Did you know that there are 45 million Pashtuns? I did not either until I saw Frontline’s documentary about the Taliban last week. Watch it here.
The Pashtun tribes provide the ethnic base for the Taliban insurgency. Their demographics matter. According to Mao Zedong’s dictum, guerilla fighters move in the population like fish in the water. The larger the host population, the harder it becomes to suppress irregular fighters.
Iraq only has some 22 million inhabitants.
The sheer number of Pashtuns means that we could redeploy every soldier and contractor from Iraq to Afghanistan and we still would not have enough troops to prevail militarily. Likewise, Europeans could double and triple their forces in Afghanistan, which they won’t unless the new administration can formulate a strategy promising success, and we would still be short handed.
While British commanders have been talking about the futility of the Afghanistan mission, to Americans Afghanistan is still the good war. But there may be no road to victory.
Of course, we can hope that Afghan and Pakistani forces might be able to pacify the Pashtun regions. To date, the Afghan army only numbers 76,000 troops, which is a good help but insufficient to establish control. Pakistan’s armed forces, seventh largest in the world, field an army of 619,000 active troops and 528,000 reservists but has nonetheless been unable to assert the sovereignty of Pakistan in the tribal areas.
Despite indiscriminate violence and human rights abuses, the Red Army has had similar problems in Chechnya. With 1.1 million inhabitants, Chechnya’s population is relatively small.
It appears then that we will not be able to achieve the destruction of al Qaeda by imposing our will on the Taliban militarily. Rather, we will have to come to some sort of accommodation with Pashtuns and the Taliban, their de facto rulers. At the very least, we must divide the Taliban.
Judging by my own ignorance, it is probably safe to assume that too few of us know enough to appreciate the war in Afghanistan even remotely.