Why We Fear Afghanistan and Why We Shouldn'tNews Abroad
Much of the current analysis of the U.S.-British military actions against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan seem to accept unquestioningly conventional wisdom on the prospects for military success in that country. But the major premises of this conventional wisdom are simply myths that have developed over the years, either from ignorance or malevolence. The facts, it will be seen, simply do not support them.
MYTH #1: THE U.S. IS BOUND TO BE DEFEATED IN AFGHANISTAN, JUST AS THE BRITISH AND THE SOVIETS WERE.The myth that the U.S. is destined to follow in the footsteps of the two prior great powers who suffered disastrous defeats there, Great Britain (in the First Afghan War, 1838-42) and the Soviet Union (1979-89), has gained wide currency.
In the First Afghan War the British tried and failed to impose an unpopular puppet king, Shah Shuja, in Kabul, thus uniting all the fractious Afghans who, then as now, united only when threatened by the possibility of an effective central government. The British garrison in Kabul was completely wiped out, with enormous losses of life and blows to British prestige.
Britain would again fight in Afghanistan in 1878-80 and 1919, but these were mostly limited operations, since London had realized its error and turned to a policy of manipulating (often financially) the various Afghan groups. The success of this policy is demonstrated by the transformation of Afghanistan into an effective buffer state between the competing ambitions of the British and Russian empires. (Perhaps a better term would be"buffer territory" since"Afghanistan" always was and still is a geographic expression more than a real state, let alone a"nation.")
The Soviet experience in Afghanistan was equally ill-fated, and caused enough bitterness at home to help contribute to the fall of the Soviet Union. But the reasons for this have as much to do with factors on the Soviet side -- including the large number of soldiers lost to preventable disease, inappropriate military tactics and poor national morale -- as Afghanistan-specific factors. Furthermore, the very ideology of Marxism-Leninism coming on the back of Soviet tanks was rejected by virtually all population groups.
Importantly, unlike nineteenth-century Britain or the twentieth-century Soviet Union, the United States has neither interest in nor geopolitical reasons for wanting to control, let alone occupy, Afghanistan. And unless there has been a miserable failure to communicate, all Afghans know this. Moreover, developments in recent decades, exacerbated by the incompetence of the mujahideen regime (now represented by the United Front, also known in the West as the Northern Alliance) of 1992-96 in Kabul, have achieved what all of prior history had not: sharpening ethnic divisions within the country. While all the ethnic groups united against outsiders in the earlier conflicts, now the Tajiks, Uzbeks, Aimaks, Hazaras, Nuristanis, and Turkmen -- ethnic minorities that collectively make up over half the country -- are only loosely and sporadically"united" against the Pashtun-dominated Taliban regime. (The Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group but only 40 percent of the population.) It is no coincidence that the Taliban's political and ideological center is not multiethnic Kabul but all-Pashtun Kandahar.
MYTH #2: THE TERRAIN IN AFGHANISTAN RENDERS MODERN MILITARY TECHNOLOGY LARGELY IRRELEVANT.The implications of this myth are (a) that an almost Stone Age military would defeat a twenty-first century power, and (b) that the country's terrain is the same and equally important everywhere.
While a great deal of Afghanistan is indeed mountainous and exceedingly difficult for infantry operations, key areas -- the Uzbek border, the Shamali Plain north of Kabul and the entire southeast around and including Kandahar -- are perfect operational areas for heliborne forces. These are also in fact the areas of major Taliban force concentrations.
As for the truly difficult mountainous regions, the worst of those, the Badakshan Wakhan Corridor, is under Northern Alliance" control," but certainly not under the Taliban's. The strategic Panjhir Valley remains, as ever, under Tajik control, as does the entire area around Herat, although not the city itself -- yet. It is only in the mountainous east, around Jalalabad and the Pakistani border, that Pashtun ethnics may -- if the price is right -- continue to support the Taliban-cum-al-Qaeda. But would the latter have the money to continue its control, or the aura of success following the U.S.-British air attacks? That is doubtful.
Actually, the very fact that the Taliban was able to conquer so much of Afghanistan from 1994 on points to other factors more relevant to the potential for success here. First, there was the desire of many -- in fact, most -- people for some order and discipline to be imposed in their regions, so long as it was not imposed by a foreign (i.e., Soviet) force. Many wanted an end put to the banditry and warlordism, in order to stanch the emigration flow to Pakistan that this caused. But consider the recent history of the city of Herat: under Ishmael Khan, a former Royal Afghan Army officer, it successfully fought the Soviets and in 1989 established an enlightened system in which girls and boys had equal access to education. Escaping after being captured by the Taliban in 1998, Khan is now close to retaking the city -- Afghanistan's most multicultural and historic. Helping Ishmael Khan means helping everyone in Afghanistan.
The second reason for the Taliban's success was its ability to buy local military-cum-religious leaders -- particularly in Pashtun and Nuristani areas. With al-Qaeda and Pakistani help, that was doable. With the money flow from Islamabad cut off and al-Qaeda now centered on its own physical survival, the ability to buy local warlords is limited at best -- and the U.S.-led allies could buy them instead, at least temporarily.
MYTH #3: THIS IS AN IRREGULAR CAMPAIGN FOR WHICH THE U.S. IS ILL-PREPARED.Many of the large number of former military officers, civilian analysts, and journalists now offering"expert opinion" have made the claim that U.S. forces will face an endless guerrilla campaign in the mountains (see above) and plains of Afghanistan. They generally base this claim on the Soviet experience. But the claim is wrong.
Unlike the Soviets, whose support was limited to a very thin group of urban intelligentsia and (Soviet-educated and - indoctrinated) military officers vulnerable to communist atheistic and secular propaganda, the U.S. does not proclaim or harbor any cultural or religious (including anti- religious) goals. Hence the Northern Alliance -- all Sunni Muslims but moderately so -- and the Shi'a Hazaras see nothing wrong with the U.S. Air Force being their air force against the Taliban. The implication should be obvious. While U.S.-British Special Operations forces may and should play a key role, most of the hunting for bin Laden and his crowd -- most of whom are Arab or other foreigners -- will be done by Afghans themselves once the Taliban loses control over the major cities and regions.
And where would a Taliban guerrilla fight, if they are seen as losers and no longer benefit from Pakistani intelligence and military support? With the major air bases of Shindand in the West, Bagram in the Kabul area, and Mazar e Sharif in the north already out of commission, and some minor ones already under anti-Taliban control, U.S. forces will have free access to operations throughout the country.
MYTH #4: IT IS IMPOSSIBLE TO FIND OSAMA BIN LADEN IN AFGHANISTAN.This theory is based on all the above fallacies. It assumes that al-Qaeda's Arab (or foreign) militants could find refuge inside Afghanistan, without the locals knowing their whereabouts or acting upon the usual Afghan dislike and suspicion of all foreigners, especially the more recent dislike of"Islamic" foreigners.
In truth, any Afghan worth his history and tribal traditions would readily join the winners (i.e., the anti-Taliban forces) and capture or kill bin Laden, especially if doing so made the Afghan or his group wealthy. So it might be asked where, and for how long, a foreigner and his large group of"Arabs" could hide in a country where the population wants and needs international aid, money, and food, and is historically xenophobic?
MYTH #5: SINCE THE UNITED FRONT IS MADE UP LARGELY OF ETHNIC MINORITIES, IT CANNOT FORM A STABLE GOVERNMENT IN KABUL AND HENCE THERE IS NO REALISTIC LONG-TERM ALTERNATIVE TO THE TALIBAN.This is the Islamabad thesis -- but then, Islamabad is not exactly an objective observer. The theory's flaws are many. To begin with, as noted above, the non-Pashtun ethnic minorities who make up the United Front, which is recognized by the UN as the government of Afghanistan, collectively make up a large majority of the Afghanistan population. The Islamabad thesis may hold for Pakistan itself, which incidentally has more Pashtuns than does Afghanistan, but for Afghanistan? That does not mean leaving the Pashtuns entirely out of a future new power distribution.
Second, the Pashtuns are not, as Secretary Rumsfeld has begun calling them,"southern tribes." They are, to use George Bernard Shaw's phrase,"a people separated by a common language." The Durrani confederation in the east and south is the Taliban's power base. But -- and this is a very large but -- the Ghilzai confederation in the east (with Jalalabad its center) is unhappy with the Durrani/Taliban power-sharing arrangements. They are equally represented in Pakistan, hence Musharaff's admittedly daring challenge to the Taliban. The former King Zahir Shah is a Pashtun, he is recognized (probably temporarily, as all things are and always will be in Afghanistan), and he could probably rally enough of his people to get rid of the bin Laden gang of foreigners, with some financial backing.
We must all consider these facts in thinking about Afghanistan and the success probabilities for the U.S.- British led military action -- especially when we are barraged with ill-informed arguments to the contrary.
This article was first published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
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