The deaths in Afghanistan of 30 Americans and eight Afghans when their helicopter was shot down underscore the vexing, costly character of the conflict. Most of those killed were from United States Navy SEAL Team 6 — the iconic unit that rid the world of Osama bin Laden. This substantial loss of Allied forces draws special attention to the frustrations of this long war.
Last month, Ahmed Wali Karzai, powerful brother of Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai, was assassinated. In April, a mass prison breakout in Afghanistan provided dramatic demonstration that the Taliban and al-Qaida allies maintain virulent capacity to create chaos in that challenged country. An estimated 475 inmates fled a large prison in Kandahar through an underground tunnel.
Shortly thereafter, a number of individuals were arrested, including the director of the incarceration facility, Ghulam Dastagher Mayar. A breakout this vast had to have been an inside job. Meanwhile, heavy drug production and trafficking in and around Afghanistan has consistently blurred the distinction between criminal and insurgent activities.
In 2009, President Barack Obama decided to significantly increase military forces in Afghanistan. The latest reversals to the Allied cause demonstrate that troop numbers alone are only one of many factors in unconventional warfare.
The Taliban clearly considers spectacularly devastating events a priority. In mid-June 2008, another dramatic prison break in Kandahar freed approximately 1,000 people, including an estimated 400 hardcore insurgents. On New Year’s Eve of that year, the Taliban killed members of the security force of Abdul Salaam, governor of Musa Qala, a long-contested area in southern Afghanistan.
During that same time period, the Group of Eight foreign ministers decided to devote massive financial resources to combating the narcotics traffic and poverty in Afghanistan, focusing on areas where these problems are most severe. A G-8 coordinating body was created to oversee approximately $4 billion in aid, concentrated in tribal areas bordering Pakistan where al-Qaida and the Taliban are strong.
In reflecting on this part of the world, useful insights are provided by the initiatives of the Nixon administration in the early 1970s regarding Turkey, a principal source of world heroin production. President Richard Nixon creatively used product licensing to encourage Turkish farmers to sell crops to pharmaceutical companies for legal medicinal purposes.
Drug lords moved some production to other locations, including Afghanistan, but the mammoth established drug route from Turkey to Marseilles, France, and then the U.S. — dramatized in the film “The French Connection” — was disrupted. Our important ally Turkey was strengthened. Why not apply this practical approach to Afghanistan?
Simply introducing more troops and firepower without other measures would only further strengthen the insurgency. This is a fundamental lesson of the Vietnam War. The Soviets learned that same lesson in brutal terms during a decade of occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
Great Britain also had costly experiences in Afghanistan throughout the 19th century. Eventually, however, astute British diplomacy achieved reasonable cooperation with Afghan warlords.
Washington should try to emulate their combination of carrots, sticks — and patience. A military presence, along with much better training of law enforcement personnel, is important. However, long-term success will depend on economic modernization, education of the people, and positive incentives to abandon the drug trade.
By all accounts, the Taliban is unpopular with the population at large. That remains our crucial advantage.
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis., and writes commentary for the Scripps Howard News Service.