Afghanistan: The Recoil of the Closed Society
Bruno De Cordier
Whether deemed acceptable or not, the idea of including the Taliban in any settlement and international exit strategy in Afghanistan is much more the outcome of a fait accompli on the grounds than of long-term diplomacy.
Beyond the Mubarak mosque in Kandahar, the historic capital of Afghanistan, is a shrine with a silver coffer that contains a cloak which, according to tradition, once belonged to the Prophet Muhammad. There is a story that in spring of 1996, in the Islamic year 1416, Mullah Omar, the legendary and mysterious leader of the Taliban, got access to the cloak, brought it to a mosque in the city centre, and donned it in front of an ecstatic crowd of followers. The privilege to see and wear the garment is traditionally reserved for leaders who take on a mission to save the country and the faith from great disaster. And disaster there was. At that time, Afghanistan was already torn by the years of civil war that had followed, or more correctly, began during the decade-long occupation by the Soviet Union in the ‘80s.
The eventual Soviet retreat heralded not hope, but instead, brought disillusionment and a nightmare. Mullah Omar’s performance with the cloak stimulated his Taliban to continue their expansion from Kandahar to other parts of the country to restore order and establish what they saw as a true Islamic State. The state, which arguably became the Orientalist embodiment of evil in much of international opinion, only existed for a few years and never consolidated under the course of global circumstances. More than 15 years later, the army vehicles of NATO and the International Security Assistance Forces in the streets of Kandahar and the rattling sound of helicopters in the distance constantly remind one that Afghanistan is again experiencing the last years of an occupation. At the same time, it is fascinating to see how daily life in neighborhoods and villages and in and around the markets quietly continues, despite the almost mythical frontline status that this country and its conflict have obtained over the years. It says a lot about the tenacity of human nature.
The graveyard of social engineering
In the collective imagination, literature, and media reports, Afghanistan is often bombastically called ‘a graveyard of empires’. The cliché of a history consisting of a constant stream of invaders who are confronted with wild, freedom-loving tribes indeed stimulates the imagination, if not phantasms, among some. This image became enhanced by the fact that the retreat of the Soviet Union, which occupied Afghanistan during most of the ‘80s and propped-up a socialist regime there, near-coincided with the demise of the Soviet super-state itself. In reality, throughout its history, Afghanistan constantly experienced some form of empire. In one way or another, the areas that constitute Afghanistan today, were almost always part of a political entity or at least of a sphere of political and ideological influence, ranging from sub-regional city states and tribal entities to wider global spheres. There is even one global ideological sphere which has not only lasted for hundreds of years and survived scores of dynasties and occupants, but which is also part of the deepest fabric of society − Islam.
In that capacity, it is Islam that will ensure continuity in any social order that might come up in Afghanistan. What we are experiencing now, is not the death of a world power. As was the case with the failure of Afghan socialism in the ‘80s, we are witnessing the end of the illusion of social engineering, this time, however, with regards to neoliberalism. For despite the obligatory lip service to ‘local culture and customs’, neoliberalism, in this stage of conflict in Afghanistan, is definitely the doctrine of counter-insurgency and the framework for reconstruction, outsourced as it is to a range of private companies and non-governmental organizations. The country became a social laboratory for anyone who operates at the intersection of good intentions and naive arrogance, especially, though not exclusively, in the field of gender and women’s rights which serve as the main fetish cause. That does not mean that there were no achievements at all. There are. Yet even among groups and sections of society who detest the Taliban, there is a general feeling that people somehow serve as a mere backdrop for agendas and interests of Kafir foreigners and of course of what they see as the profiteers and opportunists who work with them.
Some sort of lesser evil, after all?
Whether one likes it or not, Islam will be part of the future of the country and its society, without outsiders determining, under the guise of ‘promoting moderate Islam’, what kind of Islam is suitable or appropriate. Quite a few Afghans are convinced that things in their country started to sour from the moment that others, supported by local opportunists and idealists, started to impose social and developmental models; first Socialist, and later neo-liberal, both against the very nature of Afghan society and even that of the wider Islamic Ummah for that matter. Modern history does not prove them wrong. From their experience, Afghans perhaps understand the meaning of the Qur'anic verse 8:73 best. "The infidels are protecting friends of each other”, it says, “and if you follow them, there will be great disorder and mischief on Earth."
Although opinion polls are by far no gospel and are often subject to the agendas of those who commission them, research conducted over the last two years suggests that the idea of engaging the Taliban in some sort of arrangement or power-sharing enjoys broad support in Afghan society, even, surprisingly perhaps, among women. This obviously has more to do with war weariness than with active sympathy for the movement. Still, not a few seem to think that the Taliban have learned from the mistakes and excesses made when they were in power in much of the country during the second half of the the ’90s. Apart from that the Taliban are part of the country’s social reality. They definitely operate networks transgressing Afghanistan’s borders, and the psychological impact of their presence goes far beyond the Afghan context. But that the Taliban mainly consist of ‘foreigners’ – that is, Arabs and military intelligence officers from Pakistan – is a myth, just like the statement that their fighters are mainly paupers who joined the insurgents for ten dollars a day and stakes in the drug traffic.
This bring us to another lesson from this chapter of history: contrary to what is often thought, not everything runs according financial gain or illicit interests. There is indeed frustration that can be politically mobilized. There is also indignation at the grassroots level at the real and perceived nature and intentions of the foreign intervention and the government. Part of this has to do with the unrealistic and inflated popular expectations from ten years ago. And much has to do with the strong feeling that the country and its society have been paying the price for external ambitions and agendas for too long. Shocking as it may still sound in some of the salons, there may be something worse than a return of the Taliban. What is it? …That Afghanistan, as in the first half of the ’90s, becomes a space for a plethora of warlords (whether supported externally or not), and shatters into a range of domains and fiefdoms where local potentates conduct a predatory rule with total absence of any rule of law. This was actually the situation in much of the south before the Taliban took power. Because of the memories of pre-Taliban times, the associations with the Islamic emirate of the Taliban of the ‘90s are not unanimously negative in the region. Though this sentiment does not translate into warm sympathy for the Taliban, it does exist.
Assuming that a fully-fledged takeover of the country by the Taliban eventually does not materialize, what alternatives are imagineable for Afghanistan? According to the idea of ‘one country, two democracies’ that is popular in Belgium these days, two quasi-states within the contours of Afghanistan might emerge. One multi-ethnic entity under the national government, and in the south and parts of the southeast where the insurgents effectively have much of their social base and support, we might have another entity which bears much more of a Taliban stamp. The latter will probably get economically and sociogeographically more interwoven with neighboring Pakistan, maybe to become part of a later entity that derives its legitimacy from a restored Caliphate. It is all possible. Whatever we get in the end, the way things evolve in Afghanistan will reflect the recoil of what former Chechen guerrilla fighter and neo-traditionalist thinker Khoj-Ahmet Nukhaev called 'the Closed Society'. This is not necessarily a society that shuns all contact with the outside world. It is a society that simply does not identify with the seemingly pretentious and superficial cosmopolitans who embody the open, modern society. In daily life, it rather functions on structures and institutions that withstood the test of time, such as the family, clan networks, and religion.
No longer in the realm of the unthinkable
Billions of dollars and the technological superiority of professional soldiers from stagnating Western societies failed to get a full grip on an opponent who does not only know the terrain well, but who is also ideologically driven and has a very different interpretation of life and death. The increasingly frequent derailments of ISAF soldiers such as shooting sprees, target bombings with civilian casualties, and Qur’an burnings, can be set and understood against the extreme stress, frustration and degeneration that come with an intervention in which the initiave seems lost and which is difficult to win since the populations one wants to ‘save’ and ‘enlighten’ are not necessarily craving to be saved and enlightened. An American sergeant in southern Afghanistan I spoke with a couple of years ago voiced this frankly. “We wanted to help these people”, he said. “We bring them stuff. But in reality, they help the Taliban, they don’t help us. So, me and my guys won’t die for this. Until the time we get out of here, we’ll do what we have to do to stay alive, even if it means that they are to be scared of us.”
For not a few, in Afghanistan as in the wider Islamic Ummah, the series of derailments are perceived as the true nature of the democracy and freedom that interventionists want to spread. This has tarred the legitimacy of the intervenion. A decade ago, it was inconceivable to say something like this aloud, let alone to write it down. Meanwhile, the so-called global War on Terror has been overshadowed by the global economic crisis which, by itself, is a symptom of the bankruptcy of neoliberalism and of the end of the world order that was perpetuated by the War on Terror, amongst others. What is now happening in Afghanistan seems less spectacular and more déjà vu than the so-called Arab Spring, but it is equally historic and far-reaching. Many things that seemed evident a few years ago stand in jeopardy. Neoliberalism and its actors and proponents had their heyday and could indulge their alleged supremacy after the disintegration of the Socialist bloc at the end of the ’80s. With Afghanistan and the Arab Spring, they will have to accept the reality of their own finitude.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
Afghanistan Coming Undone
An analysis of the transitional process in Afghanistan and its struggle to attain stability.
There have been 10 years of debate, discussion, dispute, and deliberation over the world’s most important war. Yet, the question for Afghanistan remains the same: How will this war end? What’s certainly disconcerting is that the international community, so heavily invested in this war, seems nowhere closer to finding an answer to the question. While the International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) and the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) have fought valiantly to limit the Taliban insurgency to only some pockets of the country, the bottom line is that violence still continues. The people have little respite from the endless fighting.
However, through some trials, and lots of errors, progress has been made in this war-torn nation. Now, as the international community and Afghanistan take their first steps towards undertaking a complete transition of authority to the Afghan government, its chances of success are worthy of discussion.
Because security is the foremost preoccupation of the international coalition, and of the Afghans, NATO has made an immense effort to persuade more Afghans to join the right side of the fight. After facing a great deal of challenges, the report card is beginning to look better. Numbers of soldiers in the ANA (Afghan National Army) and officers in the ANP (Afghan National Police) have risen to the occasion. As reported in the March 2011 NATO factsheet Media Backgrounder, Afghan National Security Forces, NATO’s Joint Coordinating and Monitoring Board announced new troop targets for the ANA (171,600) and ANP (134,000), to be reached by October 2011. As of May 2011, ANA troop numbers were up to 164,000 and ANP numbers were up to 126,000, according to a US Department of Defense press announcement; this was an increase from approximately 50,000 and around 21,000, respectively, as stated in NATO’s Report on Progress in Afghanistan in 2011.
Apart from simply increasing the quantity, NATO’s Training Mission in Afghanistan (NTM-A) reports positively about improved leadership training (16,000 Non-commissioned officers in 2011, compared to only 1,950 in November 2009), improved marksmanship of the troops (ANA weapons qualification has increased from 35% in 2009 to 95% in 2011) and improved literacy rates among the troops (50% of all ANSF troops will be literate by the end of 2011) in Media Backgrounder.
One of the biggest achievements of the ANSF was the successful execution of Operation Moshtarak in 2010, a massive counter-insurgency offensive carried out in Marjah in Helmand province, a town which was entirely under insurgent control. NATO’s report Media Backgrounder, Marjah: 1 year On, published in March 2011, indicates significant improvement in the province, including construction of schools, health clinics, as well as the institutionalization of a local police force and election of 20 government officials. It represents a fine example of the comprehensive civil-military approach that NATO has been using.
The international coalition in Afghanistan has also succeeded in establishing a democratic system of government. Indeed, this was one of the objectives of the Bush administration’s launching Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan in 2001- apart from hunting down Bin Laden and destroying Al Qa’eda. Afghanistan is in fact a democracy today- albeit a flawed one. This system should make it easier for the international community to assist and help rebuild Afghanistan, post the ISAF pull-out and throughout the transitional process. After all, democracies are natural allies, and some of the emerging key players in this conflict, such as India, will definitely find it an easier country to deal with, as long as it remains democratic. This was reasserted in NATO’s Conference on Afghanistan held in London in 2010, which adopted a strategy for transition called ‘Inteqal’, which, as enumerated in Media Backgrounder, Transition to Afghan Lead: Inteqal, highlights the role the Afghan government will need to play for a favorable transition.
Another commendable gain has been the effort to rebuild the nation. According to the CIA Factbook, Afghanistan has some of the worst indicators of human development in terms of population living in poverty (36%, 2008), population’s access to sanitation (63%, 2008), infant mortality rates (149.2 deaths/ 1000 births, 2nd highest in the world, 2011) and among the lowest female literacy rates in the world (12.6%, 2000). A large and challenging part of rebuilding Afghanistan has been trying to inhibit its massive opium production and consequent illegal narcotics trade. As Gilles Dorronsoro explains in his article Afghanistan: The Impossible Transition, The Carnegie Papers, the size of the opium industry has crippled the Afghan economy by providing opportunities for corrupt officials to further expand their wealth and undermine the progress made with respect to security. A recent report by the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR), says that the U.S. has poured in 70 billion dollars in security and aid since 2001. Billions more have been poured in from other countries to get Afghanistan back on its feet. Efforts range from building Afghanistan’s physical infrastructure, such as improving access to water, sanitation and electricity, to improving Afghanistan’s political and social institutions, as well economic recovery initiatives in areas that have been stabilized and secured. As noted by the CIA Factbook, some tangible improvements of this enormous international development effort include a rise in adult literacy rates to 28.1%, the steadily improving growth rate in GDP to 8.2% in 2010. In addition, opium cultivation per hectare is reducing gradually from a record high of 193,000 ha under cultivation in 2007, down to 123,000 ha in 2010, according to UNODC, Afghanistan Opium Survey, Summary Findings published in September 2010.
In spite of these gains, it is no hidden fact that Afghanistan is still in shambles. In terms of governance and security, Afghanistan remains tremendously weak. Those aspects of stability are so fragile that it is no surprise that Afghanistan ranked 7th on the Failed States Index in 2011, as is pointed out in Dorronso’s article.
According to Dorronsoro’s recent paper on the transitional process, apart from the insurgency, we are also witnessing the progressive “deconstruction” of the state, at least in cases where institutions were initially functioning. The report mentions that the functioning of certain institutions is increasingly disconnected from the political control of populations. Thus, the National Solidarity Programme (NSP), clinics, and schools are operating in rather large areas, often outside of government control. Furthermore, the weakness of the governance and political structures in place and the inability of the government to intervene outside of district capitals largely limit its relevance in daily life. For example, for months, Kapisa has had no governor. These circumstances give an impetus to, rather than hinder, the narcotics industry in Afghanistan. A spike in opium production in certain border provinces is another sign of the lack of government control, Dorronso notes. The only supporters of the government today are largely independent border tribes that are protecting their contraband trade and former commanders who continue to be major players in the political game.
In addition, Afghan security forces (i.e. the police and the army) are far from capable containing the insurgents on their own. The ANA forces are not autonomous, nor are they highly motivated to fight the insurgents. Dorronso also points out that they lack important skills such as mine detection and capacities such as air support, which makes them unable to leave their bases. In fact, NATO’s Afghan National Security Forces article argues that much of the problem is related to the fact that to date, the ANA has been an infantry-centric force. The bottom line is that in spite of efforts to improve the ANA, the forces are unable to stabilize the security situation. The ANP inspires even less confidence in security. The deaths of prominent politicians in the south such as Ahmed Wali Karzai and Jan Muhammad Khan are a clear indication of this. In 2009, one of the most pressing issues facing the ANP was that the majority of Afghan Uniformed Police (AUP) were recruited and assigned to duty without formal training. This has led the Afghan population to perceive the AUP as corrupt and inept.
This precarious governance and security environment undoubtedly dulls the chances of a successful transition of power from the coalition to the Afghan government. Thus, the aspirations that the international community had for Afghanistan in 2001 remain largely unaccomplished in 2011. Disappointing as that may be, it’s much more upsetting to see the hopes of 29 million Afghans being shattered, repeatedly.
However, even in this bleak scenario, there is some hope. The coalition and the Afghans can overcome both hurdles—battling the insurgency and subsequently facilitating a successful transition—through one sustained and committed effort after engaging in a dialogue with the Taliban. This step is imperative, although it has been long neglected by members of the international community engaged in Afghanistan. By reinvesting itself in direct and secret talks with the Taliban, the U.S. has realized, rather belatedly, that diplomacy is pivotal. Since the objectives and the outcomes of the talks are mostly left to speculation, we can only assume that one certain possible outcome could be a power-broking deal: to accommodate the Taliban leaders in Afghanistan’s future government and overall political process. This is no doubt crucial to end the insurgency. The end of the insurgency could also lift much pressure from the Afghan government, the ripple effects of which could reduce corruption and the illicit narcotics trade. Reaching a diplomatic solution with the Taliban could also mean a much more facile environment for the international community’s continuing development efforts.
However, if these talks were to be a success, and the Taliban were to win a place in Afghan politics, one must ask, who loses? Clearly the biggest losers would be the people of Afghanistan. After nearly ten years of war, they would be left with a highly corrupt government, in charge of a volatile security situation, comprised of the very enemy they wanted to see ousted. Of course, Gilles Dorronsoro points out that the Afghan peoples’ affiliations have also oscillated between the coalition forces and the insurgents as the two sides fought over winning hearts and minds in the war against terror. However, for Afghans, it may have always been a case of choosing the lesser of two evils. Indeed, Afghans may never have been presented with a legitimate choice for determining their future during the last 10 years. The messy process of ‘nation-building’ has left all social institutions in nebulous and fragile condition. Citizen-driven choice seems to be a privilege rather than a right in democratic Afghanistan. Unlike the people of the Arab nations revolting against their repressive governments, Afghan society has been left so feeble that such a type of grass root movement is improbable, if not impossible.
Thus, it is quite likely that this war will not end well. In fact, the mistakes the coalition has made in the course of the last ten years will cost them very dearly in terms of making a successful transition. The failure to adequately build stable political and social institutions in order to improve security, empower the people, and rebuild the nation implies a tortuous and disorganized transitional process. Once again, the biggest losers will be the citizens of Afghanistan, left with no choice but to contend with their fate.
End the ‘Great Game’ to Solve Afghanistan
Zorawar Daulet Singh
US success in Afghanistan requires a change in strategy.
Last week’s Bonn Conference was another lost opportunity to promote a genuine multilateral approach to Afghanistan. For the past decade, and especially after President Obama took office, the West has pinned its entire Afghan strategy on Pakistan.
Yet, despite spending US$ 386 billion and losses of 1,774 lives since 2001, America’s return on investment has been truly dismal. The reasons for this have been clear all along – America overinvested in Pakistan and underinvested in the rest of the region.
It is important to revisit why the West’s “Af-Pak” strategy collapsed and what is the best way forward.
To eradicate radicalism in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a purely counter-terrorism mission could not have worked, at least in the initial phase. In the tumultuous political setting in which state sovereignty has eroded over the decades, especially in the case of Pakistan’s borderlands – in which it was never established – neutralising terrorism requires some element of state building on both sides of the Durand Line. Thus, the Afghan question logically evolved into a counter-insurgency mission that could only be fulfilled via a limited nation-building project.
Yet, the massive boots required for such a strategy have not been deemed domestically sustainable in the West. This mismatch of ends and means led directly to the heart of the problem - adopting a counter-insurgency strategy that depended on the collaboration of Pakistani boots across the Durand Line. In this sense, the American geostrategy has clearly been Pakistan-centric.
The next challenge before the American planner was to persuade Pakistan to abandon its hedging strategy of supporting proxy militias on their western front. Normalising Pakistani threat perceptions, therefore, became a logical extension of the Afghan strategy.
How did the US respond to this reshaping of Pakistani threat perceptions? This involved cajoling India to reassure Pakistan. Here India’s restraint and reassurance has been stretched to the limit. Nevertheless, we have seen that reassurance that satisfies Pakistan, if taken to its logical conclusion, implies outright capitulation by its immediate neighbours. The US also directly reassured Pakistan by signalling a long-term commitment to address Pakistan’s fear of abandonment, and provided capacity-building support to help Pakistan help itself.
Changing Pakistan’s worldview and reconstruction of its identity, however, has proved impossible for three reasons.
First, lack of intent - Pakistan has been reluctant to fully cooperate with America to break the back of the insurgency. It hopes to retain some leverage via the Afghan Taliban not only for potential influence in Afghanistan but also in ensuring that Pakistan’s 27 million Pashtuns do not create a blowback for the Pakistani state. In fact, it is Pakistan’s Pashtun problem that is the principal driver for its “strategic depth” policies, which are then legitimised by the “India threat”.
Second, lack of capacity - an important assumption was that the Pakistani state, including its military, had the capacity and discipline to prosecute a counter-insurgency strategy, which to be politically useful must be followed up with an administrative absorption of the ungoverned frontier regions into the Pakistani state. Again, Pakistan has not demonstrated sovereign governance capabilities to “hold and build” western Pakistan. For all practical purposes, the writ of the Pakistani state does not extend beyond the Indus.
Third, an ideational paralysis - the objective of the permanently changing Pakistani calculus presumed that Pakistan’s fuedal elite could change course by dismantling its strategic reliance on radical Islam. And this in turn presumed that Pakistan would be able to substitute the diabolical use of Islam and ideologically reinvent itself as a normal nation-state with normal threat perceptions.
This was always a tall order because it implied an ambitious geopolitical reconstruction of the post-1947 subcontinent and body politic. Ironically, what the post-transition phase actually needs is a predictable transactional relationship between the US and Pakistan where all western aid is conditioned on sustained anti-terrorist measures by Pakistan against groups targeting the international community.
Now if a Pakistan-centric approach has reached a dead-end, we need to have a look at what can be done differently on the Afghan side of the equation.
First, western discourse focuses on breaking the link between Al-Qaida and the Taliban so that the latter can be accommodated in a power-sharing arrangement in Afghanistan. But to execute this top-down reconciliation strategy would require Pakistani intent, capacity, and real governance being extended to the tribal areas and the safe havens in western Pakistan. The prospect of this happening is structurally nearly impossible.
But what about pursuing an alternative strategy that can actually be implemented from within Afghanistan? Breaking the Pashtun link from the Taliban or at least de-legitimising the narrative that the Taliban factions are the sole voice for the Afghan Pashtun is something that has not been pursued seriously. The main reason for this is the US strategic establishment has held on to the optimistic scenario that Pakistan would ultimately emerge as an intermediary in a grand top-down bargain with the Taliban confederacy.
An Afghan state that possesses basic institutional capabilities supplemented with a wider patronage system and security for the southern and eastern Pashtuns can make it harder for the Taliban to sustain Pashtun allegiance, at least on the Afghan side of the Durand Line. So, instead of outsourcing the Pashtun problem to Pakistan, which in turn outsources it to radical proxies, rebalancing institutions within Afghanistan and giving them a pan-ethnic inclusive expression would help. Here rebalancing the ethnic composition of the Afghan National Security Forces to increase the share of Pashtuns would help in widening the legitimacy of the Afghan state.
Second, is to consider what can be done on the Afghan side of the Durand Line to promote Pakistani behaviour that is evidently in its self-interest.
A strong “anvil” on the Afghan side, including a robust intelligence, surveillance and defense on key border passes would imply that Pakistani inaction and intransigence over its Pashtun areas would hurt Pakistani interests more than Afghanistan. This is more likely to adapt Pakistani behaviour – become the “hammer” or face the prospect of getting even more destabilised itself. At the very least, this would produce a structural reaction rather than waiting for Pakistan to unilaterally change the way it deals with western Pakistan and its 27 million Pashtuns.
Finally, a sincere diplomatic effort at bringing Afghanistan’s other neighbours such as Russia and Iran into the equation offers an alternative path. Russia’s role in expanding the northern logistical route to Afghanistan as an alternative to the one from Karachi underscores that it has a stake in Afghan stability. Iran, which shares a 936-kilometre border with Afghanistan, too, has a vital interest in stability. According to the 2011 United Nations Drug Report, Iran has intercepted 89 per cent of all the seized opium worldwide on its eastern border. India’s modest but well-executed reconstruction effort has endeared it to all sections of Afghanistan. In sum, the region has provided more tacit and actual support to Afghan stability than is generally recognised.
America can leverage these national efforts, however provisional they might appear, to promote a common goal for Afghanistan. But before that, Washington needs to scale back its own geopolitical ambitions in southern Eurasia. A geopolitically neutral, ethnically inclusive, and a minimally capable Afghanistan that is neither a breeding ground for terrorism nor a potential power-projection base for the West would be acceptable to all regional stakeholders, including Pakistan. If such a vision for Afghanistan is pursued it would make intervention into Afghan affairs unnecessary and increase the prospects for a genuine multilateral commitment to Afghanistan’s future.
Even the original protagonists of the ‘great game’ – Russia and Great Britain – recognised the futility of an expensive and destabalising rivalry in Afghanistan. They ultimately called a truce in the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907. Russia acceded to Afghanistan’s semi-neutral status as a British protectorate and in lieu received assurances that Afghanistan would not be used as a bridgehead to meddle in Central Asia. This arrangement kept the peace for nearly 70 years.
The 1979 Soviet invasion reopened the ‘great game’ by attempting to transform Afghanistan’s neutral status into a sphere of influence. It failed miserably. The US must learn the lessons of the past and craft a multilateral compact that brings all regional actors including its rivals on board with a common aim of ending the ‘great game’.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
Afghanistan - What Went Wrong and What Comes Next
The increasingly prevalent view, although not officially articulated inside the Washington DC Beltway, is that the Afghan war seems militarily unwinnable and politically uncertain. The choice now is not about winning and leaving but to select from some very poor options after the US has been involved in its longest overseas military engagement. By 2014, it will have run into its thirteenth year.
Admiral Mike Mullen recently warned that 2011 would be bloodier than 2010 and at the current rate of loss another 1,500 young men and women will die by 2014. The US treasury will have spent another $ 600 billion by then. Other parameters do not look healthy either. The primary aim of the US in the Afghan theatre is to make America safe from terrorist attacks emanating from Afghanistan. European and American public opinion is swinging away from this war and the Europeans are anxious to leave. There is little possibility that by 2014 either the Afghan National Army or the Afghan National Police will be ready to take over the responsibility of ensuring Afghanistan's security and law and order across the country. The United States is looking at a strategic stalemate.
Following recent upheavals in the Middle East, US policy makers are anxiously watching the entire region, from the Maghreb to the Saudi Peninsula and even Iran and Pakistan. The replacement of regimes in the Middle East may not all result in US-friendly governments given the undertones of both the anti-American sentiment and Islamic fervour in these regions. In the early days of the 21st century, where power equations are changing and there is intense discussion of the implications of the rise of China and its interests in the Middle East, this must be a matter of additional concern in Washington.
The region is energyrich and also home to some of the most radical Islamist movements that arise from the Afghanistan-Pakistan (AfPak) region as well from the Middle East. US interests in Afghanistan have come under increasing stress in recent weeks over the Raymond Davis affair. America’s most important ally in the region, Pakistan, is witnessing another round of increasingly vocal anti-American sentiment amidst growing sectarianism, violence and instability. US patience with Pakistan is running low and the cancellation of the US-Afghanistan-Pakistan trilateral is a direct result of this impasse on the Davis issue.
Today, the entire region from the Oxus to the Indus has become extremely unstable with an unending wave of Pushtun-led violence in Northern Pakistan and in the Punjab province. This does little to help the execution of a complicated and a difficult war against an elusive enemy in an environment sullied by acute mistrust between the US and Pakistan.
The war against terrorism was well begun in Afghanistan in 2001, but it quickly ran aground because of changed priorities. Consequently, it became a wrong war in the wrong place impeded by an unreliable ally. With inadequate boots on the ground no amount of aerial attacks was going to provide the ability to clear and hold territory so essential in a counter insurgency campaign. Inexplicably, US policies have been more of the same; a paucity of ideas that believes in funneling more funds to Pakistan either as a reward for services believed rendered or in the hope that they will rendered. In the process, Pakistan has acquired a veto power over US policies in AfPak. Since the US considered Pakistan to be part of the solution rather than the problem, Pakistan became an indispensible ally even as it pursued a course directly contradictory to US and NATO – even global - goals in the region. If there has to be any attribution to reasons of failure, this American inability or unwillingness to understand Pakistan’s strategic ambitions and attitudes would be the most crucial factor responsible for the present US position in AfPak.
The predicament is that the US cannot permanently maintain the present force level, the casualty rate or the cost of the war. It also does not thus have the luxury of time to put together a viable local alternative. Departure from an unsettled region will only lead to further instability and a conceivable civil war reopening old animosities between the largely Pushtun south and east against the other minorities – the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras. A prolonged conflict in the region seems the more likely course. Intervention by outside interests in Afghanistan will inevitably follow.
It is sometimes forgotten that in the ultimate analysis, the Taliban are Pushtun who live on both sides of the Durand Line which was a demarcation made due to British imperial interests of the time. These interests divided the Pushtun between Afghanistan and the North West Frontier Province under British control. In recent years there has been an upsurge in anti-Pushtun violence in the Balochistan province of Pakistan, in Karachi, the country’s largest city and in FATA, which has seen repeated US attacks. It may not be long before there is an upsurge of a demand for Greater Pushtunistan once the foreigner and therefore common enemy has departed and the Pushtuns internalise their several problems swept under the carpet by preceding regimes. Pushtun assertiveness will almost certainly lead to retaliation from Afghanistan’s other ethnic groups. Religious obscurantism combined with ultra-nationalism can be a very explosive mix. Of course, given Afghanistan’s complex tribal structure it is not easy to predict the future. Most certainly, however, any change in the configuration of the Pushtun belt will have its repercussions on Pakistan.
Faced with limited options, it might be considered a satisfactory, if not a good solution, for Washington DC to be able to come to an agreement with the ‘good’ Taliban assuming that: they exist, they are less fundamentalist and they are therefore more benign than other parts of the Taliban. The war in Afghanistan was not just against the Taliban and the Al Qaeda but against the medieval obscurantism that they represent. Today, one discerns dialogue in the west that seems to suggest that the Taliban are not such bad fellows after all; they have a regional (i.e. Afghan nationalist) approach and are merely fighting against foreign occupation. The implication is that once this cause disappears then the Taliban angst will disappear and Afghanistan can be left to them. This is a dangerous rationalisation and does not take into account Pakistani ambitions, the Taliban/Al Qaeda combine or the criminal narcotics-warlord nexus. Accepting this deal is accepting the mindset and the short route to rapid Islamisation of the region and beyond.
A solution can be possible only if four aspects are seriously considered. Pakistan must be reined in and made to understand that it is less indispensible to US interests than it makes out. The US must accept that it can no longer determine the fate of other countries on its own and has to reach out to other neighbouring countries like Iran and others who have important stakes in the stability and independence of Afghanistan (i.e. Russia and India). Additionally, the US has to use more of the stick and less of the carrot when dealing with Pakistan. The narcotics criminal warlord nexus must be severed. This cannot be done without adequate agricultural relief work and pacification of Kandahar, where the challenge is greatest. To deal with Afghanistan effectively, there has to be closer US and NATO engagement with Russia and separately with Iran, however unpalatable it might appear today. We must evaluate if there can be any agreement amongst all nations about non-interference in Afghanistan and whether will Pakistan continue to remain a considerable part of the problem.
Whatever happens in the next few years, it must be accepted that the nature of the region will change, perhaps forever. A stable Pakistan may have been able to exercise reasonable influence on a much weaker Afghanistan. However, Pakistan is itself in a mess of various kinds, where one hears increasingly intolerant and violent religiosity with ethno-political fissures. It is doubtful whether Pakistan would be able to either control or bring stability to the region. Pakistan’s quest for strategic depth is more likely to end up as a strategic quagmire. What we are looking at is a very unstable and turbulent region.
Given that more troops cannot be committed, funds may be in short supply and that the discourse in the US and the West has changed, what are US options? How does one define ‘Mission Accomplished’ when all of the options are poor or even impossible?
Perhaps Vice President Joe Biden’s plan is effective: withdrawal of ground forces substantially and then hunting Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan using special forces, Predator missile attacks and other surgical tactics. Ambassador Robert Blackwill’s Plan B for Afghanistan is really an extension of this. He suggests a withdrawal of American forces substantially from the Pushtun south and east and a concentration of US forces in the north and northwest as bases for striking against targets. Blackwill’s plan leaves some sizeable forces in the region protecting American interests though it also means an admission that the war as presently configured is unwinnable. Within this plan is dialogue with the Taliban, reduction of US dependency on Pakistan and an informal coming into being of a Pushtun homeland. Both Biden and Blackwill realise that the essential problem is in Pakistan.
Any amount of readjustment or reevaluation of US policies and priorities in Afghanistan will not succeed unless there is a similar reevaluation of its policies and priorities in Pakistan.
Afghanistan in 2020
Sir Robert Fry
Historical interventions in Afghanistan have always ended up confirming its condition as a strong society but weak state, and I suspect the 2001–2014 US/NATO episode will be no exception. In 2020, Afghanistan will confront this enduring national dilemma. As a result, it may resemble the county in 1920 rather than the centrally governed liberal democracy envisaged, at least originally, by the latest incursion. The degree of historical determinism this implies has an almost Marxist resignation, yet it seems likely the patrimonial mechanisms that constitute Afghan vernacular politics will continue their pervasive hold.
“Success will be achieved when the Afghan government has earned the support of the powerful Afghan people” was former US Commander in Afghanistan Stan McChrystal’s view of his mission, from which General David Petraeus has not demurred. But while it has a ring of counter insurgent truth to it, this phrase does not define the Afghan people. It falsely implies a sentient electorate, anxious to independently exercise its democratic rights – a far cry from the tangled web of tribal, ethnic, and informal structures which define the Afghan body politic and allow warlordism to retain a central role. The Afghan tribal structure is not as fixed as it is often portrayed to be; affiliations can change over time, but the function of providing security against other tribes and outsiders is permanent. The tribes themselves are tied into a network of patronage through a series of vertical links which connect them to local, regional and national power brokers.
The warlords at the apex of this tribal-client hierarchy exercise a self interested power which keeps the society strong and the state weak. They are problematic figures for the NATO campaign in that they simultaneously seek military accommodation and continue criminal activities, of which drug trafficking is probably the most egregious. Their interests lie in creating conditions which will guarantee their power and freedom of action, and they are capable of generating sufficient localised violence to safeguard their positions. Unfortunately, violence stemming from the warlords is often conflated with the Taleban’s more ideological military activity, and perceived in a way which obscures the true nature of operations in Afghanistan.
As we now contemplate the stampede for strategic exits in the Afghan campaign, it is the warlords who hold the ring between an exhausted people and a corrupt and inept central government. If NATO hopes to leave the country with any semblance of order, it will need to deal with the real brokers of power, not the purported representatives of the people. To do so, NATO will also have to abandon the lofty aims of principled intervention and embrace the gritty reality of the existing patrimonial edifice, and perpetuate weak central governance.
This leaves us with a prognosis of more of the same and the conclusion that the aggregate military and political power of the USA and the NATO Alliance was insufficient to overcome a medieval socio-cultural structure. If that is the case, then the original aim of the intervention – to deny ungoverned space to terrorist activity – will have failed, and with it the much lauded counter-insurgency doctrine associated with McChrystal and Petraeus. This is likely to lead to recidivism and a crude counter-terrorist approach, advocated by Vice President Biden and others, which can be paraphrased as “forget legitimate government, just kill the bad guys.” This will result in the sort of remote tactical engagement currently prevalent in the Federal Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan and the consequent progressive alienation of the people. In turn, this will recreate conditions for the Taleban’s discipline to appear beguilingly attractive in a bizarre case of historical déjà-vu.
So much for luckless Afghanistan, doomed to the Sisyphean fate of re-living its history. But what are the implications for the region, and, in particular, for Pakistan and India? Pakistan has a long track record of meddling in Afghanistan, mainly in order to retain the facility of “strategic depth” in its confrontation with India. The equation is complex and must include the variable of Kashmir, but the use of Afghanistan as a device in the Indo-Pakistani standoff can only further complicate an already convoluted situation and make a comprehensive solution more attractive. The conventional wisdom as seen from Islamabad is that the scale and proximity of the Indian threat has always required the spatial depth of Afghanistan in order to absorb an Indian attack. However, a weak or ungoverned Afghanistan allows the Pakistan Taleban to rely on the sanctuary of its co-ideologues in the southern Pashtun area of Afghanistan as well as a strategic depth from which to prosecute operations against Pakistan’s central government. Seeing its own logic turned on its head may make Pakistan more amenable to a broader regional accommodation than it has been in the past.
Will the world care what Afghanistan looks like in 2020? It owes its current celebrity to 9/11 and the preceding conditions and subsequent actions. From 2001–2007, terrorism was elevated to the status of a global war; by the end of the decade this was no longer the rhetoric of Western engagement as the distractions of relative failure and financial crisis began to bite. The next ten years will see a strategic shift from West to East, the possibility of currency and water wars, the certainty of state or criminally led cyber wars, and a vastly increased danger of nuclear engagement as multi-polar deterrence is tested, perhaps beyond its tolerances. In the broad spectrum of history, our preoccupation with jihadist terrorism may appear ephemeral, and, upon its demise, Afghanistan may again occupy its traditional place as a footnote to history.