Ambassador Peter Tomsen: Why We Are Still in Afghanistan

Hint: It allows us to keep troops very close to Pakistan.
According to Peter Tomsen, the U.S. needs to maintain a presence in Afghanistan, and it needs to learn a new tune. (Photo: Lucas Jackson/Reuters)
May 12, 2011
Allan MacDonell is TakePart’s News + Opinion editor, with a focus on social justice.

As United States Ambassador and Special Envoy on Afghanistan from 1989 to 1992, Peter Tomsen forged close relationships with Afghan leaders and dealt with the senior Taliban, warlords and religious figures who played roles in the country’s conflicts over the past two decades.

Tomsen’s deep regional experience is the basis of a forthcoming book, The Wars of Afghanistan: Messianic Terrorism, Tribal Conflicts and the Failures of Great Powers (PublicAffairs, 2011). He answers four TakePart questions about the United States and Afghanistan following the demise of Osama bin Laden.

TakePart: Now that Osama bin Laden is dead, what is the reasoning for the U.S. staying in Afghanistan? 

Peter Tomsen: The main perpetrator of 9/11, and the chief ideologue of global Islamist terrorism, is dead. But the messianic terrorist infrastructure is still potent and is spreading its murderous ideology in Afghanistan and elsewhere. It will hit America again and again if not suppressed.

Unfortunately, the U.S. and its allies still do not have a long-term, effective strategy to combat and eliminate the threat.  American analysts and policymakers still do not understand: The ideology's foremost goal is to regain its bases in Afghanistan from which to launch strikes against the U.S. and other non-Muslim and Muslim countries around the world.

Afghanistan will remain the main battleground of the struggle for the foreseeable future. But the movement's infrastructure and ideology is rooted in Pakistan, the contemporary epicenter of world terrorism, and in Saudi Arabia’s Wahhabi religious establishment, awash in petrodollars. 

For these reasons, the U.S. needs to develop an effective long-term geopolitical strategy that addresses, holistically, this threat and its ideology, and prevent its return to Afghanistan. Throwing money, military and intelligence assets at the movement’s steady expansion inside Afghanistan has not succeeded. Only a reset in Washington’s Afghan policy, one based on a better understanding of Afghanistan’s history, culture and tribal society—and also Pakistan’s intentions there—will lead to a conclusion of the Afghan war favorable to the U.S., Afghanistan and the international community.

Peter Tomsen’s résumé of statecraft goes back to 1967. (Courtesy: Peter Tomsen)

TakePart: What was the history of bin Laden’s popularity in Afghanistan? 

Peter Tomsen: This goes back to the devastating Soviet-Afghan war (1979 to 1989). More than a million Afghans perished and a third of the population fled abroad. Bin Laden came to Pakistan to invest his money and energy in the anti-Soviet struggle. Many Afghans respected him for his Islamic zeal and his material assistance to some Mujahidin groups in the war to expel the Soviet invader from a Muslim country.

However, Afghan opinion split after he returned to Afghanistan in 1996. Then, along with the notorious Pakistani military intelligence (ISI), the Afghan Taliban’s Mullah Omar, and Pakistani religious fanatics, he formed part of an unholy alliance that hijacked much of Afghanistan and declared war on America and all Americans. He integrated his al-Qaeda brigades with Mullah Omar’s radical Afghan warriors and the ISI’s Pakistani fighters to subdue Ahmed Shah Masood’s United Front. The United Front was supported by many moderate Afghan Pashtuns, along with Afghanistan’s Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara fighters who, together, make up more than 50 percent of the country's population. A pair of bin Laden’s suicide bombers assassinated Masood two days before 9/11.

As a result of his radical politics supporting one faction—Taliban Islamist extremists—Osama bin Laden had alienated a large portion, if not a majority, of Afghans by the time of his death in May 2011.

TakePart: How closely are the Taliban and al-Qaeda aligned? 

Peter Tomsen: The Taliban, like Afghan society generally, is very fragmented. There is no united Taliban organization with a pyramidal structure that has a small top group commanding and controlling a disciplined organization. It is an amorphous, atomistic movement consisting of many hundreds of tiny, mostly Pashtun tribal networks focused on re-establishing the Pakistan-fueled and Pakistan-based Taliban extremist mullahs in Afghanistan. 

Those mullahs are a minority of Afghanistan’s tribal-ethnic mosaic. They are overwhelmingly from parts of the Pashtun ethnic group, which comprises between 45 and 50 percent of Afghanistan’s population, according to U.N. calculations. Extremists are centered in the Pashtun Ghilzai minority segment of the Pashtun tribe, which comprises an estimated 15 percent or less of the country's population. Most of the youth joining the Taliban today are not motivated by the al-Qaeda ideology; they do not understand its doctrine. But a rising number of the Taliban's mid-level commanders based in Pakistan have imbibed the al-Qaeda ideology, including its global terrorist dimension. This dangerous trend needs to be first understood and then countered by the Afghan government and the U.S.-led coalition supporting it.

TakePart: What do you see as the best possible future between the U.S. and Afghanistan? 


Long, long form Afghan war coverage.

Peter Tomsen: As the killing of bin Laden demonstrated, a bright future for Afghanistan will also depend on Pakistan. U.S. policymakers need to better understand both the Afghan environment and the grave threat Pakistan poses. Without this understanding, U.S. policy will continue to fail in Afghanistan. 

America will only realize a “best possible future between the U.S. and Afghanistan” if it can implement a reset in its policy toward Afghanistan, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia—based on this better understanding. The biggest challenge will lie in Pakistan. As long as the radical Islamist sanctuaries in Pakistan are protected and sustained by Pakistan’s military, and continue to churn out Afghan, Pakistani and other foreign radical fighters to cross into Afghanistan, war will tear Afghanistan. Attempts to mount terrorist attacks on the U.S., its friends and allies will grow, and strikes from the terrorist sanctuaries in Pakistan will threaten the promising Arab Spring. 

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