or go out on an innocent date without Pakistan’s Special Branch, Intelligence Branch and possibly their military intelligence service (the ISI) knowing about it, so any official surprise about Osama’s whereabouts is feigned and laughable.
As best we know so far, Pakistan was pressured by America to find Osama, and so to create what Nixon called ‘plausible deniability’ the ISI had to fork over enough intelligence to look serious but not enough to expose their terrorist guest. Tracking a seemingly unimportant Al Qaeda errand-boy, America’s Sherlocks cracked the case. Attempting to slow outrage against Pakistan, at least until US leaders can decide what to do next, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that Pakistani intelligence contributed to Osama’s death, and it did but without Pakistan’s true willingness to help. Their team lied and our team outfoxed them.
World media and many American leaders, having put two and two together, demand tough action against Pakistan whose generals know equally well where to find Taliban leaders including Mullah Omar, Jalaludin Haqqani and their radical ally Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Most appear to circulate at liberty between the Pakistani cities of Quetta and Karachi. In all likelihood, the generals also know where to find the terrorists responsible for the 2008 attacks on Indians in Mumbai. A change of heart from Pakistan could decapitate Islamist terrorism in a fortnight, then US and Afghan soldiers could clean up the insurgents in a summer and victorious American troops could go home with honour, perhaps before Christmas.
But the Pakistani generals may hope that waiting and a few more pious lies will pay off; that cash-strapped America will use Osama’s death as an excuse to declare victory and depart from Afghanistan, leaving it to the Pak-controlled Taliban who remain unweakened by the Al Qaeda leader’s death.
Fearing that Pakistani nukes may fall into even less-democratic hands, America’s leaders may let the generals off the hook unless they pay attention. Pakistan’s economy is breaking up fast. Last month, daily 14-hour electricity stoppages closed 125 factories in Peshawar and put tens of thousands out of work, where hospitals refuse to perform elective surgery in the dark and the 115-degree heat: other cities can be no better off. With one in four Pakistanis earning less than $2 a day and with youth unemployment at record highs, Western-led, Iran-style banking and energy sanctions would shut down Pakistan’s economy swiftly and may see its leaders hanging from lamp-posts. Their generals know it and play a dangerous game of “chicken” with America, hoping that the superpower is too scared to stop pumping in money that helps them to kill American troops and Afghans over the border.
America needs to go home fast and tend to her own domestic problems, but she can ill afford to turn Central Asia and much of South Asia over to the sort of people who bankroll and command the Taliban, and who cunningly sheltered Osama and still protect many like him. Otherwise, when some new, younger version of Osama emerges, he will have his fully-funded training camps in a safe haven that is maybe half as large as the continental United States.
It is time to get smart and get tough, ordering Pakistan to shut down the Taliban and Al Qaeda or face total economic collapse. Incentives can be proposed at one meeting to take place incrementally, from stopping visas, closing flight paths and freezing bank accounts all the way to an energy embargo.
Meanwhile, as Afghans celebrate the efforts of US Navy Seals, they keep hoping that their big brothers back in Washington will get even tougher on terrorism, and tougher on the causes of terrorism.
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