Saturday, October 18, 2008

How We Lost Afghanistan

The war in Afghanistan is lost. The generals won't admit it yet, but nobody would expect them to. As long as their are still troops in the country it would be irresponsible to declare their task to be hopeless. The politicians won't admit it either. But nobody would expect them to. They've made great promises that this was a war we were going to win. We were going to bring stability and democracy to a country that has seen nothing but war for a thousand years. It was going to be shining victory for the forces of light.

Everyone knows that the south of Afghanistan has been a problem almost since the invastion. The optimists however, pointed to Kabul and the north. Girls were being educated for the first time in a generation, the economy was growing, and the security situation was pretty decent. A year ago some NGO workers were actually camping in the countryside in the north. Those days are past. NGOs have now banned all travel between cities in the north except with armed escorts. Many workers aren't even allowed to leave their guarded compounds to buy groceries except in a private car with an armed driver.

The reconstruction effort in the north is a complete shambles. A friend of ours who just returned from Afghanistan says that the security situation is so bad that the road building program just simply stopped. There is simply nobody who will build a road any more. For any price.

Around Kabul the situation is even worse. The only place that is still safe for foreigners is Chicken Street with it's armed perimiter and metal detectors. The hills around Kabul are all controlled by the Taliban now. Recently bandits attacked and killed a bunch of police officers just outside town. When the bigwigs arrived to investigate a car bomb went off and killed even more. The insurgents are getting more sophisticated, and the Afghan police don't have the training or staff to do anything about it.

If it was just security though, there would still be hope. An Iraq-style "surge" might restore stability and win the day. But the real loss is the hearts of the Afghan people.

To understand what is happening in Afghanistan today, one must understand it's history. Afghanistan is cursed with a geography that makes it at once isolated and at the same time strategically important. It is at the crossroads of Asia- the logical path from India to Russia and from Iran to China. Yet at the same time it is isolated by impenitrable mountain ranges and terrible deserts. This geography makes it a hard country to control. So Afghanistan has spent the last thousand years at war, overrun by one army after another, only to beat them back when their supply lines crumbled or they got too complacent.

In the 1800s Afghanistan featured as the center piece of the "Great Game", the battle between England and Russia for the control of Central Asia. The Russians encroached on neighboring states, capturing most of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan through a series of small advances. The British, worried that the encroachment would continue invaded Afghanistan twice to their great cost, before deciding it was better to support friendly warlords instead. In the late 1800s and early 1900s the British and Russians defined the boundaries that make up modern Afghanistan. The Afghan's weren't even consulted in the process. Afghanistan was simply a convenient buffer state to keep the two great empires apart.

Afghanistan was then forgotten. It languished under tribal warfare and terrible leadership until communists took control in the 1970s. At their "invitation" the Russian army invaded, and the seeds of today's problems were sowed. The United States started a proxy war against the Russians, mainly by providing money to Pakistan's Intelligence Services so that they could train and arm fighters. The Pakistanis however, had their own interests in mind, and funded a variety of competing warlords and unsavory characters including Osama bin Laden. The Russian army was no match for suicidal mountain men armed with modern American weaponry, and they pulled out at the end of the 1980s.

Afghanistan was abandoned.

A terrible civil war broke out, but the United States, who had laid the seeds for the war by funding all the competing groups no longer had any interest in Afghanistan. The world forgot about Afghanistan. The fighting was so fierce that Kabul was destroyed. There wasn't a building left standing. Millions of refugees poured across the borders.

Into this chaos came the Taliban. Their strict Islamic law wasn't particularly popular, but they were well led and they provided peace (at the point of a gun). The Taliban ended the fighting, as well as education for women, music, playing of games, television, movies, the arts, books, and any teaching not related to the Koran.

Nobody cared though, until September 11th, 2001.

A few months later the Taliban had fled to the hills and an international security force was promising peace and prosperity to Afghanistan once again. The only problem was that they weren't prepared to deliver it. The United States somehow became convinced that the real problem was Iraq, and the attention of the world shifted. Much of the reconstruction money that was promised never arrived. Afghanistan has only received a fraction of the money per-capita that Rwanda has gotten for example.

There simply weren't enough troops to provide stability for the whole country. A weak central government was set up, but with no power to back it up it was largely a joke. Afghan's refer to their president as the "Major of Kabul". Most of the areas outside of Kabul fell under the control of warlords, drug lords, and other unsavory characters, and since the government was powerless, there was no choice but to work with these groups and bring them into the fold.

With one important exception.

The newly resurgent Taliban are once again a power to deal with. Nobody in Afghanistan likes the the Taliban (most Afghans say that even the terrible situation today is better than the Taliban rule). But the Taliban are motivated and unstopable. Their insurgency has made the country ungovernable and driven out most of the groups who could help rebuilt it. Girls are no longer being educated because teachers are afraid of being killed. Women are back under the Burkha. People live in fear.

President Karzai knew that he couldn't defeat the Taliban and tried to arrange a deal with them. No surprisingly this was vetoed by the United States. The unfortunate result was that a powerless government was left trying to control a lawless country where even the miltary can't travel safely.

There is no winning now. The Afghan people are fed up. Our friend said that anti-western sentiment is so high that a local man who was helping him couldn't find a single bus that would take him from Kunduz to Mazar-i-Sharif (both in the far north) because the drivers were too afraid to carry a westerner. A guard he talked to at one of his hotels said that his Afghan friends have become increasingly radicalized as they realized that all the western promises were empty.

The path forward is clear if not that pleasant. There is no winning in a situation like this. You can't bring peace when the population of the country is against you. If I were being elected to the Presidency of the United States I would increase the number of troops in the country in order to put pressure on the Taliban. Then I would work with the Afghan government to negotiate a ceasefire along the lines of what Pakistan has done with its tribal areas. The Taliban could get autonomy in the South on the condition that they end the insurgency in the rest of the country. And maybe, just maybe, the rest of the country could be saved from another dark age. The Afghan people have suffered enough for fighting our wars.

The information in this article comes from a number of sources including people who have been in Afghanistan a few weeks ago. I've tried to relate everything as well as I could, but as history is always written to support a point of view there are no doubt other interpretations of some of the events I describe.

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