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Going the Distance

The war in Afghanistan isn't doomed. We just need to rethink the insurgency.

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By Seth G. Jones
Sunday, February 15, 2009; Page B01

On the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan's capital, lies the Kabre Ghora graveyard. It is believed to contain the graves of 158 British soldiers, diplomats and their families who died in the city during the Anglo-Afghan wars of 1839-1842 and 1879-1880. The name comes from the term Afghans use to describe British soldiers: "Ghora."

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The original British gravestones have disappeared except for the remnants of 10, which have been preserved and relocated to a spot against the cemetery's southern wall. I have been to Kabre Ghora several times, but on my most recent visit, I noticed something new -- a memorial honoring soldiers from the United States, Canada and Europe who have died in Afghanistan since 2001.

Afghanistan has a reputation as a graveyard of empires, based as much on lore as on reality. This reputation has contributed to a growing pessimism that U.S. and NATO forces will fare no better there than did the Soviet and British armies, or even their predecessors reaching back to Alexander the Great. The gloom was only stoked by last week's brazen suicide attacks in Kabul on the eve of a visit by Richard Holbrooke, President Obama's special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan.

But it would be irresponsible to concede defeat. Yes, the situation is serious, but it's far from doomed. We can still turn things around if we strive for a better understanding of the Afghan insurgency and work to exploit its many weaknesses.

Media reports have inflated the insurgency's strength. A recent Newsweek cover article branded Afghanistan "Obama's Vietnam," arguing that the country has been infiltrated by a dangerous enemy that has repeatedly vanquished foreign invaders. In December 2008, the London-based International Council on Security and Development reported that "the Taliban now holds a permanent presence in 72 percent of Afghanistan, up from 54 percent a year ago." But on repeated trips to rural Afghanistan, including one late last year, I found that the Taliban control little actual territory.

Reporting on Afghanistan could use a dose of reality. I got mine last November, when I visited Zabol province in the south, along the border with Pakistan. Though the Taliban have pushed into several districts in the province, locals were blunt in private. "We hate them," one villager near the city of Qalat told me. "And we don't subscribe to their version of Islam. We just need help defending our towns and villages."

These sentiments are apparent in a range of public opinion polls. Just last week, an ABC/BBC poll indicated that only 4 percent of Afghans support a Taliban government. When asked who posed the biggest danger in the country, 58 percent of respondents said the Taliban. In addition, nearly 70 percent said that it was "good" or "mostly good" that U.S. forces overthrew the Taliban regime in 2001.

It's not difficult to see why. The Taliban subscribe to a radical interpretation of Sunni Islam grounded in Deobandism, a school of thought emanating from the Dar ul-Ulum madrassa established in Deoband, India, in 1867. The objective of senior Taliban leaders is to establish an extreme version of sharia, or Islamic law, across the country, which they refer to as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. In the 1990s, the Taliban closed cinemas and banned music, along with almost every other conceivable kind of entertainment. In Kabul, they carried out brutal punishments in front of large crowds in the former soccer stadium.

The Taliban were -- and still are -- deeply unpopular. Most Afghans don't subscribe to their religious zealotry, which the founders of Deobandism wouldn't even recognize. And the rapid collapse of the Taliban regime in 2001, barely two months after the war started, served as a striking testament to the group's weak foundation.

Yet the insurgency, which has engulfed parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan, does not consist solely of the Taliban. It is fractured among more than a dozen groups, including the Haqqani network, led by Pashtun militant Jalaluddin Haqqani; mujaheddin leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-e-Islami; Tehreek-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi; al-Qaeda and many others. A bevy of Pashtun tribes, criminal organizations, militia forces and government officials from Pakistan, Iran and even Afghanistan sometimes cooperate with the insurgents. The largest and most powerful group is the Taliban, though they have only limited influence over other groups.

The leaders of many insurgent groups are united by a common hatred of U.S. and allied forces, as well as opposition to President Hamid Karzai's government, which they view as having sold out to Western infidels. But they have very different ideologies and support bases. Some, like al-Qaeda, have a broad global agenda that includes fighting the United States and its allies (the far enemy) and overthrowing Western-friendly regimes in the Middle East (the near enemy) to establish a pan-Islamic caliphate. Others, like the Taliban and the Haqqani network, are focused on Afghanistan and on re-establishing their extremist ideology there.

Foot soldiers join the insurgency for a variety of reasons. Some are motivated by money. "Some insurgent groups pay better than we do," one U.S. soldier in the southern province of Kandahar told me recently. "It's basic economics." In some areas, he said, the Afghan National Police and Afghan National Army pay recruits roughly $100 per month, while the Taliban have paid $150 or more. Others are motivated by tribal rivalry or are coerced by insurgents, who sometimes threaten villagers or their families unless they cooperate.

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