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Winning in Afghanistan

by Steve McIntosh

In an interview in the October–December 2007 issue of this magazine, entitled “Integral Politics Comes of Age,” I advocated for a future goal of an integrally informed, integrally structured world federation. I argued that such a supranational political structure could be very effective at solving our growing global problems. However, I also cautioned that to be safe and functional, this kind of political evolution would require an underlying evolution of consciousness. In other words, democratic global law will become desirable, achievable, and inevitable only when the integral worldview is adopted by approximately ten percent of the population of the developed world.

Yet even though the advent of global law may not come about for perhaps fifty years (assuming no catastrophic regressions between now and then), we can actually begin using this future evolutionary goal to shape policy in the present. That is, we can start to plan and act in ways that will simulate the benefits of global law now. Using an integral political perspective, we can look beyond the current conditions of a post-colonial world of competing nation-states “in a state of nature” and envision geopolitical solutions that could be achieved by a future world federation. One such solution applies to Afghanistan and Pakistan.


The Current Situation in Afghanistan

The war in Afghanistan is on the verge of being lost. Unlike the fledgling government of Iraq, the government of Hamid Karzai has not been able to exert control over the Afghan countryside (as is painfully demonstrated by the burgeoning opium industry, which finances the Taliban). Despite the best efforts of the NATO alliance and many well-intentioned Afghans, the Karzai government remains a very fragile entity whose existence is wholly dependent on the ongoing presence of 30,000 American troops.

Employing the same tactic that defeated the Soviet Union in the 1980s, the Taliban have used the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan as their primary weapon, conducting hit-and-run attacks in Afghanistan and then retreating to their sanctuary across the border. Although Pakistan has made ostensible efforts to attack Taliban sanctuaries within its territory, these initiatives have been undermined by the ineptitude of the Pakistani army and by the fact that many Pakistani military leaders covertly support the Taliban. This unwillingness to combat the Taliban arises from the perception that the continuing military viability of the Taliban is necessary to counter Afghanistan’s increasingly close ties with Pakistan’s enemy, India. Karzai has consistently favored India over Pakistan in his foreign relations, and this has helped to fuel the ongoing “cold war” in the region.

Exacerbating the situation of a nearly failed state in Afghanistan is the very real prospect that Pakistan may also become a failed state. The recent U.S. ground and missile attacks into the tribal areas of Pakistan may have taken out certain Taliban leaders, but these attacks have also put severe domestic pressure on Pakistan’s new democratic government. Thus, the simplistic strategy of chasing the Taliban to their cross-border sanctuaries in Pakistan and finishing them off is not a viable option because of its destabilizing effect.

President Obama has pledged to send perhaps 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. However, even a reinforced total of 60,000 U.S. troops is unlikely to resolve the conflict. During their war in Afghanistan, the Soviets maintained troop levels of approximately 100,000 and still suffered more than 15,000 deaths at the hands of the Mujahideen. Like the North Vietnamese before them, the Mujahideen effectively used the protection of an international border to defeat a more technologically advanced enemy. This is the same situation we face today; the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan is proving to be as reliable a weapon in this century as it was in the last.

The United States is thus faced with a seemingly no-win situation. If we withdraw our troops, Afghanistan will revert back to the pre-9/11 status quo within weeks. If we accelerate the war by attacking the Taliban in the tribal areas of Pakistan, we could trigger a civil war in Pakistan and destabilize the entire region. And if we try to “stay the course” by sending in two more brigades of U.S. troops with the hope of training the Afghans to eventually take over the war for us, we will have embraced a Vietnamesque losing strategy that will bleed us slowly until we finally capitulate.

Therefore, in Afghanistan we need a bold game-changing strategy, similar to Nixon’s trip to China in 1972, which turned the tables on the Soviets and marked the beginning of the end of the Cold War. We need a strategy that will improve conditions in Afghanistan and Pakistan simultaneously. Such a strategy will not be without its own risks, but wars are rarely won through plodding caution.


Innovating for Lasting Peace

If we want to win in Afghanistan and bring lasting peace to the region, we need to eliminate the artificial, colonial relic that is the border with Pakistan. This could be done by ceding Afghanistan to Pakistan in exchange for a joint security agreement with the Pakistani military under which temporary, yet direct, military access to the tribal areas could be had by NATO forces. The divided region of Pashtunistan, which currently straddles the border, could be united as a province within an expanded Pakistan and given a degree of autonomy. This would provide something of a “victory” for this proud people while simultaneously taking away the Taliban’s primary weapon—the border that currently divides their ancient ethnic region. The remaining, Persian-speaking regions of Afghanistan could also be given a high degree of provincial autonomy within a greater Pakistan, similar to the kind of autonomy enjoyed by the Kurds in Iraq.

Not only would such a bold move devastate the Taliban’s ability to make war in Afghanistan, it would also strengthen and support Pakistan (a homegrown Islamic democracy), making it more successful as a country and thus more secure in its relations with its Indian and Iranian neighbors. Moreover, through this action we would remove the primary justification for the Pakistani military’s tacit support for the Taliban—with the two countries consolidated into one federal region, the Taliban’s role of buffer force for Pakistan would become unnecessary.

Unlike the Iraqi government, which has developed a relative degree of freestanding legitimacy, the Karzai government’s sovereignty extends for only about five square blocks in Kabul, and it would quickly collapse without the presence of U.S. troops. Afghanistan’s de facto government consists of corrupt warlords, and the countryside is increasingly lawless. Thus, if we want to bring lasting peace to this region, we must face the fact that the “nation” of Afghanistan is not a sacrosanct entity. Like a house with a faulty foundation, the current geopolitical platform of the Afghan people cannot be built upon in a sustainable way. As long as Afghanistan remains occupied by NATO and defined by the 1,600-mile border that once marked the frontier of the British Empire, it cannot succeed as a nation.

Despite the inevitable difficulties and objections that such a bold strategy would surely provoke, if NATO wants to put an end to the increasing bloodshed on both sides and avoid spending needless billions in a war without end, we need to innovate. We need to learn from the lessons of Vietnam and not allow ourselves to be defeated by a border that we must recognize but which our enemies may ignore.

I would certainly like to end this war in a less dramatic and potentially disruptive way, but I fear that until national borders are adjusted to better correspond to the natural borders of consciousness, this war will continue.

Steve McIntosh is the author of Integral Consciousness and the Future of Evolution. This essay is an adaptation of an op-ed article published on the German website

Explore the work of integral philosopher Steve McIntosh at


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SEX - The Good, the Strange, and the Sacred