The December 28, 2009 edition of Newsweek features an interview of General David Petraeus by Fareed Zakaria. The principal topic is the war in Afghanistan, and while most of the interview competently covers familiar ground, there was one very glaring exchange that gets to the heart of American apparent lack of understanding or willful self-denial of the situation there. In the exchange, Zakaria asks Petraeus specifically about the Pashtuns and how American efforts affect them. It is a good and comprehensive question, and deserves to be quoted fully.
Zakaria: “When you look at what happened in Afghanistan, the complaint you hear from some people, like former Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf, is that you’ve dispossessed the Pashtuns.You’ve allowed the Northern Alliance to take over the country. Yes, President Hamid Karzai is a Pashtun, but that’s window dressing. If you look at the Afghan Army, its largely a Northern Alliance Army–in other words, a non-Pashtun army.”
This is a pretty good summary of the suspicions that have been expressed repeatedly in this space: basically, that the United States is essentially fighting an anti-Pashtun civil war in Afghanistan. If it is, it is bound to fail. History tells us that Afghanistan only exists with some relative level of tranquility under Pashtun (and not Karzai Pashtun) rule, and since the Pashtuns are the single largest ethnic group in the country, a war that is effectively against them bucks the numerical odds in the country. Put more simply, betting on the anti-Pashtuns is about like betting all your money on my PhD institution, Indiana University, winning the national championship in football next year.
Because of this, I looked anxiously for Petraeus’ response, which I assumed would be a spirited denial of all the premises in Zakaria’s assertion. I was wrong. Petraeus began his answer by saying, “I’m not sure I completely buy that.People are often drawn to single-factor explanations, because it’s concise, but it typically is not sufficient.” In the rest of his answer, he never mentions the Pashtuns at all, nor does he answer the charge (which is very serious, probably fatal, if true) that the Afghan National Army is largely North Alliance (which is to say non-Pashtun). If the latter is true about the ANA, the war is lost, and we might as well come home, because WE STAND NO CHANCE WHATSOEVER OF WINNING. If you read the entire Petraeus interview, he never once mentions the Pashtuns nor addresses the problems of the ANSF (Afghan National Security Force) composition.
Petraeus is, by all accounts, not stupid, although he certainly portrays himself as such in the interview. Reading what he says, one can only conclude he is either stunningly ignorant or in a state of willful self-denial. If one dismisses the former, that leaves the latter. But why self-delude? Is he being the good, loyal “can-do” Americaqn soldier? Is he serving or disserving his Commander-in-Chief?
Did General Petraeus tell the president, “It’s the Pashtuns, Stupid” (or words to that effect)? If what we are pursuing is indeed a strategy of opposing the Pashtuns because some of them are Taliban, we are going to lose. I had been assuming there was something else there that mitigated the apparent disaster, but after reading the General’s interview, I’m not so sure.
To repeat, you cannot attempt to defeat the Pashtuns and win in Afghanistan. It really is the Pashtuns, and denying that truism is indeed stupid.