Afghanistan offers a lesson: nothing short of total destruction suffices with guerillas. People see the resurgent Taliban as victorious because they are not exterminated. Population switch alliance to the victor. Don’t make the error of bribing Afghans. Americans or their local quisling do not control the Afghan state servicemen who distribute the aid. The population favors the distributors of aid, not the providers. American aid creates goodwill for Afghan tribal bureaucrats who will switch sides to the Taliban. The USSR could not frighten the Afghans, and the US can’t bribe them. They take the money, but their pledges of loyalty are empty. Much of the aid ends up among Taliban supporters. The sponsors know nothing of the Afghan mentality: victors don’t pay; losers do.
The turning point is often imperceptible: the population is still superficially loyal to the quislings and tolerant of the occupants, but something has changed, something deep in public sentiment. Support of the Taliban will only increase. Every Taliban attack and every American attack that does not exterminate a village will add to the Taliban’s credentials and discredit the occupiers. Arab fighters will move in, and Arab sponsors will join.
The decision to invade Afghanistan was disastrous: perpetually fighting mountainous barbarians cannot be conquered. A US-installed puppet who is no one in Afghanistan could not govern the country without the help of the hated warlords. A war that lacks a political objective is lost from the beginning.
A country cannot be occupied forever. The US doesn’t have time to nurture a friendly and popular Afghan regime from scratch. Invasion makes sense only if the target country has working bureaucratic and police apparatus, and the occupier has to change only the top leadership. In Afghanistan, no state apparatus and no leadership acceptable to both the US and the Afghans exists. The US wants a Westernized, secular, democratic, liberal ruler in Afghanistan, but such a ruler cannot be popular because Afghan society is not ready for the life the US wants for it.
Countries without a state apparatus can be governed by military dictatorship, such as the Taliban, but the point of the US invasion was to democratize Afghanistan (smile), not to substitute a friendly strongman for the Taliban. Saddam was such a reasonable dictator: secular, strong against Islamic terrorists, draining Iran’s economy with military preparations, and no particular threat to the US, yet even he was unacceptable to the Bush administration.
Still another option is to leave Afghanistan a tribal pastoral country without treating it as a state. That is the Pakistani approach to its Peshawar area which borders Afghanistan, and was Israel’s approach to Gaza in the years of more sensible governments. The US could undertake punishing expeditions against Islamic guerilla training camps without trying to manage or control the country.
Rationally, the US should accept the Taliban. They will prevent Afghanistan from sliding into warring anarchy, stop drug trafficking, and keep Al Qaeda away from major the cities, allowing for US pinpoint strikes. An Afghani caliphate would be laughable to Arabs who don’t see the Afghans as equals. A fundamentalist Afghanistan would absorb fringe radicals from the Muslim world and provide the best ground for Western intelligence. The West cannot extinguish Islamic radicalism. Letting Afghanistan become an Islamic reservation is the next-best option. The strongest argument in favor of giving in to the Taliban is that they will win anyway. A Taliban victory will prompt Islamic resurgence, though that is now unavoidable.
No good solution exists. The cheapest and the least humiliating is to withdraw from Afghanistan immediately, claim victory, and blame the quisling for the imminent failure.