Today's date:
Winter 2010

To Become an Occupying Power Is a Strategic Defeat

Zbigniew Brzezinski is one of America’s most prominent elder statesmen. He was national security adviser to US President Jimmy Carter when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. His comments here are adapted from an interview with NPQ.

Washington—The growing risk that we face in Afghanistan and Pakistan is that the Taliban—still supported only by a minority—is beginning to be viewed as a resistance movement against a foreign and especially “infidel” occupation, largely American. The Soviets came to be viewed that way within a year of their invasion. When we moved into Afghanistan almost eight years ago—and with a very small force—we were actually welcomed. If we are not careful, we could come to be viewed by the Afghans like the Russians, and that would be a strategic defeat.

That is why we need to take advantage of the complex but traditional Afghan political realities as the point of departure for various local accommodations that respond to the ethnic and tribal diversity of the country—bearing in mind that not every “Taliban” formation has some sort of a binding commitment to al-Qaeda. Moreover, we have to take more into account Pakistani geopolitical interest in strategic depth if we want a 100 percent effort from the Pakistani military in cutting the cross-border Pashtun support for the insurgency and its safe-havens for al-Qaeda.

During the last two years, I have been on record as skeptical about further troop deployments. Moreover, in the top-level policy discussions that preceded the United States decision to intervene in Afghanistan in late October, 2001, and in some of which I was invited to participate, I took the position that, while we must intervene to overthrow the Taliban regime (since it gave safe haven to al-Qaeda), after its overthrow we should not remain in Afghanistan militarily engaged in some “nation-building” exercise.

Since al-Qaeda can always relocate somewhere else, are we going to wage prolonged wars in whatever countries it hides?

But we also have to face the fact that an Afghan policy of greater emphasis on progressive political accommodation and then stabilization—and less on counterinsurgency by a religiously and culturally alien US and NATO military—for some time yet will still require both military and economic assistance from the international community, and especially from the US.

Further, we should get off “the corruption” slogan which we usually employ as a justification for abandoning someone who has become dependent on our support. It comes in particularly poor grace from a country whose political and financial system has not been immune to quite widespread corruption.

On the larger issue of the US role in Afghanistan, the US should accept the timely proposal by German, British and French leaders for an international conference designed to shape a strategy for shifting security responsibilities from NATO to the Afghan government. Two long-term benefits could ensue: The growing risk of the war becoming a war by foreigners against Afghans might be reduced; and our European allies might be less likely to pull out entirely, which would leave the US alone in the lurch.