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Highly touted, but misguided ideas about Afghanistan

I've spent much of the past two weeks – some in New York and the rest in Los Angeles – listening to the pundits and experts talk about the war in Afghanistan. From the Sunday morning network round tables to the Saturday evening interviews on National Public Radio, I've enjoyed a lot of good debate, from both sides of the issue. I've also heard quite a few jaw-droppers.

Here are five popular ideas on the war, the strategy, the nation and the people of Afghanistan – which those of us who spend years reporting from the region find a little misguided.

1) Afghanistan is like Vietnam. It will turn into a quagmire, and lead to another ignominious defeat for the U.S.

This is a favorite argument among left-leaning pundits, but while Afghanistan's remoteness may smack of Vietnam, there is a big difference: This is no war of national liberation, embraced by a whole population.

If there's a national "idea" sweeping Afghanistan it isn't freedom from Western colonialists, its freedom from 30 years of conflict. 

SLIDESHOW: On the front lines in Afghanistan

Many Afghans will no doubt continue to sit on the fence until they can see a clear victor – coalition forces or the Taliban. But the vast majority of Afghans do not want a return to the hellish years of the Taliban regime.

They're willing to give coalition forces a chance if that can bring peace to their lives, without fear of revenge attacks or recrimination by the Taliban. That yearning for something other than the Taliban, is one key plus for those who argue that the war is still "winnable." 

2) Afghanistan is like Iraq. A strong, bold surge of U.S. forces will lead to a "tipping point" in the war there as it did in Iraq. So we should go in big now


Those on the right side of the political spectrum love this argument. Not so fast. It's true the surge in Iraq brought breathing space, especially to Iraqis in Baghdad (where most U.S. soldiers "surged to"). And it sent out signals to Sunni tribesmen in Anbar province that the Americans were serious about the fight.

But there are few, if any, positive signs that a similar surge of U.S. forces might trigger a rising up of some local militia, a kind of "Sons of Afghanistan," against the Taliban. In fact, U.S. commanders go to great lengths to deny involvement in the only anti-Taliban militia, the "Peoples Protection Force" based in Wardak province, calling it an "entirely Afghan project" (even though the trainers are U.S. Special Forces).

And that's because, in a nation of warring tribes, this experimental militia has had little success: Local Pashtuns have been unwilling to join forces against fellow Pashtun Taliban in Wardak.

Whereas Iraq saw a Sunni uprising against al-Qaida, there's no such unity of purpose among Afghan tribes, some of whom attack U.S. forces primarily because their tribal rivals have struck deals with the same U.S. units. How do you reach a "tipping point" in a land where tribes are still killing each other over blood feuds that can date back centuries?

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3) The Taliban is fighting a local jihad and poses no threat to the U.S. We should focus our troops and resources on al-Qaida, which poses a direct threat from inside Pakistan, and disregard Afghanistan.

This is probably not a good idea. First, al-Qaida and the hard core Taliban share the same ideology: they want to impose strict Islamic religious law or sharia law. The Taliban's goal is to spread sharia law regionally, while al-Qaida wants to spread it globally and kill all infidels along the way.

It doesn't matter if they are Afghan Taliban, Pakistani Taliban, foreign fighters, or former Afghan mujahedeen commanders like Jalaluddin Haqqani (based in Pakistan's tribal North Waziristan) or Gulbuddin Hekmetyar (inside Afghanistan proper). They are all part of a holy warrior network supported by al-Qaida money, camps and expertise.

Secondly, these jihadists make no distinction between Afghanistan and Pakistan. For them it's a battle over the land of Pashtuns or "Pashtunistan" – the area that straddles the boundary line drawn by the British in 1893 between what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan – which they have never recognized.

Al-Qaida moves foreign fighters – Uzbeks, Chechens, Arabs – in and out of this remote, amorphous land. Along the porous border with Pakistan, I've heard U.S. forces pick up a stream of languages – not just Urdu from Pakistani fighters, but Arabic and Uzbek, as well as the Dari and Pashto of local Taliban – in intercepted radio transmissions. In fact, Afghan officials now estimate there are at least 4,000 foreign fighters, supported by al-Qaida, inside Afghanistan. And there are perhaps more on the way: police recently broke up an al-Qaida ring in Morocco that was preparing to send fighters to Afghanistan.

And in the same breath, Afghan Taliban commanders pledge allegiance to al-Qaida's number one, Osama bin Laden, and Taliban leader Mullah Mohamed Omar.

In other words, the Taliban and al-Qaida are blood brothers on the same holy battlefield. So, targeting al-Qaida in Pakistan, while tolerating the Taliban in Afghanistan, looks like a losing strategy. Doing so, it seems, would only create a larger safe haven for al-Qaida and the Taliban, while destabilizing the whole region.

Image: Major Shannon Cole
SLIDESHOW: Saving lives behind the front lines

4) Sending more troops for counter-insurgency and more civilian experts for nation-building is a waste of time and resources if there's no national afghan leader in place.

This may seem like a solid point, but think again. In reality, there has never been a tradition of strong central government in Afghanistan.

When I spoke to tribal elders in Helmand province just before the Aug. 20 elections, many told me they had never even seen a politician from Kabul before. In Afghanistan, politics are truly local. District and provincial councilmen are the powerbrokers whose faces matter to most Afghans, not President Hamid Karzai or his rival candidate in the run-off elections Abdullah Abdullah.

U.S. military and aid officials certainly get that. Since 2006, they've directly invested millions of dollars in discretionary funds into local programs, like alternative farming or the opening of schools and clinics, all on the village level, thus circumventing the corruption-tainted government. Their logic? Seven years of failed top-down reconstruction has turned Afghanistan into one of the donor world's deepest money pits.

So, while the West rightly hopes for a legitimate Afghan leader back in Kabul, some local programs are making a difference on the ground. It may be surprising, but progress is possible without a presidential fiat…or even a president.

5) From Alexander the Great to Barack Obama, no foreign occupier or invader has ever defeated the Afghans. History, in Afghanistan, repeats itself, and the country is a living graveyard of foreign intervention.

Well, not exactly. In fact the British Army resoundingly defeated the Afghan tribes in the 2nd Anglo-Afghan War of 1878, only to be withdrawn by myopic British ministers back in New Delhi and London.

But that's not the point. History really doesn't repeat itself. Only the conditions for success or failure do. And it's perhaps worth remembering that, throughout the annals of the so-called "Great Game" (the period in the nineteenth and early twentieth century when the British Empire and the Russian Empire battled for control over Central Asia) those foreign nations had only their own self-interests at heart. The needs – or wishes – of the Afghans themselves never mattered. 

But this time the Afghan people do matter. In a counterinsurgency, as Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, would no doubt argue, it's the Afghan people who must rise up against the Taliban. And the only reason they would do so is because they've gained something – security or a better life – which they don't want to lose. The challenge, of course, is convincing the Afghans that, this time, it's not the same old story.

Jim Maceda is an NBC News foreign correspondent based in London who has reported from Afghanistan extensively since the U.S. invasion in 2001. He is currently on home leave in the United States.

See more of NBC's Nightly News with Brian Williams reporting from Afghanistan this week.