A fool's errand

Some time ago, an idea to save Afghanistan floated on a few editorial cycles.  Afghanistan grows some of the world’s best pomegranates, coincidentally the “nature’s miracle” of the moment.  If we could just get Afghans to grow pomegranates instead of poppies, they would become wealthy by exporting fruit to the “developed” world.  Peace would follow economic stability and democracy would follow peace…or something like that.  There are countless plans to “get Afghanistan right”, but they all follow the basic path of the Great Pomegranate Plan.

They all stumble into similar failings too.  It’s hard to get delicate fruit out of a country without significant transport infrastructure.  Not many health-food companies will be overly keen to set up processing facilities in the region.  The plan will only remain successful so long as the pomegranate is not usurped as the king of live forever foods and customers in the developed world can afford to splurge on wildly expensive health food.  Oh, and the fact that huge tracts of mature pomegranate orchards were cut down and replaced with poppies over the course of the good war.

We’re not getting Afghanistan right, and nothing in the latest plans suggest that we will get it right any time soon.  Are we even sure what it is we hope to accomplish or even why we’re trying to accomplish it?

It’s not a good war; it’s a fool’s errand.  Being a mythologized graveyard of failing empires has nothing to do with it, or at least no more to do with it than the nation of Afghanistan had to do with 9/11.  And that’s with unquestioned acceptance of 9/11’s institutional history.  Osama bin Laden was hiding out in Afghanistan, so we invaded a country to apprehend a few hundred people as if our tool box consists only of sledgehammers and reciprocating saws.  But somehow (wonder of all wonders) we are still threatened by these same men and a great many more Afghans now hate us because we showed up at their house with our toolbox.  Tim “the tool man” Taylor does Central Asia without the lovable learning of life lessons.

Pundits from both sides of the political divide like to wax nostalgic about the good ole days of post-9/11 war fever and how we ousted the Taliban with our military might.  We did very little; we certainly did not triumph militarily.  We gave money, arms and intelligence to the Northern Alliance.  We inserted a few special operations groups.  And we provided air support.  That is, we bombed the living shit out of Afghanistan.  The Northern Alliance ousted the Taliban.  Their repayment came in the form of government positions, allowing them to become the corrupt warlord-bureaucrats that the United States now considers part of the problem.

If only the American populace and its elected representatives were not so averse to reading the lessons of history we might be able to have an informed conversation on the situation in Afghanistan.  What we decided to fight in 2001 was, quite clearly, what we had helped create during the 1980’s.  The Soviets could not pacify Afghanistan with 150,000 soldiers.  There is some evidence that the Red Army learned from its early mistakes and was making headway in its bid to crush the Afghan resistance, and then the Stingers arrived.  The Soviets failed in the end.  Overwhelming air superiority didn’t win the day.  150,000 troops did not win the day.  Not even a willingness to match the brutality of the mujahiden won the day.  That is the most significant difference between the Soviet and American military experiences in Afghanistan.  It is helpful, in the course of military affairs, to be unfettered by the need to prove your civility through refinements of barbarity.

Our plans to get Afghanistan right do not include a full-blown Imperial March of wanton slaughter and field salting.  Whether that would even be successful is immaterial as the concept is off the table in every venue aside from the masturbatory fantasies of neo-cons who write about the glories of war.

Our current plan looks an awful lot like a cross between the plan to bloody the Soviets and the famed “surge strategy” of Iraq.  We will commit more, but not enough, troops to the Afghan battlefields at the same time we will form relationships of convenience with “moderate Taliban”.  No definitions of either moderate or Taliban are forthcoming from the administration.  It appears that our first forays into co-opting Afghan fighters – again – will focus on Mr. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

While the CIA backed the mujahedin, Hekmatyar received between 20 and 25% of American funds totaling “several hundred million dollars” (Steve Coll, Ghost Wars, pp 165).  It is not possible to calculate Hekmatyar’s share of the estimated $25 million per month in funding that came from Arab and Pakistani sources.  But his anti-Americanism was well known enough to provoke questions on Capitol Hill and even instigate congressional audits of how – and more importantly with whom – the CIA was operating.  Considering the fact that Congress allocated $1.1 billion for covert action in Afghanistan for just ’86 and ’87, these were no small questions.

Even late in the game when State, the US special envoy, and British intelligence called for the CIA to “move away from Hekmatyar and an ISI-led military solution” (Coll, 197), the CIA continued its support of the most violent jihadists, and not incidentally the most religiously fundamental.  They believed that Hekmatyar and the Muslim Brotherhood networks could be “managed and contained”. (Coll, 198)  Those networks couldn’t be managed or contained.  The money had attracted thousands of Arab volunteers, often disliked by Afghan mujahedin for their desecration of Afghan graves and other actions stemming from their strict interpretation of Wahhabist Islam.

But through both the ISI and the CIA, it was these groups that continued to receive the most funding.  After the First Gulf War, heavy weapons abandoned by the Iraqi army – including Soviet T-72’s – were shipped to Afghanistan and found their way to the likes of Hekmatyar and the Arab volunteers.  It was in these tanks that Hekmatyar rode towards Kabul after the US and the crumbling end of the Soviet Union agreed to cut off all funds to both sides of the conflict as of January 1, 1992.  But Massoud beat Hekmatyar to Kabul, which ignited vicious battles for the capitol between ever-shifting alliances of warlords.  When the Taliban – backed by the ISI and one Mr. Bin Laden – made their move on Kabul, Hekmatyar and Massoud formed a brief alliance of convenience.  Hekmatyar, however, sold out to the Taliban and allowed Massoud’s forces to be roundly defeated.  Those forces would not see Kabul again until they entered the city as proxies of the United States in 2001.  The Taliban exiled Hekmatyar to Iran and most of his forces gathered under the Taliban banner.

But after 9/11, Iran expelled Hekmatyar and he returned to Afghanistan with a price on his head to be paid by the United States of America.   A drone-fired missile attack missed Hekmatyar in 2002.  Always ready to shift his allegiances to match his short-term interests, Hekmatyar put together a new army and formed a loose confederation with the Taliban in a jihad to expel the US/NATO occupation.  The Karzai government has longed worked at splitting Hekmatyar from the Taliban and even bringing him into the Afghan government.  A representative for Hekmatyar attended the exploratory talks between the Karzai government and the Taliban in July, 2008.

A month previous to those talks, Hekmatyar’s brother-in-law was transferred out of Bagram and into an Afghan prison from which he was released.  As Peter Lee points out, such a move could not have happened without US approval.  And in January of 2009, Hekmatyar’s brother was released from Pakistani custody.

The courting of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar appears to predate the Obama administration’s AfPak plan and the recent deputy-to-deputy talks reported by The Telegraph.

If Hekmatyar is Holbrooke’s Afghan hope, then we would be wise to question the long-term implications of allying with a man of Hekmatyar’s history.  While he currently preaches Afghan democracy, he also insists that such a state cannot exist with foreign troops occupying Afghanistan.  Moreover, his record hardly suggests him to be a standard bearer of peace and human rights.  And we would be foolish to leave unconsidered the idea that Hekmatyar is positioning himself for victory in a post-American occupation civil war.

The “new” plan to get Afghanistan right looks suspiciously like the plan enacted during the 1980’s.  Even some of the most influential names remain unchanged, and that begs the question: “How and why will this plan turn out any differently than that plan?”  There is little debate that what followed the Soviet-Afghan war and CIA support for the mujahedin led to the failed state that was – and still is – Afghanistan.  The very reason that we supposedly find ourselves in Afghanistan is a direct effect of our previous machinations in the region.  The principles debating the Afghan strategy should reread the clichéd definition of insanity.

If only it was so simple as planting pomegranates.  But there is nothing simple about this situation, and political attempts to simplify it will come to no good ends.  The problem is not, as Vice President Biden argues, getting the United States bogged down in a Central Asian quagmire.  The problem is a timely extrication from the Central Asian quagmire that the United States entered in 1979.  After nearly thirty years of getting Afghanistan terribly wrong, we show no indications of turning a significant corner towards finally getting it right.  Whether we even can may well be an issue too great for the present administration, particularly so long as it continues to march the long path of previous failure.

6 replies »

  1. No expert here, but I think there may be a change from the past in our strategy and tactics. That is, we might be trying to do in Afghanistan what has been used in Iraq since the surge – to become the semi-permanent biggest baddest warlord in the country, buying whoever can be bought, intimidating others by force, and accepting whatever government will give us our way in very much narrowed objectives.

    It is our “traditional” way of dealing with recalcitrant undeveloped nations, but doing it in the open and with our own uniformed troops instead of clandestinely as we have done elsewhere. It would win little homeland approval, but it would, at least, be meeting them on their own level instead of at the level of our often ill-considered and overreaching nation-building-at-the-point-of-a-gun visions. I can even imagine that Obama imagines that, over time, “progress” could be made for the Afghanis.

  2. Lex,

    I don’t like being in Afghanistan, and I’m sorry we helped the Soviets break the place. Personally, I believe the US would have been best off allowing a communist government to rule in Kabul, after the Soviets withdrew, instead of supporting the insurgency until the Taliban overthrew that government.

    Having said all that, I really don’t know what choice the US and the rest of the world now have except to be in Afghanistan and to try to fix the place so it’s no longer a threat to others. From my perspective, an overview of the world as it stands now is that very powerful weapons, which were once the purview only of other governments, are now available (or can become available) to relatively small groups of stateless ideologues. Governments can’t always be reasoned with, but at least there is the possibility. Many of the ideological groups are not subject to reason. Right now, it’s religious fanatics but, in the future, it can be any ideology.

    The world has to find a way to control these groups, and one thing that simply must be done is to destroy any government that actively supports such violent groups (as we did in Afghanistan) and aid any government that finds itself unable to exercise enough power to destroy (or at least defang) these groups. The world can no longer tolerate violently anti-social elements that can and do acquire powerful weapons.

    The issue, to me, is not disengaging from Afghanistan. That will simply guarantee more attacks on the US and/or other countries, as well as adding fuel to a very dangerous, and potentially explosive, struggle between Pakistan and India for hegemony there. I believe the issue is working with other countries to decide how to get Afghanistan, and any other country that will someday become another Afghanistan, right.

    One thing Afghanistan needs is hope. Economic activity there is depressed by reluctance from both internal and external investors to bet on the long term. Why build a business when the security situation can wipe it out at any moment? As for pomegranates, I’m told by someone who is an expert in the area that any attempt to change from growing poppies will result in the opiate dealers killing the farmers who switch to different crops — and probably killing their families, too. The world simply must get the security situation there under control, and it must be done with intelligence and careful planning.

    There is much systemically challenging in Afghanistan, and it cannot be fixed without a very long-term commitment from the international community. But it must be fixed. There is really no other reasonable choice.

  3. Thanks for the crash course in recent Afghan history. Hekmatyar has to be counted among the most evil people in the world, worse than bin Laden and Dick Cheney because he has no underlying ideology informing his actions.

  4. Russ, it wasn’t actually supposed to be this way. I had planned for the Hekmatyar talks to be an example, but as i organized my knowledge and looked a little deeper i realized that even fairly well-informed Americans probably have no idea who it is that we plan to co-opt.. The co-option tactic is heavily dependent on who we decide to work with. In Afghanistan and Iraq, the players are difficult to know but Hekmatyar stands out. What’s frightening is that he may be the best of a group of bad choices.

    JS, i agree that we must do something, but i don’t see an offensive military solution to the problem. I seriously doubt that our bag of new COIN tricks will work effectively in Afghanistan A. because they’ve seen it all before and B. because they’re based on establishing trust…which we’ve pretty well destroyed already.

    What we must extricate ourselves from is the military solution that runs around in circles. What Afghanistan really needs is a very large, very robust international peace-keeping/nation-building operation…not led by the United States.

    Shy of occupying Pakistan too, we simply won’t remove “the Taliban” from the region. But when a government like the old Taliban government gives aid and comfort to international criminals, we need to use a scalpel. It’s interesting to note that the Bush admin (perhaps Clinton too) had all the plans for the regime change laid out pre-9/11. And there’s good evidence that CIA was already working with Massoud. Bouncing around form one warlord to another is not going to bring stability to Afghanistan.

    Johns, that’s the plan, but the Afghan surge is half the size of the Iraq surge, spread over twice the time, added to a smaller force, and being deployed in a bigger country. And the dynamics are far different. I’m not sure that the US has the stomach to be the baddest warlord on the Afghan block.

  5. Lex,

    To me, you have nothing if you don’t have security. I don’t know how to do that without some sort of military solution. How would a “robust international peace-keeping/nation-building operation” NOT be a military solution of some kind? And how does this differ from what I said when I suggested that this is a long-term issue that the “world” must come to grips with? And, BTW, can you point me to the UN peace-keeping effort that has a prayer of working without the use of US troops? Who would lead such a force that isn’t subject to the same sort of resentment and trust destroying focus of attention that accompany the US’s leadership role?

    As for using a scalpel to take out a government that aids and abets international criminals, I don’t understand what you mean? How would that be done? Could you please give specifics?


    As for

  6. JS,

    I said an “offensive” military solution. That is, the idea of taking the fight to whoever we’re calling Taliban this week. If it were possible to hold the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, then an attempt to defeat the Taliban might produce fruit. But so long as fighters can move across the border to regroup, i don’t see how they’ll ever be defeated. That those same (or allied) fighters have the ability to attack the main supply line of US forces only complicates the situation further.

    And it certainly doesn’t help that the only other supply options require relying on either Russia and/or Iran.

    Nor did i say that the US shouldn’t be involved, only that it should not be in charge. Now, i recognize that the best option for handling this situation does not – and will not – exist. My feeling is that peacekeeping deployments are not robust enough in general. They should never shoot first, but they should be able to fight attacks vigorously…and pursue attackers.

    Theoretically, the US could gain trust if spent it’s time/force defending cities and villages. A truly multi-national force (one with Central Asians, Muslims, etc.) that acted as a defensive and infrastructure building force might actually win hearts and minds.

    Providing security is not what we’re currently doing. We’re fighting a low-intensity conflict and hoping that we can win that conflict in order to provide security. (But that strategy returns to the Af-Pak border situation.) And we’re doing it with far too few troops.

    We’re probably not going to find any agreement on what the US should do with a government that gives aid and comfort to a group like AQ…mostly because i think that the AQ threat is pretty overblown. But whatever threat that comes from groups like AQ should be dealt with as a law enforcement issue. You can’t just invading countries because they do things that might, tangentially threaten our “national security”…especially if we define national security as broadly as we do.

    We (the United States) are not in Afghanistan to help the Afghan people. It’s an imperial project. It always has been an imperial project. If that’s the way we’re going to operate in the world, fine…i obviously can’t change it anyhow. But if that’s the case then we need to A. own up to it B. do it right and C. just start calling it The Afghan Provence.