Afghanistan is a treacherous land. In every sense of the word. Soon we will be leaving it behind. President Obama announced in a January 11th joint press conference with Afghan President Hamid Karzai that American troops would be relegated to a “support” role as early as this spring, and all Western combat troops will be removed by the end of 2014. This announcement passed without fanfare, but it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on the beginning of the end of the longest war in American history, to look forward to being formally at peace for the first time since that sunny Tuesday morning over a decade ago, and to understand why withdrawal is the only rational decision at this point.
On August 9th, 2010, I submitted to the Brussels School of International Studies a 50-page masters dissertation entitled “Greed and Grievance in the Graveyard of Empires.” My dissertation analyzed how aspects of Afghanistan’s society and economy support the Taliban’s survival. At the outset of my research, I was generally supportive of the US/NATO mission in Afghanistan. By the time I had finished, I was passing around a freelance editorial to every newspaper in the country arguing that we needed to get the hell out of there, pronto. No one would publish it. Last summer, I met a special forces veteran who had served as a combat linguist during two tours in Afghanistan at a bar here in Washington, DC. I told him about what I had discovered in my research and he told me he agreed with my conclusions and that I was lucky I hadn’t had to learn it the hard way.
What I learned is that Afghanistan is one big vicious cycle composed of smaller cycles. The three most dooming feedback loops are the violence cycle, the Pakistan/Taliban cycle and the opium/corruption cycle. Combined, these dynamics make it impossible for anyone to pacify and develop Afghanistan.
No one really controls Afghanistan. The Karzai government is barely in control of the capital city, Kabul. In fact, it’s not really clear that ‘Afghanistan’ even exists. It is true that a country a bit smaller than Texas straddles the Hindu Kush between Iran, Pakistan and the other ‘stans, but whether it still constitutes a nation-state in the Westphalian sense is debatable.
Because of the extraordinarily mountainous terrain, over 50% of the country is virtually uninhabitable, and little of the land is arable. As a result, settlements in Afghanistan are often villages sparsely populated by illiterate farmers, separated by ranges of forbidding mountains. For most Afghans, their village is their entire universe.
The 35 million Afghans are divided into many different ethnicities. The largest group is the Pashtuns, which constitute only 40% of the population. Tajiks comprise a quarter, Hazara and Uzbeks compose a further 9% each. They speak different languages and practice Islam differently. There is no majority in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan has been at war since the Soviet invasion in 1979. Since then, Afghan society has been organized around resisting whichever group accumulates the greatest amount of power. With US, Pakistani and Saudi support, Afghan mujahedin rebelled against the Soviet Union. After they withdrew, the international community abandoned Afghanistan to become a constantly devolving kaleidoscope of civil war. Whichever faction held the greatest power, the other factions would team up to resist them. Think of any game of Risk you’ve ever played, and you know that whoever is winning becomes the enemy of all. Afghanistan became a game of Risk in which no one could gain the advantage. It became a parliament with a permanent minority government, constantly building and collapsing coalitions. Except in Afghanistan, the politicians are warlords and their votes are murder. Afghanistan is governed by a parliament of violence.
On September 11th, 2001, the Taliban was the ascendant faction, controlling over half of the country. It was vigorously opposed by the Northern Alliance, comprised of Tajiks and Uzbeks. Al Qaeda assassinated Northern Alliance leaders days before 9/11 in a failed gambit to decapitate any potential proxy force for American power. Weeks after the towers fell, the US military was thrust into this hellscape of internecine warfare.
Just as the factions set aside their differences as long as the Soviets were present in their country, so too, the presence of US forces quickly bound the country together. While there is no love lost for the Taliban among most Afghans, the fact is that the Taliban will still be there after Uncle Sam is gone. While doing my research, I discovered that the indicator that correlates most clearly with the Taliban’s strength is the presence of US forces. The more soldiers America sends to Afghanistan, the more insurgents there are and the more frequently they attack. But the Taliban builds at greater than a 1:1 ratio. As the US builds up, the urge or coercion among young men to join the Taliban essentially goes viral. The greatest threat to the American mission in Afghanistan is the presence of American soldiers in Afghanistan. There is no way around this.
Most Americans became aware of Pakistan’s duplicity when Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, right under the nose of the Pakistani military. But Pakistan has been playing a double game from the beginning.
Pakistan created the Taliban. Fearful that the Soviets would use Afghanistan as a base to attack Pakistan, the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence trained mujahedin to keep the USSR bogged down. The United States and Saudi Arabia funded this effort.
The Taliban’s ascendance in Afghanistan gave Pakistan an unprecedented degree of influence in their neighboring country, an influence they were not about to give up. However, they knew better than to try to get in America’s way in the heat of the moment after 9/11. So, they did both. They support the Taliban and help the US. What isn’t clear is whether it is centrally directed policy to play both sides, or whether the Pakistani government is schizophrenically incoherent. Either way, the end result is that the US looks to Pakistan much like an Old Testament god, knowing that with one they giveth and with the other, taketh away.
When the US pressures them enough, Pakistan will occasionally hand over top Taliban people. But intelligence has shown that these are often Taliban commanders who have gone off the reservation in some way, either snubbing Pakistani support, or building their own support. Pakistan keeps the Taliban on a short leash by dangling the threat of being handed over to Washington. Pakistan also keeps Washington on a short leash by spoon-feeding the US scraps of intelligence.
Pakistan also provides safe haven to the Taliban. Again, it’s unclear whether this is done willingly. The border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is a product of the Western imagination. The badlands of Waziristan are mountains as far as the eye can see, not interrupted by government security. The Taliban cross the border easily. The evidence that this may not be intentional is the drone war. Elements within the Pakistani government have tacitly supported the US drone war against the elements of the Taliban within Pakistan. The drone war is also evidence that Afghanistan is not contained by anything resembling a functioning nation-state.
Because of the flow of fighters through Pakistan, it is easy for foreign jihadists to enter Afghanistan. Most of the core Taliban fighters are probably foreigners. US intelligence estimates there may be as few as 3,000 diehard Taliban fighters. They are supported by tens of thousands of militants who are either kidnapped young men or volunteers from among the unemployed 35% of the Afghan population. These fighters can slip in and out of Afghanistan through Pakistan, slink through mountain passes and cave networks and bide their time. They set up rocket-propelled grenade launchers aimed at American forts, set them to timers and slip away. An American outpost might then come under fire from militants who are long gone. When they try to track them down, they disappear into the mountains, slip back into Pakistan, or blend in with the nearest village. The Taliban are ghosts. And Pakistan plays the same role that Cambodia did for the Vietcong.
Afghanistan has a virtual monopoly on the world’s opium crop. When the Taliban took power in 2000, they issued a decree banning opium for religious reasons. This crushed what little economy Afghanistan has, and the following year, the Taliban allowed the harvest and sale of opium, but not its use. That year, the opium crop sold at ten times the average profit for the ten years preceding the ban. The ban caused supply to crash, so the following year, demand skyrocketed. There’s no greater demand than a junkie’s need for a fix.
The Taliban extorts the opium harvest. In some ways, the Taliban runs more like a business, or a mafia protection racket, than a rebellion. The problem is, there’s no central banking and no paper trail for the transactions. It is very difficult to figure out exactly how the money is getting to the Taliban. But it is clear that opium money disappears and reappears in the form of newly supplied Taliban fighters.
Efforts to combat this have proven futile. Destroying the crop just causes demand to rise, making more money for the Taliban. It also destroys the livelihoods of farmers who then have no choice but to join the Taliban to survive. Weaning farmers off of opium is ineffective because opium brings in a lot more money than any other crop and the Taliban will kill the family of any farmer who doesn’t grow opium and pay up.
Efforts to pass and enforce laws against opium, its trafficking or its extortion are fruitless. To say that corruption is rampant would be a vast understatement. Corruption is the law. Everyone in Afghanistan is on the take. The politicians, the judges, the police, the merchants, the warlords, the fighters. Everything is bribery and corruption. Any effort to curb opium production can be bypassed simply by greasing the right palms, probably for only a nominal fee. So, by aiding the local development of agriculture in pursuit of the counter-insurgency strategy, the US soldiers fighting in Afghanistan are supporting the economy that is rigged to kill them.
These three feedback loops, of violence, international conspiracy, and illicit economics, create a vicious cycle that makes it impossible for the US to ‘win’ in Afghanistan. The window of opportunity to help the Afghans create a better society right after the invasion has long since passed. Of course, we’ll never know if, with a greater commitment of forces initially, the US could have accomplished something better for the Afghan people. The reality is, the Bush Administration held back the bulk of the military for the invasion of Iraq. This allowed al Qaeda and the Taliban to escape and regroup. It enabled them to continue the fight and for insecurity to continue to reign in Afghanistan, even under American occupation. America has been playing whack-a-mole with the Taliban since shortly after the invasion, with no end in sight. Pakistan has played us for a sucker since day one, and our soldiers are paradoxically fighting for a society that is designed to murder them.
The tragedy is that, after we leave, things will get worse. It will especially be worse for women. Under US occupation, women have gained certain rights, especially the right to an education, that they did not have under the Taliban. The US will probably leave some forces behind to counter the spread of the Taliban. But it is almost inevitable that the Taliban will be back in some capacity. But at this point, it is totally irrational to assume that, after an 18-month ‘surge’ that changed nothing, the situation will ever improve. And we can’t stay there forever. Obama is right that it’s time to eject from Afghanistan. Hopefully, the Karzai government, or at least some form of government less psychopathic than the Taliban, will be able to cling to the lion’s share of power.
Afghanistan is called the graveyard of empires for a reason. Because of its geography, it is an untamed hole in the map, and has tempted many great powers. Since Alexander the Great, the rugged people of the Hindu Kush have sent every foreigner packing. The US will be the latest in a millennia-long series of empires to give up on Afghanistan. We can only hope that as we leave Afghanistan to focus on nation-building here at home, we won”t leave behind anyone who we trained to be a killer and who harbors a grudge against us.