From the Frying Pan…

by , August 05, 2008

Well, just about everybody in the U.S. hierarchy, from commanders on the ground to the Joint Chiefs to the CIA to Barack Obama to John McCain to members of both parties in Congress, seems to agree now. It’s time for the United States to focus on Afghanistan and apply the valuable lessons we learned in Iraq about how not to do nation-building to Afghanistan. This time we’ll get it right, and root out the Taliban and al-Qaeda to boot.

Has anybody even heard about the history of that Texas-sized geographical region, its key borders largely determined by the British Empire, which took no account of either the topographical or ethnic characteristics of the region it so carelessly divided? For at least several hundred years, Afghanistan has been the place where "healthy" empires get defeated and where aging empires go to die – sort of an elephant’s graveyard of decaying empires. There seems to be something about this rugged, mountainous region that has never been a nation-state and probably never will be that lures imperial overlords to test their mettle – and most often to meet their doom.

So now the American empire will make a last stand in Afghanistan and try to lure a tottering NATO, which has no real reason to exist anymore either, into the adventure? Good luck.

You would think that the relatively recent experience of the Soviets, who tried to occupy and dominate Afghanistan beginning in 1979, would give second thoughts to anyone thinking of foreign-assisted nation-building in Afghanistan. Afghanistan became the "Soviets’ Vietnam," costing many lives and a great deal of confidence in the Soviet "homeland." Certainly the Soviets’ failure to impose their will in Afghanistan had a great deal to do with – though other factors were in play – the collapse of the Soviet empire.

An Outsider’s Nightmare

Why is Afghanistan so difficult for outsiders to dominate or even assist?

Although it has some fertile valleys, high pastures in the mountains suitable for grazing sheep or goats, as well as deserts in the west, Afghanistan is largely mountainous. As the Library of Congress’ country study puts it, the country’s history and political development "have largely been determined by its geographic location at the crossroads of Central, West, and South Asia."

"Over the centuries, waves of migrating peoples passing through the region – described as a ’roundabout of the ancient world,’ by historian Arnold Toynbee – leaving behind a mosaic of ethnic and linguistic groups. In modern times, as well as in antiquity, vast armies of the world passed through Afghanistan [Alexander the Great’s wasn’t the first], temporarily establishing local control and often dominating Iran and northern India.

"Although it was the scene of great empires and flourishing trade for over two millennia, Afghanistan did not become a truly independent nation until the twentieth century. The area’s heterogeneous groups were not bound into a single political entity until the reign of Ahmad Shah Durrani, who in 1747 founded the monarchy that ruled the country until 1973."

A strong case can be made that with its many mountain valleys where people have lived as semi-isolated groups for long periods, the country is not suited to be a nation-state in the post-16th-century sense at all, and might never become one except through brute force.

Afghanistan and its capital Kabul have more often been parts of an outside empire, or a region coveted by other empires, than the center of an empire. In relatively recent times, the region that is now Afghanistan was at the center of Rudyard Kipling’s remarkably evocative and sensitive novel Kim, in a Great Game played for power, influence, and access to resources between the British Empire driving north from India and the czarist Russian Empire, pushing south from what are now the "stans" of central Asia.

The Brits tried to place a pliant ruler on the throne in Kabul in 1838, leading to the first Anglo-Afghan war (1838-42). The British established temporary domination, but disaffected Afghan tribes gathered to resist, eventually forcing a retreat of 16,000 British through snowbound passes in which they were ambushed and killed, with one always purposely left alive to tell the tale. It wasn’t until almost 40 years later that the Brits recovered enough to impose an agreement that the British would control Afghan foreign policy and leave it to the locals to handle internal governance.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, the Russians variously made advances and suffered setbacks in their efforts to control Afghanistan, viewing it mainly as a buffer against British influence. But neither foreign power was able to keep the country/region under control for long. The various tribal and ethnic groups in Afghanistan tended to fight or ignore one another in what might be viewed as normal times, but when foreign invaders came into the picture, they were usually able to cooperate long enough to oust the outsiders, or at least harass them sufficiently that they would either leave or cede real control to the locals.

An Ethnic Mosaic

A complicating factor in any effort to wield centralized control over Afghanistan is the multiplicity of ethnic groups that centuries of migration, conquest, and resistance have left as reasonably long-term inhabitants. Thanks to fairly constant political turmoil, population estimates are not reliable to the tenth decimal, but in 1996 about 40 percent of Afghans were Pashtuns, who are themselves divided into two main tribal groups, the Durrani and the Ghilzai, as well as other subgroups. Tajiks made up about 25 percent of the population, with Hazaras at 18 percent, Uzbeks at 6 percent, and Turkmen at 2 to 3 percent. Of course, some of the Tajiks and Uzbeks have relationships with their ethnic kin in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, and perhaps divided loyalties.

Just to complicate matters, the southern border with what is now Pakistan, the Durand Line, was drawn across a map by a British diplomat in the 19th century right through the traditional Pashtun-settled region. Thus those in the area have little or no loyalty to Islamabad or Kabul, but treat the border as the artificial construct that it is. The border does make things convenient for insurrectionists, rebels, terrorists, and so forth, since a group attacking a target in Afghanistan, for example, can retreat over the artificial border into Pakistan, across which Afghan (or U.S. or NATO) forces are reluctant to move too aggressively. Thus groups with safe havens in the region can bedevil both central governments rather handily.

Throw in the fact that in Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI), as the CIA has recently publicly complained, though everybody has known it perfectly well, at least some elements have cooperative connections with the Taliban. This is hardly surprising, given that the ISI was a big assisting factor in installing the Taliban in power in the 1990s. The calculation from Pakistan’s perspective at the time was that the relative stability offered by the Taliban was less troubling than the civil war and unrest in an adjacent country that followed the withdrawal of Soviet occupation.

Strictly Limited Power

Certain sectors of conventional wisdom blame the instability and the eventual Taliban takeover of Afghanistan on the U.S. and other Western powers. Once the Soviets retreated, this narrative goes, the U.S. with its short attention span lost interest in Afghanistan, paving the way for the Taliban takeover. The implicit assumption behind the narrative, however, is that if the U.S. had remained engaged it could have prevented the Taliban takeover.

As Ted Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute, who has a new book out, Smart Power, told me, however, the U.S. remained a major aid donor during the period. That didn’t give the U.S. much political influence, though. The U.S. and other powers had channeled their aid to the anti-Soviet resistance during the 1980s through Pakistan (mainly the ISI) and continued to let Pakistan, which lives next door, after all, play the major political role. Even if the U.S. had decided to buck Pakistan and tried to prevent the accession of the Taliban in the 1990s, it is most unlikely it could have done so.

A great many of the unpleasant forces at large in the world have at least some of their roots in previous U.S. and Western interventions in the region, from the very development of al-Qaeda to the growth of the Taliban to various freelance or loosely affiliated jihadists. Before Americans sign off on the new Obama-McCain consensus that it’s time to make a more extensive military commitment in Afghanistan, we should ask the question Gen. David Petraeus is said to have asked when he commanded his first Iraqi mission in the Kurdish region right after the invasion: "Tell me how this ends."

Read more by Alan Bock