New General, Same War

The war in Afghanistan has been overshadowed in recent weeks by the
crisis next door in Pakistan, but no more. Secretary of Defense Gates
has fired the US commander there, General David McKiernan, and replaced
him with a counterinsurgency specialist with a spotty track record,
General Stanley McChrystal. It's the first time a wartime commander was
fired since Harry Truman got rid of General Douglas MacArthur in the
Korean War.

Don't expect any quick improvement on the battlefront.

A smart commentary
on the dual crises in Afghanistan and Pakistan came from Selig
Harrison, a longtime expert on Asia at the Center for International
Policy, in yesterday's Washington Post. He raises the critical
issue of ethnic Pashtun support for the Taliban. Pashtuns make up about
half of Afghanistan's population and dominate the Northwest Frontier
Province (NWFP) and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) in
Pakistan. Even though most Pashtuns don't support the Taliban or their
extremist ideas, the Taliban are nearly entirely Pashtun in both
countries. The US war effort, including air strikes in Afghanistan and
drone attacks in Pakistan that kill civilians, are inflaming Pashtun
sentiments, and driving Pashtuns and Taliban together.

Harrison ends his piece on this ominous warning:

In the conventional wisdom, either Islamist or Pashtun
identity will eventually triumph, but it is equally plausible that the
result could be what Pakistani ambassador to Washington Husain Haqqani
has called an "Islamic Pashtunistan." On March 1, 2007, Haqqani's
Pashtun predecessor as ambassador, the retired Maj. Gen. Mahmud Ali
Durrani, said at a seminar at the Pakistan Embassy, "I hope the Taliban
and Pashtun nationalism don't merge. If that happens, we've had it, and
we're on the verge of that."

Meanwhile, writing in the Saudi Gazette, a former CIA station chief in Kabul, Graham Fuller, has a related piece worth reading in its entirety.

Fuller is an expert on political Islam, and a recurrent thesis in his
recent work is that moderate Islamists are the antidote to radical and
extremist Islamist movements.

He writes:

The Taliban represent zealous and largely ignorant
mountain Islamists. They are also all ethnic Pashtuns. Most Pashtuns
see the Taliban -- like them or not -- as the primary vehicle for
restoration of Pashtun power in Afghanistan, lost in 2001. Pashtuns are
also among the most fiercely nationalist, tribalized and xenophobic
peoples of the world, united only against the foreign invader. In the
end, the Taliban are probably more Pashtun than they are Islamist.

He writes: "US policies have now driven local nationalism, xenophobia
and Islamism to combined fever pitch." His prescription is to reduce
the pressures that are inflating Pashtun nationalism and xenophobia:

Only the withdrawal of American and NATO boots on the
ground will begin to allow the process of near-frantic emotions to
subside within Pakistan, and for the region to start to cool down. ...
Sadly, US forces and Islamist radicals are now approaching a state of

Fuller also adds his voice to those who assert, like me, that changing
Afghan culture won't happen overnight. And in any case, doing so isn't
the job of the United States. It certainly isn't the job of General

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