- The Washington Times - Monday, November 30, 2009

In the cockpit of a CIA-contracted C-17 flying over the Pamir Mountains in early November 2001, soon to be Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah turned to me saying, “You deserted us once, look at the consequences for both America and Afghanistan, don’t do it again.”

Not wishing to apologize for U.S. policy decisions, I responded, “It appears that God in His irony has bound together the most blessed and the most burdened of countries. We cannot escape one another.”

As the transport descended beneath the palisades all around us, I returned to my seat. Peering out the window, I thought this would be about the time for a hostile to fire a surface-to-air missile at us.

The terrain looked like moonscape, devoid of humankind’s imprint. The Northern Alliance’s delegate to Uzbekistan ambled over. Sitting down next to me, he oriented my map to the land below. He told me, in effect, that this was his old neighborhood. He increased my anxiety somewhat by talking about Stinger missiles and Soviet helicopters.

Minutes before landing, the deputy chief of the CIA mission, eyeing my New York City Fire Department hat, lifted his black shirt to reveal a bright red FDNY sweater. He was from Brooklyn, N.Y., I was from the Bronx. We laughed together and talked about getting even with the bastards that bombed us. I felt so alive, so privileged to be among such intrepid companions like my new acquaintance from Brooklyn.

Later, Army 5th Special Forces Commander Col. John Mulholland told me at the former Soviet Air Base in Bagram, Afghanistan, that his troopers buried shards of the World Trade Center everywhere they had been so far. That I thought was getting even indeed. Thanks to my brother Raymond that map now is on display at One Police Plaza, the New York Police Department headquarters building.

Hopping into jeeps we passed by an honor guard of Tajik-Afghans dressed in their mountain mufti uniforms. These were the troops of Jamiat-e-Islami that bested the Soviets. These were the braves that had denied the Taliban total control of Afghanistan. These were soldiers still in mourning for their assassinated leader Ahmed Shah Massoud killed by al Qaeda on Sept. 9, 2001, a mere two days before the attack upon America. I wanted to honor them in return shouting out congratulatory phrases in Persian-Farsi. A few of them responded in kind.

However, these moments of military romanticism among gladiators are not enough to bind a great nation to erstwhile allies, previous commitments, and transitory interests but it should cause a good nation to pause before jettisoning an honorable past association.

Ultimately, only President Obama can decide whether our interest is so compelling as to demand the continued sacrifice of our blood and treasure in Afghanistan. It is on him.

The president would do well to read the memoirs of 19th century veterans of Britain’s Afghan wars before granting our commanders their requests for additional troops. This swamp cannot be drained.

The Pashtuns still flock to the jihad howls of fanatical cave-dwelling mullahs just as they did more than a century ago. It is in the genes, particularly so among those clans that populate the territories on both sides of the colonial-imposed Durand boundary.

These clans have little interest in Kabul, even less in the European concept of a united nation-state. However, they will subordinate their private quarrels and unite against a foreign presence, considered a danger to their faith. Moreover, they are not likely to neglect this duty for a fist full of dollars. They are different in kind, not degree from the Arabs of al-Anbar province Iraq.

A few suggestions: The United States should do the possible. and not be tied to past florid rhetoric or overly ambitious verbal commitments. There is no restart button on Afghanistan.

We should strategically withdraw to defend the defensible and consolidate the strength of the forces now deployed to those Afghan provinces that are peopled by ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazara which make up about 50 percent of the Afghanistan’s population. They will fight the Taliban and al Qaeda.

These people also have leaders who will lead with inspiration, like former presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah as well as experienced leaders like Tajik Gen. Mohammed Fahim and Uzbek warlord Rashid Dostam.

Adopt a strategy of denial. Prevent the enemy from devouring the whole loaf. Let the Pashtun-dominated Taliban descend from their mountain redoubts into the valleys of southern and eastern Afghanistan where they have the support of many of their fellow tribesmen.

Let them go on the offensive and expend their blood and treasure against defenders who will give them no quarter. Let them get comfortable in the lowlands until they offer our assets an occasional opportunity to strike them.

Moreover, our Tajik and Uzbek allies could regularly be reinforced with volunteers from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, both of which are contiguous to Afghanistan. It is in the interest of these post-Soviet Central Asian states to oppose the Taliban, as both have suffered al Qaeda-inspired attacks inside their territory.

The Hazara too, though small in number, are Shia Muslims who in the past have been slaughtered by the extremist Sunni Taliban. They are fierce warriors, distant descendents of the Mongols.

Of course, things are never this simple. The hands of allies are not clean, but those of our enemies are less so. We must also secure the territory inside our zone by flushing out ethnic Pashtuns loyal to the Taliban. Even such a morally questionable policy would be worth the cost of conscience as it would save American and Afghan lives alike. Fewer innocent Afghan lives will be lost to operationally necessary U.S. bombing -and that will help check anti-American sentiment.

I have long hoped to return to Afghanistan but have been prevented from doing so as a consequence of my criminal status. Nonetheless, I wear as a badge of honor having volunteered to represent former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in a liaison capacity to the Northern Alliance and our 5th Special Forces.

Upon leaving I addressed our assembled Special Forces and CIA troopers on behalf of Mr. Rumsfeld, thanking them for a stunned but grateful nation and for exacting a swift and terrible revenge upon a merciless foe. They cheered. I was embarrassed. I wanted and should have remained there.

The last to board the plane, I almost didn’t. The 5th Special Forces Operations chief handed me his mufti campaign cap. I gave him my FDNY baseball cap. I experienced the conflicting emotions of pride and sadness, the latter because I had decided to get back on that plane leaving my compatriots in Afghanistan.

Now Mr. Obama must decide on a much grander scale whether we should remain or get back on the plane.

Larry Franklin is a professor of Asian history specializing in studies of terrorism at Shepherd University in West Virginia. He was in charge of the Iran desk in the office of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and was a Defense Department policy adviser on Islamic terrorism and a former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst. Three years ago, he was sentenced to probation and 10 months house arrest for unauthorized disclosure of classified information to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

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