Kissinger on Afghanistan

Stephen DeAngelis

February 27, 2009

Henry Kissinger, who has labored in academia’s ivory towers as well as Foggy Bottom’s government offices, remains, at age 86, keenly interested in world events and U.S. responses to them. Never shy to express his opinions, Dr. Kissinger offers up his views on the war in Afghanistan for consideration by the Obama administration [“A Strategy for Afghanistan,” Washington Post, 26 February 2009]. As one might expect, Dr. Kissinger is not happy with the direction the war is heading; otherwise, he would have likely have remained silent. He writes:

“The Obama administration faces dilemmas familiar to several of its predecessors. America cannot withdraw from Afghanistan now, but neither can it sustain the strategy that brought us to this point. The stakes are high. Victory for the Taliban in Afghanistan would give a tremendous shot in the arm to jihadism globally — threatening Pakistan with jihadist takeover and possibly intensifying terrorism in India, which has the world’s third-largest Muslim population. Russia, China and Indonesia, which have all been targets of jihadist Islam, could also be at risk.”

As he plainly states, Kissinger is worried about potential spillover effects from a bad result in Afghanistan. My colleague Tom Barnett often talks and writes about the “Big Bang,” the beneficial spillover effect that the Bush administration hoped to create as a result of positive outcomes in Afghanistan and Iraq. As Tom writes in his new book, Great Powers: America and the World After Bush:

“I still admire George W. Bush’s display of audacity and hope in launching his ‘big bang’ strategy upon the Persian Gulf. There’s no question in my mind that, no matter the weak rationales offered (or the slick sales job), Saddam Hussein was a horrific dictator whose time had come. … By locking America into real, long-term ownership of strategic security in the Gulf, Bush-Cheney transformed our dedication to maintaining an open door to that region’s energy into a commitment to bodyguard globalization’s ongoing transformation of those traditional societies. To some, that historical process will always smack of ‘globalization at the barrel of a gun,’ but to me, the genuine realist recognizes the fact that, whenever globalization creeps in, it is always the most ambitious and most talented that step forward to cut their own deals (like the Kurds in Iraq), triggering social tumult and ethnic divisions and even political fragmentation as a result. … This wave of disintegrating integration is beyond anyone’s control at this point, for it is fueled by the demands for a better life of three billion-plus new capitalists around our planet—arguably the greatest collective power the world will endure across this century. Simply put, these once-and-future consumers will not be denied, only placated. So what George W. Bush’s ‘big bang’ amounted to was an attempt, however unconsciously, to step in front of that historical tsunami and ride it on toward lasting political change for the better. In the end, I believe history will vindicate Bush’s audacity in this regard, however poor his follow-up execution proved to be.”

Kissinger worries that a bad result in Afghanistan will create a big bang, but not a good one. It appears he favors President Obama’s decision to ramp up operations in Afghanistan, but he suggests that the President look beyond simply fighting a counter-insurgency war.

“Heretofore, America has pursued traditional anti-insurgency tactics: to create a central government, help it extend its authority over the entire country and, in the process, bring about a modern bureaucratic and democratic society. That strategy cannot succeed in Afghanistan — especially not as an essentially solitary effort. The country is too large, the territory too forbidding, the ethnic composition too varied, the population too heavily armed. No foreign conqueror has ever succeeded in occupying Afghanistan. Even attempts to establish centralized Afghan control have rarely succeeded and then not for long. Afghans seem to define their country in terms of a common dedication to independence but not to unitary or centralized self-government.”

It’s true that Dr. Kissinger’s arguments have history on their side. He’s being politically correct when he describes Afghanistan as ethnically diverse rather than tribal. But “tribal” probably better describes the situation there. In many ways, Afghanistan has never been a country. Having made his case that Afghanistan is a shattered nation (in terms of political and military control), the good doctor begins laying out his recommended strategy.

“The truism that the war is, in effect, a battle for the hearts and minds of the Afghan population is valid enough in concept. The low standard of living of much of the population has been exacerbated by 30 years of civil war. The economy is on the verge of sustaining itself through the sale of narcotics. There is no significant democratic tradition. Reform is a moral necessity. But the time scale for reform is out of sync with the requirements of anti-guerrilla warfare. Reform will require decades; it should occur as a result of, and even side by side with, the attainment of security — but it cannot be the precondition for it.”

Regular readers of this blog know that I have long argued that development and security must progress simultaneously. Although Kissinger indicates that security “cannot be the precondition” for development, I think he would admit that a certain level of security (something short of total security) must be attained in order for development activities to gain a toehold in a conflicted area. Kissinger goes on to make another important point — even though various sectors of human activity may be headed in the same direction, they are not going to proceed at the same pace. I have often noted that economic reforms generally precede political reforms. Kissinger continues:

“The military effort will inevitably unfold at a pace different from the country’s political evolution. Immediately, however, we are able to make sure that our aid efforts, now diffuse and inefficient, are coherent and relevant to popular needs. And much greater emphasis should be given to local and regional entities.”

In a post entitled Fixing Fragile States, I reviewed a book by the same name written by Seth Kaplan, a business consultant and entrepreneur who has run multinational firms and founded successful local corporations in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Kaplan believes that old approaches to helping fragile states have failed because they have concentrated almost exclusively on helping ill-conceived and illegitimate government bureaucracies build capacities. That top down approach, Kaplan asserts, won’t work as long as the institutions that need support are not recognized or utilized by the local population. I believe this is the same point that Kissinger is making. “The cure for fragile states,” Kaplan asserts, “is development.” On that point, Kaplan, Kissinger, and I agree. Kissinger continues:

“Military strategy should concentrate on preventing the emergence of a coherent, contiguous state within the state controlled by jihadists. In practice, this would mean control of Kabul and the Pashtun area. A jihadist base area on both sides of the mountainous Afghan-Pakistani border would become a permanent threat to hopes for a moderate evolution and to all of Afghanistan’s neighbors. Gen. David Petraeus has argued that, reinforced by the number of American forces he has recommended, he should be able to control the 10 percent of Afghan territory where, in his words, 80 percent of the military threat originates. This is the region where the ‘clear, hold and build’ strategy that had success in Iraq is particularly applicable. In the rest of the country, our military strategy should be more fluid, aimed at forestalling the emergence of terrorist strong points. It should be based on close cooperation with local chiefs and coordination with their militias to be trained by U.S. forces — the kind of strategy that proved so successful in Anbar province, the Sunni stronghold in Iraq. This is a plausible approach, though it seems improbable that the 17,000 reinforcements President Obama recently committed are enough. In the end, the fundamental issue is not so much how the war will be conducted but how it will be ended. Afghanistan is almost the archetypal international problem requiring a multilateral solution for a political framework to emerge. … In Afghanistan, such an outcome is achievable only if its principal neighbors agree on a policy of restraint and opposition to terrorism. Their recent conduct argues against such prospects.”

The “recent conduct” to which Kissinger refers probably includes the recent move by the Pakistani government to cede the Swat Valley to the Taliban (see my post One Step Forward, Two Steps Back in Pakistan). Although that situation has yet to be fully resolved, current Pakistani actions remain troubling. Kissinger offers a warning to the Obama administration that it will fail if it doesn’t pursue a regional solution to Afghanistan situation.

“History should teach them that unilateral efforts at dominance are likely to fail in the face of countervailing intervention by other outside actors. To explore such a vision, the United States should propose a working group of Afghanistan’s neighbors, India and the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. Such a group should be charged with assisting in the reconstruction and reform of Afghanistan and establishing principles for the country’s international status and obligations to oppose terrorist activities. Over time, America’s unilateral military efforts can merge with the diplomatic efforts of this group. As the strategy envisaged by Petraeus succeeds, the prospects for a political solution along these lines would grow correspondingly. The precondition for such a policy is cooperation with Russia and Pakistan. With respect to Russia, it requires a clear definition of priorities, especially a choice between partnership or adversarial conduct insofar as it depends on us.”

Kissinger offers a strong warning to Pakistan’s leaders.

“The conduct of Pakistan will be crucial. Pakistan’s leaders must face the fact that continued toleration of the sanctuaries — or continued impotence with respect to them — will draw their country ever deeper into an international maelstrom. If the jihadists were to prevail in Afghanistan, Pakistan would surely be the next target — as is observable by activity already taking place along the existing borders and in the Swat Valley close to Islamabad. If that were to happen, the affected countries would need to consult each other about the implications of the nuclear arsenal of a Pakistan being engulfed or even threatened by jihadists. Like every country engaged in Afghanistan, Pakistan has to make decisions that will affect its international position for decades.”

Dr. Kissinger suggests that the Obama administration should not count on much help from outside the region (especially from America’s NATO allies). Conflict in the Middle East remains unpopular in Europe and Kissinger doesn’t believe that President Obama’s popularity will change that sentiment. He is more sanguine that Europe would be willing to help rebuild Afghanistan should the security situation there be stabilized. Kissinger concludes his op-ed piece with these words: “Whatever strategy [President Obama’s] team selects needs to be pursued with determination. It is not possible to hedge against failure by half-hearted execution.” I hope that members of Kissinger’s own party heed his words as well as the administration.