01/14/11 — Understanding Afghanistan

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Understanding Afghanistan

By Renee Carey
Published in News on January 14, 2011 1:46 PM

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Lt. Col. Tim Nichols lectures on Afghanistan and its history Thursday night during a Wayne County Reads event at Wayne Community College. Nichols is a professor in the School of Public Policy at Duke University.

Want to stabilize Afghanistan and bring most of the troops home?

Then, you are going to have to find someone who can talk to the Taliban.

Tim Nichols, a research fellow and adjunct professor in the School of Public Policy at Duke University and a former Marine who served as an intelligence officer for more than 21 years with extensive experience in the special operations and counterterrorism fields, told the crowd at the Wayne County Reads opening Thursday night at Wayne Community College that the battles in Afghanistan are critical to the region's -- and America's -- future.

But, he added, withdrawing completely will not be an option for a long time.

"This is one we are not going to get out of quickly or cleanly," Nichols said.

Nichols did say, however, that Afghans want peace and that they are learning to trust the Americans who are fighting there, despite a huge language and other cultural barriers.

He added that the people are taking more and more of a role in their own protection and development and are fighting, and dying, along with American forces.

But the battles have not been easy, Nichols said.

One of the biggest challenges for American forces is the layout of the country itself, he said.

Afghanistan has a population of around 30 million people and is slightly smaller than Texas, Nichols said. The center of the country includes a mountainous region, which presents a problem for those who must battle the Taliban, al-Qaida and others who fight -- and hide -- there.

Nichols said the more than 10,000 feet elevation can be problematic for U.S. forces.

At that elevation, helicopters are ineffective and planes cannot be maneuvered to drop bombs properly. Troops also cannot follow into the hills on foot, since the climb places them at a tactical disadvantage.

All that, combined with the country's history of alternating stability, occupation and infighting, create a challenge for any country that wants to stabilize the region -- something others have learned the hard way.

But stabilizing the region is critical, Nichols said, especially in light of the fact that one of Afghanistan's neighbors, Pakistan, has tested a nuclear weapon.

Understanding the battles in Afghanistan, in part, requires understanding the Taliban and how it came into power -- and why its members keep fighting, Nichols said.

The Taliban are a group of fighters who were expelled to Pakistan during Afghanistan's fight with the Soviets and other internal battles. They are young, fundamentalist Muslims with roots in traditional values -- and, most importantly, they are Afghans.

They are powerful and plentiful, Nichols said. And while the Afghan people themselves do not want to go back the fundamentalist ways of the Taliban, Nichols said it is impossible to create a workable peace without allowing this group to have a say in how the country is run.

"We have to engage the Taliban," he said. "They are Afghani and they are the majority of the country. We cannot demonize them completely. The Taliban is not a terrorist organization. It is a large contingent of violent Afghanis."

One of the factors that is influencing the development of the Taliban as a negative force in the country is the presence of al-Qaida, which Nichols says feeds the divisions in Afghanistan and ignites violent reactions by encouraging Taliban reaction to what it bills as anti-Islamic sentiment.

Al-Qaida is made up of mostly Egyptians and Saudis -- unlike the native members of the Taliban. Al-Qaida's main mission is to overthrow democratic or westernized governments in the Middle East and to install fundamentalist regimes.

So, the battle in Afghanistan is two-fold, Nichols said -- a fight to keep the peace and a war to kill and dismantle al-Qaida.

It is al-Qaida that is developing the fighters and that is using western Pakistan as a training ground and a stepping off point for terrorism all over the region, Nichols said.

Preventing not only the spread of violence in Afghanistan, but also the development of safe havens for terrorists in neighboring Pakistan, are two goals that are going to require more than just a passing interest by the United States, Nichols said.

But he added that the U.S. forces of the future will be smaller and more focused on tracking and eliminating extremists.

"We are going to be there a long time," he said. "We can hunt terrorists with a very small force."

Stability in the region is critical, he said -- both to prevent development of training camps and other support systems for terror, but also to make sure that the unrest that an unstable country in the region creates does not further inflame the extremist population.

Getting Afghanistan stable also means providing a venue for economic stability, and a means for Afghanistan to support itself in ways other than the growth of poppies -- a key to the heroin trade, from which the Taliban earn enough money to continue their efforts.

Stabilizing Afghanistan will cut back on the cost of the war, too. Providing an economic structure will allow the country to stand on its own two feet -- much less expensive than funding a massive military effort.

Nichols said reaching the Taliban is one of the first steps on that path.

"There is no inherent goal in what they are doing," he said. "What they are setting themselves up for is a very small country with a huge refugee population. They need more wisdom."

Nichols said the Taliban are young revolutionaries without the perspective that comes with maturity and have not yet answered the urge to build lives and families. They fight, he said, because that is all they know.

"By killing them, we just make more," he said.

By negotiating with them, Nichols said, the country can take a shaky step toward peace.

But overall, the Afghan response to the American forces has improved, Nichols said.

"They have a lot of respect for the United State because we are not there to take anything," he said. "We have told them that we would remove the extremists -- and then the rest is up to them. We are not occupiers. They finally get that."