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.