Ahmed Rashid (left), international journalist and expert on Pakistan (left), and Paul Pillar (right), CIA analyst and counter terrorism expert.  Photo by Geoffrey C. Parker
Ahmed Rashid (left), international journalist and expert on Pakistan (left), and Paul Pillar (right), CIA analyst and counter terrorism expert. Photo by Geoffrey C. Parker
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When President George W. Bush launched the Afghanistan war two months after the World Trade Center had been bombed, taking on Afghanistan seemed like taking up a game of checkers. We had might and right on our side, and all we had to do was jump. The objectives seemed pretty clear: go after Al Qaeda and get bin Laden, and squash this new terrorist threat like a big crunchy bug. Since the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan wouldn't turn bin Laden over, muscle them out of the way, too, and spread some democracy around while we were at it.

We started piling up our game pieces: Jump, take the Taliban down in Kabul; jump, take them down in Jalalabad. We could see bin Laden on the other side, over in the Tora Bora caves right up against the Pakistan border, and we were headed straight towards the end-game when we took our eyes off the board and turned them towards Iraq.

By the time our attention refocused on the game-board of South Asia eight years later, President Obama was in the White House and it was clear that we hadn't been playing checkers there after all. This was high-stakes chess and the Americans, the Pakistanis, and the Afghans had been playing it for 30 years or more.

There were some Mad Mullahs with itchy trigger fingers at the table, and there were some Guys in Ties, our Guys in Ties, who had flung big wads of CIA cash and high-grade weapons at those same mad mullahs back in the 1980s when the Afghans were fighting the Soviets in the largest CIA covert war in history.

Back then, the Evil Empire was our focus and the mad mullahs were known as Freedom Fighters. We gave them billions of dollars to defeat the Soviets, and when they did the job, the guys in ties pulled in their pockets and walked away from the game, leaving a large stockpile of weapons, a sanctuary for radical Islamists, and a smoldering Afghanistan at the mercy of Freedom Fighters turned Taliban thugs.

We know the rest: civil war, the rise of the Taliban and Sharia law, a destroyed infrastructure, public stonings and hangings, the largest heroin trade in the world, one of the lowest literacy rates, and women covered up like summer furniture at the guest house in the off-season.

It might have been different if the US had taken up the Soviets' invitation to work together to set up a tenable government in Afghanistan. But this was the end of the Cold War, and we weren't interested in talking to the Soviets. The Soviet Union was busy, too. It was falling apart.

Now we are back at the table-and back at the Great Game of influence in South and Central Asia. Only this time, the stakes are higher.

This time, nuclear bombs are in the mix-nuclear bombs that could, with a shift of power in Pakistan, end up in the hands of radical Islamists.

Some of the same players are present: China, Russia and India - who are all positioning themselves to take advantage of Afghanistan's natural resources in the future; the weak pro-American Pakistani government that aims for reforms; the scary Pakistani intelligence agency, the ISI; and the Pakistani military, who really controls the country and therefore the bombs.

The new players include the Pakistani Taliban, the Afghani Taliban hiding in Pakistan, the shape-shifting Al Qaeda who is first in Yemen and Pakistan and suddenly lighting its underwear on fire in American airspace. There is the weak Karzai government and a parliament that includes 21 Gulbuddin supporters - Gulbuddin, the maddest of mullahs, was known for skinning his Soviet captives alive during the CIA proxy war against the Soviets in Afghanistan.

So here we are, deep in a modern version of The Great Game: a real war with a real body count in Afghanistan. The prevailing U.S. Plan in Afghanistan is General McChrystal's counter-insurgency strategy, which relies on increased military troops to push the insurgents back, a civilian force to build up the infrastructure once the ground is clear, and a working Afghani government that can actually govern.

But Americans have lost their stomach for war. They want to know: Why should we stay? And can we win this war?

These were the questions taken up last weekend by some of the most informed minds on Afghanistan and Pakistan today-ambassadors, CIA analysts, anthropologists, a Pakistani journalist, a war strategist. They came together at the 23rd annual Camden Conference on Foreign Affairs, which was held at the Camden Opera House February 19 to 21. The topic was "Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India: Crossroads of Conflict."

One year ago, in a decisive statement, President Obama said this war cannot be won militarily," said Ahmed Rashid, a veteran Pakistani journalist and author of books on the Taliban and militant Islam who was also the keynote speaker at the Camden Conference. "President Obama said the U.S. strategy had to move towards ending this war."

Rashid, who has been covering the region as a journalist for 30 years and has the ear of international broadcast media and influential Washington insiders, agreed that there is no way to win this war, and no easy way to leave it.

"How did we get from a situation in 2002-2003 where there was no insurgency and when you could have rebuilt the country at one tenth of the price that is needed now?" he asked. Part of the answer lay in President Bush's refusal to acknowledge that Pakistan was providing a safe haven for the Taliban. But mostly, President Bush took his eyes off the prize.

"Iraq sucked up U.S. resources," said Rashid.

While attention and resources were focused on fighting the war in Iraq, the Taliban made their move and spread across the country and "developed enormously as a military force." Originally, the Taliban were ethnic Pashtun, but no longer. Now, the Taliban has become a regional movement with a safe haven in Pakistan.

"The factor of the sanctuary was critical... no insurgency can survive unless there is a sanctuary, and if there is a sanctuary, you cannot defeat an insurgency," Rashid said. "The key task for the Obama administration is the end of the sanctuary."

And at the same time the Taliban are being routed out of the safe haven in Pakistan and the Afghanistan countryside, Rashid said it is essential that the Taliban be brought into the government. It seems a radical notion, but there seems no other way to negotiate a peace that might hold, according to Rashid.

"You know, Afghanistan is tribal. It has an enormous absorptive capacity. There are Communists in government, there are 21 of Gulbuddin's people in parliament. They have been absorbed in the system but are not able to take over the system. The Taliban could become one of those players," Rashid said.

This does not mean, he said, that the progress made in the education, health and social sectors of the country should be set back.

"This is not the Taliban coming in and saying girls education can be scrapped," said Rashid. They must adhere to the constitution. That is, of course, if the Taliban are willing to consider coming in from the cold. But the indications are there: the Taliban and members of the Karzai government have been meeting in back-channel talks in Saudi Arabia, according to Rashid.

"I do see a power-sharing arrangement," he said, noting that even the Taliban have finally grown tired of war. "There are two other factors. The Taliban have been manipulated and micro-managed by the Pakistani ISI and the military and they are tired of it."

"Second, the Taliban have never embraced the Al Qaeda idea of global jihad," he said. They are geographically tied to the region; their interest and area of influence is in Afghanistan and its borders.

Larry Goodson, a national security analyst for the U.S. Army War College who works with senior U.S. Army leaders on military strategy in Afghanistan, said the Bush strategy of counter-terrorism in Afghanistan was essentially to follow a terrorist "hit list."

"It was mostly a cost-effective way to kick the can down the road for another administration to deal with," said Goodson. The counter-insurgency strategy under General McChrystal is a "clear-hold-build" approach, wherein an area is cleared of insurgents, held by the military, and then the basic infrastructure is built. The problem, says Goodson, is that clear-hold-build requires military and civilian forces to be carried out. The staff for the "civilian surge" is just not there, according to Goodson. The United States has funded the military, but not the essential civilian end of the war effort.

"The money suggests the military is what we have," said Goodson. "We are heavily dependent on our gold-plated military, which means any other strategy is likely to be under-resourced. Despite all the calls for a civilian surge, the United States really only has the military to accomplish the bulk of its tasks in Afghanistan."

Ambassador Ronald Neumann, who served as ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007 and in Baghdad in 2004, agreed that little effort had been expended to develop an American civil corps and that it was underfunded and staffed with those who lacked expertise.

"Apparently, all you have to do is fog a mirror to qualify," Neumann said.

"We cannot afford to stay and we cannot afford to go," said Goodson, noting that there are those he works closely with who are well informed about the intricacies of the region who think the war is lost and that we should pull out as soon as possible.

"I disagree that the war is lost," said Goodson, who thinks the McChrystal counter-insurgency plan could work, but that more troops are needed, especially without the civilian surge to do the nation-building end of the equation. "I believe we cannot afford to lose it, but I cannot see how we can be successful as the bully boys for a deeply corrupt and ineffective government."

"The clear-hold-build approach requires responsive governance," said Goodson. Unfortunately, the Karzai government is weak and illegitimate after the fraudulent elections last year.

Neumann echoed what other experts at the conference said: this is the Afghani government we are stuck with and we must try to make it better.

"Karzai is the one we've got. He has little legitimacy, but it can still be earned," said Neumann, noting that the last thing we want to get involved in is working with a new Afghani government or toppling this one. "The discussion has been clouded by the perception that the U.S. is against Karzai. This isn't useful. It's destabilizing. Yelling at him is not going to win the argument. We need to find agreement that we are in this fight together to win."

All the speakers at the Camden Conference agreed that President Obama had made a tactical mistake in setting an 18-month timeline for drawing down troops in Afghanistan.

"I know he had domestic compulsions," said Ahmed Rashid, referring to the economic recession in the United States and the high unemployment rate. Rashid and the other experts at the conference said 18 months is too short a time to allow the new clear-hold-build strategy to work for a variety of reasons: the Afghani police and military won't be sufficiently trained to take over, the efforts to build up agriculture away from the poppy trade will not be fully implemented in a sustainable way, and the basic infrastructure and economy will not yet be stable. Even if the Obama administration did plan to pull out, Rashid and others thought it an absolute mistake to announce it.

"It is probably a grave error and profoundly mistaken in the region," said Neumann. "It plays into the past memory." One of those memories is the civil war that ensued after the Americans and Soviets left the game in 1989. "So people begin hedging bets," he said.

Neumann believes the president has longer than 18 months to work this policy, but he has to show stronger leadership to make it happen.

"What has the administration said? Not a steep ramp-down of troops. I think he has somewhat more time than popularly assumed," said Neumann. "The real break point is 2012 in the presidential election year... there is still time to draw attention away from the circular debate about policy and get to what will make it work."

We don't need to discuss policy, anymore, said Neumann. Now, we need to execute the policy. We need to get the job done.

Why should we stay? "There is not a war of necessity anywhere, as far as the U.S. is concerned," said Paul Pillar, a retired CIA analyst focusing on the Middle East and South Asia and a counter-terrorism expert. "Stability overshadows everything else."

The United States has vital security interests in the region, but it would be a mistake, he said, to confuse them with the military outcome of the Afghanistan war.

His comment was applauded by the Camden Conference audience, indicating that they, too, were weary of war.

Pillar said our top goal is to avoid a nuclear war on the sub-continent. "There is good reason to do counter-terrorism, but not counter-insurgency," he said, referring to the Bush hit-list approach that has been abandoned for the McChrystal clear-hold-build approach.

"Even if Afghanistan is stabilized, this will buy the U.S. little more security," he said. "Even if McChrystal completely succeeds, some of Afghanistan will still allow a safe haven for terrorists."

Our key fight, said Pillar, was against Al Qaeda, who were established in Afghanistan. The problem is Al Qaeda is not tied to Afghanistan, so we adopted the Taliban as our enemy, instead. Their goals, said Pillar, are not bin Laden's goals. They care about Afghanistan, not global jihad.

And what if we wash our hands of Afghanistan and walk away?

"If the Taliban returned to power, I see no advantage for them to harbor bin Laden or Al Qaeda," said Pillar. "Nor do I think Al Qaeda would see an advantage to partner with the Taliban in Afghanistan."

Afghanistan is not the safe haven it once was.

"Paul's argument in a snapshot is 'Let's cut and run right now,'" said Rashid. "I fear that. It has to be a measured withdrawal to stabilize the region and the key is Pakistan. The Pakistani military has not given up its desire to dominate Afghanistan."

Rashid was among the majority of the experts at the conference who thought Pakistan was the real threat in the region and a secure Afghanistan was essential to its stability. Pakistan is in a precarious position if the Americans pick up their pieces and go home, said Rashid. The Pakistani government tends to be pro-American and pro-development, but weak, and the Pakistani military has relied, in part, on militant Islamists to do their dirty work, using them, for example, as a first line of defense in the Kashmir area that Pakistan has been fighting India over for 60 years. This unholy alliance with the Pakistani Taliban and other radical political Islamists could play into a civil war if the Americans abandon Afghanistan a second time-particularly since the Pakistani Taliban are gaining power and rallying with other radical groups on behalf of forming an Islamic State of Pakistan. Imagine nuclear weapons in the hands of militant Islamists, he said.

Ambassador Neumann agreed with Rashid.

"I agree with a deliberative process," said Neumann. "Our leadership is doing the right thing in stating its objectives."

The overarching goal in the region, as stated by President Obama in his speech at West Point last December, is "to disrupt, dismantle and defeat Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and to prevent its capacity to threaten America and our allies in the future." To that end, President Obama announced three objectives: to deny Al Qaeda a safe haven in Pakistan or Afghanistan, to turn back the Taliban momentum and prevent them from overthrowing the government, and to strengthen the Afghanistan government and military so they can take charge of the country.

Neumann said the U.S. can choose to wrap this up and disengage, and spin it as defeat for the terrorists, or choose the state-building path.

"Which is more difficult to sell to Joe the Plumber and Barack the President," said Neumann, referring to the civilian component of the clear-hold-build strategy. "I still think it is the only way to be successful in Pakistan and Afghanistan."

"But it's only half the equation," argued Pillar. "You have to weigh costs versus benefits."

"A level of sophistication is required," said Neumann. "It's not lives in New York versus lives there that really impact on the jihadist war with the U.S. If you take the view that stability in Central Asia counts, then yes, it is worth the cost. If not, then no, it isn't."

"It's not 'Is this a worthy cause?,'" responded Pillar. "It is incrementally how much more are we achieving versus what we would face anyway."

Public opinion in the United States and Europe is against staying in Afghanistan and will be the deciding factor, said Rashid. "The need to talk to the Taliban is paramount," he said.

"We have to negotiate as if there was no war and fight as if there was no negotiation," said Neumann, borrowing a quote from Menachem Begin, who, as leader of Israel, was facing the Palestinians on the battlefield and at the negotiating table.