In the Arena

Gelb on Afghanistan

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My curmudgeonly pal Les Gelb–an inside-outlaw if there ever was one in the foreign policy priesthood–has a fascinating post up at the Daily Beast about the Pentagon Papers, Wikileaks, Vietnam and Afghanistan. Gelb is in a particularly good place to write about this, since he was the director of the Pentagon Papers project and therefore read all 7,000 pages.

It’s interesting that Gelb doesn’t compare the two: the Pentagon Papers was a disciplined, dedicated narrative effort by the Department of Defense to figure out what had gone wrong in Vietnam; the Wikileaks episode was the spew of unedited secret documents, without narrative. Instead, Gelb writes about the most important thing he didn’t know in compiling the Pentagon project, that President Lyndon Johnson had said, more than once, “I can’t win in Vietnam and I can’t get out.”

Gelb imagines–and he doesn’t have to imagine too hard–similar thoughts bouncing around in Barack Obama’s brain. Afghanistan is different from Vietnam in several ways–the cross-border nature of the Pashtun Taliban insurgency, for one. But the most important difference is ethnic: Vietnam was, with some insignificant exceptions, an ethnic monolith. The vast majority of people north and south of the synthetic border were Vietnamese. It was, and is, one country. Afghanistan is less well-defined. There are Pashtuns in the south and east; there are Uzbeks, Hazaras, Tadjiks and assorted others in the north and west. Since the Russians left in 1989, there has been a civil war between these two factions–also known as the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. The great hope for Hamid Karzai was the he was a Pashtun who did not support the Taliban, who was willing to make common cause with the Northern Alliance and recreate a united Afghanistan. That hasn’t worked, to say the least.

Gelb is a close friend of Joe Biden’s–the two concocted and promoted a partition plan for Iraq during the darkest days of that war–and he has consistently leaned in Biden’s direction on Afghanistan: against nation-building by any name, including counterinsurgency. But the plan he lays out in his Daily Beast post makes eminent good sense:

U.S. withdrawal should begin in July 2011, as promised—and go down to 15,000 or so over, say, two years. This would leave a residual force to train Afghan forces and provide them with logistical and intelligence support. Further firepower and commando capabilities should be readied to deal with international terrorist threats that will pop up. All this adds up to a powerful deterrent capability.

He should then underline America’s continuing commitment to Afghans ready to fight terrorists by instituting a plan to provide economic and military aid. In particular, funds and arms should be directed to the tribal leaders and warlords willing to fight the terrorists—and support should be given to efforts to divide Taliban leadership and attract Taliban fighters away from their cause.

But let me translate a bit: when he talks about training and aiding the Afghan forces, Gelb is really talking about providing support for the Northern Alliance and enlightened Pashtuns–the Afghan army is 90% non-Pashtun–to prevent a return of the Taliban to power. (There was no Vietnamese equivalent of the Northern Alliance, an indigenous force willing to fight for its own territory.) By the way, this is one sure way we can protect at least some of the Afghan women, featured on Time’s cover this week, who do not want to be terrorized by the Taliban. U.S. support for the Northern Alliance might also keep India out of the equation–it and Iran were the N.A.’s two main backers in the 1990s–and help convince the Pakistanis that continued support for the Taliban is not in its best interests. To do that, the U.S. needs to make an absolute, long-term commitment to this project.

From what I can tell, the Obama Administration isn’t ready to move in this direction. Yet. My guess is that it will be when the December Afghan policy review rolls around.