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Posted at 2:00 PM ET, 07/30/2010

Ex-CIA heavyweight on Afghanistan: Dump Karzai

By Jeff Stein

The U.S. strategy in Afghanistan isn’t working, says a former head of the CIA task force that beat the Russians there 25 years ago, so it’s time to try something else: Dump Karzai.

“Having run the CIA's Afghan Task Force—which covertly channeled U.S. support to the Afghans fighting to drive the Soviets out of their country—I recognize the playbook our policy makers are using today,” wrote Jack Devine in Thursday’s Wall Street Journal.

“It didn't work for the Soviets then, and it won't work for us now. However different our current objective, our efforts are alarmingly similar to those of the Russians.”

So it’s time to prepare for the inevitable, says Devine, who also headed the agency's Latin America division and was CIA station chief in London when he retired in the 1990s.

The withdrawal that President Obama wants to begin in mid-2011, “could precipitate the eventual collapse of the Karzai government. Thus we should cultivate relationships with leaders inside and outside the current regime who are most likely to fill the power vacuum,” he says.

“The strategy should focus on forging the kinds of relationships necessary to keep Afghanistan from re-emerging as al-Qaeda's staging ground once our forces depart,” he adds, “and also on continuing the hunt for Osama bin Laden.”

Devine’s prescription for covert action over military force is strikingly similar to the advice former Soviet KGB Gen. Oleg Kalugin offered to me in an interview about 18 months ago -- before the Afghan elections.

Kalugin, who would eventually become the KGB’s youngest-ever general in the 1990s, visited Kabul on a Soviet military and intelligence fact-finding mission in 1978. The Kremlin was considering sending in troops to bolster its faltering prospects there.

He “took a trip outside the capital, which left him impressed by Muslim fundamentalism's grip on the country. He also saw how corrupt and contentious the various factions in Kabul were. After that he opposed a military invasion,” I wrote back in December 2008.

In "The Great Gamble: The Soviet War in Afghanistan," author Gregory Feifer delivers a riveting account of the entire fateful episode.

The Russian occupation, of course, was a disaster, Kalugin recounted. Three decades later, and an American citizen since 1993, he was strongly advising against putting more U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

“It would be interpreted as American imperialism, part of an American design,” predicted the retired general, who once headed Moscow’s spying operations against the United States.

“We have to try a different way, more discreet, emphasizing economic and technological assistance and trade."

And more covert action.

“Washington must quickly find alternatives to the corrupt politicians who have infested the U.S.-backed Karzai regime, perhaps fatally,” he told me.

"I would simply build up a strong opposition to Karzai, which would rely on values we all share, which would fight corruption, fight extremism, and, with massive American economic assistance, produce the desired results."

He added, "There are opposition forces to Karzai. . . . those who are more liberal, more educated, more pro-Western and, let's put it this way, more honest. Plenty of them," he said, could be found here and elsewhere around the world.

Less than nine months later, however, Karzai crushed pro-Western candidates in an presidential election that was marred by widespread ballot-box stuffing. Washington eventually swung behind him.

Now here’s Devine, suggesting the pieces may have changed, but not the mechanics.

“We should figure out now which tribal leaders—and, under specially negotiated arrangements, which Taliban factions—we could establish productive relationships with,” he wrote Thursday.

“It's a good bet that the CIA already has substantial relationships with many of these personalities, particularly in areas where agency operators have long enjoyed relative freedom of movement,” he continued. “Afghanistan is a tribal society … and tribal interests are often easy to accommodate with cash and other assets that help tribal leaders maintain their power.

Devine is no doubt right about that, if only because he sits on the board of Global Strategies Group, a company with contracts to provide services and security at Bagram air base in Afghanistan, the oil fields of Iraq, as well as Nigeria, Pakistan, Sudan and Libya.

“Make no mistake,” he added. “We're not talking about supporting advocates for Jeffersonian democracy here. But these partnerships have proven dependable and highly advantageous to U.S. policy makers in promoting regional stability in the past.”

Debatable. In any event, old hands might see Devine dusting off a CIA playbook from the 1950s, in Vietnam, where the agency also tried to create a “third force.”

Like Devine’s proposal for Afghanistan now, it was a CIA effort to create a middle ground, a seemingly independent political movement between two extreme poles, the communists, on the one hand, and the corrupt autocrats who Washington had installed, but came to despise, on the other.

As dramatized by Graham Greene in his 1955 novel “The Quiet American,” the quest for a "third force" was an illusion that got a lot of innocent people killed before it collapsed of its own weight.

The reality wasn't far different. In any event, the third way out, and counterinsurgency itself, were all but abandoned in Vietnam in favor of huge troop surges. And we all know how well that worked out.

Like in 1950s Vietnam, the proposals of Devine and Kalugin are probably pipe dreams.

But their main virtue appears to be that they are far less worse than the alternatives.

By Jeff Stein  | July 30, 2010; 2:00 PM ET
Categories:  Foreign policy, Intelligence, Military  
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