McCain’s Simple Narrative

Last Wednesday, U.S. Senator John McCain gave a tough talk at the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington D.C. think tank.

His topic was Afghanistan.   His message was that the U.S. is losing the war.

The situation in Afghanistan is nowhere near as dire as it was in Iraq just two years ago …  But the same truth that was apparent three years ago in Iraq is apparent today in Afghanistan: when you aren’t winning in this kind of war, you are losing. And, in Afghanistan today, we are not winning. Let us not shy from the truth, but let us not be paralyzed by it either.

Fine.  Let’s not be paralyzed.  But there is a way in which Sen. McCain managed to avoid discussing the same realities on the ground that everyone else seems to be avoiding.

Let’s just take one issue in particular:  there is no such thing as “the” Taliban.  It might make for easy reporting, but the notion of a single opposition force serves to obscure more than it reveals.

In an article for the left-leaning U.S. magazine The Nation, Christian Science Monitor correspondent Anand Gopal writes:

The movement is a mélange of nationalists, Islamists and bandits that fall uneasily into three or four main factions and many subfactions. The factions have competing commanders with differing ideologies and strategies, who nonetheless agree on one essential goal: kicking out the foreigners.

Gopal goes on to point out how local “Taliban” fighters don’t necessarily have much attachment to Al Qaeda ideologies either.

But the Afghan rebellion is mostly a homegrown affair. Foreign fighters, especially Al Qaeda, have little ideological influence on most of the insurgency, and Afghans keep their distance from such outsiders. “Sometimes groups of foreigners speaking different languages walk past,” Ghazni resident Fazel Wali recalled. “We never talk to them, and they don’t talk to us.”  Al Qaeda’s vision of global jihad doesn’t resonate in the rugged highlands and windswept deserts of southern Afghanistan.

So defeating — woops, I almost wrote “the Taliban” — multiple opposition forces is a complicated proposition.

But getting into this discussion doesn’t exactly leave the audience feeling inspired.  In his comments, Sen. McCain gave but a short few words to the notion that there is no single Taliban movement.  Those words came in the context of early signs of progress by NATO and U.S. troops:  “The Taliban showed signs of internal dissention and splintering.”  That’s a bit different from Gopal’s take, which is that in the current war, there hasn’t been a single unified opponent for quite sometime.

There was one bright spot in McCain’s comments — his acknowledgment that the U.S. military-first approach in Pakistan has been a mistake.  Though McCain’s alternative is couched in the language of counter-insurgency, it still marks a departure from the habitual gifts of military aid that the U.S. tends to bestow upon Pakistani military leaders.

We should start by empowering the new civilian government in Islamabad to defeat radicalism with greater support for development, health, and education. Today, development assistance constitutes just one percent of all U.S. funding directed toward programs in the tribal and border areas. This must change.

On this point, I agree.

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