That's the question on the minds at the Pentagon and NATO these days. It's a "more for less" bargain now, eight years down the road. The resurgent Taliban have plainly shown the Western forces need a lot more troops on the ground but the Afghan election has shown that the country's warlords hold the balance of political power and that's now been institutionalized into one desperately criminal enterprise.
Of course we're no longer just fighting the Taliban. That neat little scenario rode off into the sunset sometime around 2006. Since then the insurgency has morphed into a more complex alliance of religious fundamentalists, warlords, drug lords, common criminals, aggrieved folks looking for revenge and garden variety nationalists who just want these white people to go away.
Afghanistan's Deeply Fractured Power Base or Run-Off - to Where?
Right now signs point to a runoff election between Hamid Karzai and his Tajik-Pashtun rival Abdullah Abdullah. What hangs in the balance? A lot and, at the same time, almost nothing. How much different will Afghanistan be under a supposed reformer like Abdullah Abdullah? Probably not very much at all.
Power in Afghanistan isn't won in an election. The last vote that Karzai won in a landslide proved that. Despite his solid win at the polls, Karzai's powers almost immediately began devolving to the warlords who once comprised the Northern Alliance. They saw to it that Karzai's control remained largely bottled up within the boundaries of the capital, Kabul. Outside the capital, it was the warlords who shared their power with Karzai but only on their terms.
The West had five years to clean up the mess from that first election and, beyond bitching at Karzai about corruption, we did bugger all. That paved the way for an even more disastrous outcome in the current elections. Karzai didn't even attempt to hide the Faustian deals he struck with Uzbek, Tajik and Hazara warlords. He bought their support and they in turn cajoled and intimidated their own local authorities to support Hamid.
But what about Abdullah? If he wins he steps straight into the shoes of Hamid Karzai. He will have to confront not only the insurgency but those warlords who backed the incumbent. Does anyone really believe those warlords are going to allow Abdullah to consolidate his power at the expense of their own interests? Please, this is Afghanistan.
NATO's Options - Bad and Worse
The outcome of this election - either way - could transform Afghanistan and not for the better. So long as warlordism holds sway, Afghanistan will never be more than a civil war on hold. Nothing more than that. Nothing.
Every warlord in Afghanistan has, by turns, fought against and fought alongside every other warlord. Treachery is their stock in trade. Every now and then they do unite - to throw out a foreigner (that would be us).
Up to 2001 the Northern Alliance was on the field, contesting the Taliban's control. After 2001 these guys moved to the bleachers (government) and sat by watching us try to keep their former rivals on the defensive. Now the Taliban are back and they're on the offensive. If those warlords are tossed from the bleachers by a reformer like Abdullah they have to go back to the playing field, they have to pick a side to join. What do they stand to gain by siding with us and what do they stand to gain by siding with the insurgency?
If this election sees the warlord base given the boot, we may find ourselves in a position remarkably akin to that experienced by the Soviets before they were driven out. All the tribes coalesce against us while we're left to defend a nub government that does not control the countryside with an indigenous army that doesn't want to fight. That is the worst case scenario.
The best case scenario sees Karzai holding onto office, the presidency even further weakened and more directly beholden to a group of pretty nasty warlords with names like Dostum and Fahim. There will be fallout. Those who have backed Abdullah, at least half the population, will believe the election was rigged, stolen. At that point the only question becomes how many of them choose to join or support the insurgency?
How much broader does the insurgency have to become before it transforms into a civil war? That's really debatable but we may be about to find out.
It's understandable that the Pentagon and key NATO allies are now calling for a substantial increase in Western forces in Afghanistan. We've been treading water but it's an ebb tide and we're getting swept out to sea.
To listen to Western generals stating their case is to listen to gibberish. They've proven themselves astonishingly adept at spouting nonsense for the past eight years. Remember our own military genius, swaggering Rick Hillier (the "Big Cod"), who boastfully pronounced that Canadian soldiers were going to take over Kandahar province to kill Taliban "scumbags" which he numbered at a "few dozen"? Gibberish then and it's been a steady diet of nonsense ever since.
These guys are still fighting the last war, the one that began in 2001-2003. That was a military war, at least from their point of view. However when the Taliban returned, they came with a classic political war, an insurgency. They had no artillery, no tanks, no jet fighters, no attack helicopters. Even if they were stupid enough to want a military war, they had no means to fight one. But they weren't stupid. They've been steeped in centuries of highly successful unconventional warfare, insurgency, political warfare.
When they came back we had to fight their war, the political war. Our war, the military war, could no longer decide the question. But fighting the political war would have required a massive infusion of forces and enormously costly aid programmes.
We needed hundreds of thousands of troops dispersed among the hamlets and villages of the countryside to secure the local populations from insurgent control. If you don't sleep in their villages, ever ready to repel the insurgents, the villagers have no choice but to co-operate with your enemy if they want to survive.
We needed thousands of additional troops to confront the enemy within, the warlords. We needed to support the central government to keep it strong enough to resist and overcome warlordism but we didn't even try. With that we surrendered the central government to corruption and thuggery.
At the same time we needed to create a viable, alternative economy but, instead, we sat by as the opium fields spread through the countryside.
For a while the generals had a pat answer. We were only staying in Afghanistan until we had trained an Afghan army capable of defeating the insurgency. At first we talked of a modest force and then we boosted that to 150,000. We're now at 180,000 trained soldiers and, not surprisingly, we have set the target at doubling that to 360,000 to 400,000 Afghan soldiers.
Why do we keep moving the goalposts? Because it buys us time and we don't have any other answers. If there's any country that cannot begin to afford to field an army of a third-million soldiers it's dirt poor Afghanistan. The central government's revenues are barely enough to cover the costs of the educational system. This also quite wilfully ignores the reality that there'll never be an Afghan army big enough to prop up a central government that's rotting out from within. What does that leave you with? A huge, unpaid army that exists to defend itself? Brilliant idea!
Canada's only saving grace is that we're out of Afghanistan in 2011. We should have been out this year except for Mr. Dion's fecklessness. Imagine if we'd had an election on the issue of Afghanistan. We might have lost, narrowly. But that would have made Afghanistan Harper's folly and we would have been powerfully positioned to sweep him away today. I guess that's the price you pay when you don't have the courage of your convictions.
I think the Afghanistan war is one that'll go into the "fiasco" column. It sure hasn't been the soldiers' fault, not in the slightest. They've done everything we could have asked of them and much more. They have been sold out not by public opinion at home but by their own generals who, from the outset, have persistently shown themselves unfit - and undeserving - to lead.