Charles G. Cogan: “Change” and Air-Conditioning in Afghanistan

By Charles G. Cogan

Several new developments have taken place since I wrote my retrospective article on Afghanistan a few weeks ago, an article that has just appeared in the 25th anniversary issue of World Policy Journal.

Firstly, the world financial crisis has worsened precipitously, which could impel a new American administration to break the cycle of expeditionary wars in Muslim countries in the Middle East.

Secondly, both the Pakistani Army in Pakistan and the American forces from Afghanistan have become more aggressive toward the Taliban and Al Qaeda, while at the same time offers of negotiation have been extended, mainly through the intermediary of the Saudis, to those who are considered the less extremist among the Taliban.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, a new cast of characters has arrived on the scene, principally: President-elect Barack Obama; and Gen. David Petraeus, the new head of the Central Command, whose writ stretches from Egypt and the Horn of Africa to the Indian subcontinent, including Pakistan and Afghanistan. Petraeus has already been to Pakistan to confer with the civilian and military leadership there.

Putting more troops into Afghanistan, as Mr. Obama recommended during the election campaign, would seem to be counterintuitive to history. The more Western troops that are introduced amidst the fiercely nationalistic Pashtuns and other Afghans seems likely to generate more resentment and more resistance. Meantime, civilian casualties continue to mount, both by American Predator drone attacks into Pakistan’s tribal areas and by Allied bombings and ground attacks in Afghanistan, provoking the legendary spirit of vengeance in that part of the world.

The Russian example in the twentieth century and the British example in the nineteenth century are there for all to see. Both were driven out of the country ignominiously. Afghans dislike intensely armed foreigners, especially Westerners, operating with impunity in their own country. Why turn our eyes away from this fact of history?

In the face of this negative past history, perhaps Gen. Petraeus and his impressive staff of counterinsurgency experts can come up with a new solution, which might include the co-opting of Pashtun tribal leaders. But I remain to be convinced: American and allied military remain in Afghanistan in what is seen by many Afghans as a colonial-style occupation force, while the principal enemy—al Qaeda—is not even in Afghanistan anymore but continues to enjoy a safe haven in Pakistan.

In the meantime, the secondary enemy—the Taliban—for having sheltered Al Qaeda enjoys at least the tacit support, in part due to fear, of a majority of the Pashtun population on both sides of the border. (The Taliban being overwhelmingly Pashtun, of course.)

There are many negative signs in this situation: the inability to stifle the opium poppy crop, which has become a significant part of the Afghan economy; the weak leadership in Kabul under Ahmed Karzai; the untested new civilian leadership in Islamabad under Asaf Ali Zardari, who is widely regarded as having a corrupt past; and the reluctance of many of the allied partners in the Afghan stabilization force (ISAF) to put their troops in harm’s way. These so-called “caveats” are having a poisonous effect on the publics of those allied countries whose troops are doing the fighting and sustaining casualties.

As I stated in my retrospective article, the time could come for the United States to make plain to Pakistan that if it cannot control its border, if it continues to allow terrorists to operate in Afghanistan from a safe haven inside Pakistan, then Washington would have to scale back its operations against the Taliban in Afghanistan while keeping its sights trained from afar on possible Al Qaeda operatives. The metaphor I used is, “You can’t air-condition a room with the windows open.”

A new U.S. president has the unique advantage of not having to be burdened by the actions of his predecessor. It is called change.



Charles G. Cogan was chief of the Near-East South-Asia Division in the Directorate of Operations of the CIA from 1979 to 1984. It was this division that directed the covert action operation against the Soviets in Afghanistan. He is now a historian and an associate of the Belfer Center’s International Security Program at Harvard University’s Kennedy School. His article, “Afghanistan: Partners in Time,” can be found in World Policy Journal’s 25th anniversary issue, on newsstands now.

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