Psychological Operations and the Afghanistan Withdrawal
It has been a bad month in Afghanistan. First there was the inadvertent burning of the Koran by U.S. troops. Although the Korans had initially been desecrated by Taliban prisoners—an act forbidden in Islam—this fact was lost on the Afghans. In their self-righteous vengeance, Afghans killed numerous Americans, most notably two U.S. Army officers that were shot in the back of the head inside the Afghan Interior Ministry. These murders prompted NATO—which had shamelessly agreed to prosecute the Americans involved in the Koran burning—to withdraw its personnel from all Afghan ministries. Even hawkish conservative stalwarts were beginning to say "the hell with the place.”
Then Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales purportedly massacred 17 Afghan civilians, a cold-blooded act that threatens to change the entire dynamics of the war. Subsequently, about 200 U.S. Marines were told to leave their weapons outside the tent during a visit from Defense Secretary Panetta. This was a symbolic moment that spoke volumes about the disarray of our strategy. Trust is indispensable in war, and it is being undermined in every corner. The timeline for withdrawal from Afghanistan—slated for either 2013 or 2014, depending on who is asked—may now be expedited due to these developments.
Yet all is not lost in Afghanistan. While the United States might not "win” the decade-long war, it is almost impossible to lose. In a sense, there is nothing to win: Afghan culture is an embarrassment to the human condition. Even the "good guys” will kill people over a book and then sell their daughters to a septuagenarian. But there is nothing to lose, either. Lest we forget, the U.S. routed al-Qaeda and the Taliban more than ten years ago, by December 2001, with the use of just 5,200 troops. The ensuing failure of Afghan civil society is not a U.S. military defeat.
In World War II, General Douglas MacArthur famously said, "We are not retreating—we are advancing in another direction.” As we begin to withdraw from Afghanistan, U.S. leaders should speak in a comparable manner. What we need is a public psychological operations strategy—or what the military now calls "Military Information Support Operations,” or MISO—coupled with tangible displays of military superiority.
Win or lose, Afghanistan was always going to be at the whims of Pakistan. Thus, the U.S. has a Pakistan problem, not a Taliban problem. It’s Hamid Karzai with the Taliban problem. The Taliban are bad actors, no doubt, but they’re essentially a hobnob militia. The head of the snake is Pakistan, which covertly supports al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and every major terrorist group in South Asia. We must be clear: our eventual withdrawal from Afghanistan does not portend an American flight from South Asian politics. In fact, if we are wise, it might strengthen our leverage.
We must intensify our drone campaign throughout the "Af-Pak” theater—and talk about it openly, too. Predator drones work. They have killed thousands of top-tier terrorists and have not hurt our popularity throughout the region (we are already unpopular). The drones have, however, undermined among the indigenous population the popularity of the Taliban. If someone in your village were liable to get bombed at any moment, at some point you would want to kick him out your village. (...)