Afghanistan: An Imperial Dilemma

Afghanistan, where in recent weeks U.S. troops have been killed at a higher rate than in Iraq, has evolved into something of a classic imperial dilemma for the United States. The administration desperately wants to put the best possible face on the situation there, insisting that democracy (in the incantatory sense rather than using that endlessly flexible term in anything resembling a concrete fashion) is progressing nicely and the country is on the road to proud independence (and unflinching respect for women’s rights, of course) while making sure that the United States has firm control of everything that really matters to the United States.

All this requires a good deal of self-deception and hypocrisy, especially since it isn’t all that clear that the U.S. government has much of an idea of what it really wants in Afghanistan beyond a subservient satrapy and military bases for the indefinite future. Afghan president Hamid Karzai must be treated as if he is really an independent and respected leader who is the hope of a proud and independent Afghan future while he is politely reminded that getting too independent might be tragic for him. Everybody must pay rhetorical obeisance to the supreme importance of the Sacred War on Drugs while keeping at bay the real true believers who, if they were successful, would destroy the linchpin of the Afghan economy.

All parties concerned must declare their undying devotion to democracy at the same time that anybody who knows much of anything about Afghanistan (it is not the least bit clear whether this includes our beloved president) understands that any attempt to install a genuine plebiscitary democracy with a president who had the actual power to run the country (whatever that might mean) would no doubt be disastrous and destabilizing.

Smiling and Jiving

This week, Hamid Karzai came to Washington and met with Vice President Cheney (a meeting that might have had some actual substance and frankness to it) and with President Bush, followed by a grip-and-grin press conference as the two presidents announced they had signed a long-term agreement to maintain a U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. While a certain amount of obeisance was paid to the idea that this commitment was something that would be in Afghanistan’s interest and would be continued only so long as it was in Afghanistan’s interest, various aspects of the photo opportunity made it clear that the United States was still the senior partner on Afghan soil.

The cheerfulness of the get-together was somewhat marred by a New York Times story Sunday about a U.S. Army report on the death of two Afghan inmates at a U.S.-run detention center at Bagram. The report not only detailed extended hazing-type abuse verging on outright torture of a detainee known only as Dilawar, who was believed by most U.S. interrogators to be an innocent man who simply drove his taxi past the U.S. air base at the wrong time, that ended in his death. It "includes ample testimony that harsh treatment by some interrogators was routine and that guards could strike shackled detainees with virtual impunity," as Tim Golden of the Times summarized it. "Prisoners considered important or troublesome were handcuffed and chained to the ceilings and doors of their cells, sometimes for long periods – an action Army prosecutors recently classified as criminal assault."

Afghan President Hamid Karzai made a few ostensibly independent noises. He said the report "has shocked me thoroughly, and we condemn it." He suggested that it was time for the U.S. military to turn Afghan detainees over to the Afghan government to handle. He even said the Afghan government should have effective control over U.S. military operations in the country he ostensibly runs rather than being informed of what U.S. troops are about to do (or have already done) when and if the U.S. commander gets around to it.

At the grip-and-grin with Dubya, however, he was suitably obeisant. He dutifully opined that "Newsweek’s story is not America’s story." Of the detainees killed in U.S. custody and apparent patterns of prisoner abuse, he said, "We are, of course, sad about that. But let me make sure that you all know that does not reflect on the American people. These things happen everywhere."

Well, hardly anybody thought such abuse reflected on the American people. It does, however, reflect on the military (although to its credit the brass has done some investigation) and on U.S. civilian leadership at the highest levels.

Rebuffed and Rebuked?

As to the substance of what Karzai had asked for, in public he was rebuffed politely. One suspects that the private sessions, especially with Cheney, were more direct and frank and quite possible less polite. Afghanistan regrettably still lacks the facilities to handle all those prisoners, President Bush said with his best effort at sincerity. And, "In terms of more say over our military, our relationship is one of cooperate and consult," said the U.S. president.

Bottom line? The U.S. will control its military itself, thank you very much, and will cooperate and consult as it sees fit.

This hardly came as a surprise. As Ted Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute reminded me, the United States has a long-standing policy of maintaining full jurisdiction over its own troops on foreign soil, even when the country where they are stationed is ostensibly sovereign and an ally. This has been a source of growing friction in South Korea, where it is also U.S. policy for a U.S. general to be in charge of the U.S.-Korean joint command – meaning the U.S. controls Korean troops – that dates back to the 1950s.

The United States was hardly about to abandon this policy in Afghanistan, a country that, even given the continuing presence of Taliban, al-Qaeda, and other jihadist forces, is significantly less strategically important than South Korea,


The most amusing aspect of the visit was the solemn nonsense all and sundry uttered about the importance of really starting to crack down on opium poppy production in Afghanistan, which is said to supply 75-85 percent of the poppies that are eventually processed into opium or heroin. The Afghan opiates supply mostly Europe and Asia; most the heroin in the U.S. market probably comes from Mexico.

On Sunday, a U.S. memo was released that claimed a U.S. effort to eradicate poppy cultivation had been ineffective, partly because President Karzai "has been unwilling to assert strong leadership."

Everybody smiled and claimed to believe Mr. Karzai when he said poppy eradication efforts had probably destroyed some 30 percent of the poppy crop in Afghanistan over the past year. But the U.S. report noted that the Afghanistan Central Poppy Eradication Force, trained by U.S. supposed experts, had an original goal of eradicating 37,000 acres, later reduced to 17,000. So far it has destroyed fewer than 250 acres, and the poppy harvest is already well under way.

David Bosco, a senior editor at Foreign Policy magazine, in a piece for, wrote that "the war against opium in Afghanistan is stumbling badly." In fact, it is virtually a complete sham, despite brave rhetoric from Hamid Karzai that the opium trade is an affront to Islam, and "Just as our people fought a holy war against the Soviets, so we will wage jihad against poppies."

Sure. Opium now accounts for somewhere between a third and a half of the Afghan economy. A World Bank study [.pdf] estimates that cultivating opium can generate at least 12 times as much income as wheat, the main alternative crop. The proceeds from opium may sometimes be diverted to terrorists, but for the most part they prop up the rule of local chieftains – generally called "warlords" by the international media, but ranging from fairly decent and long-established local headmen to really vicious scoundrels and everything in between.

Sensible Decentralization

It is fashionable to deplore the fact that the local chieftains actually run most of Afghanistan and that Hamid Karzai’s writ runs hardly at all outside Kabul, but in practice it’s probably not a bad arrangement. Local chieftains have always run things in their sectors of Afghanistan, and the central government has never been strong. If it ever did get so strong as to actually be able to dictate to the local warlords, it might precipitate civil war as various factions struggled to control all that lovely centralized power.

Having a weak central government that rules in name only in most of Afghanistan just might be the only workable arrangement in a country that is geographically rugged and full of proud and sometimes vengeful local leaders. The "warlords" will tolerate Hamid Karzai so long as he doesn’t meddle in their business too much and pays them proper respect. If he ever did actually come close to eradicating the poppy trade in a country with little fertile land and few natural resources, he probably wouldn’t last long in what we politely call power. He probably knows this perfectly well.

Afghanistan has never been an especially wealthy or prosperous country, and billions in foreign aid are unlikely to make it one. The key to whatever stability is possible is not to upset settled customs too much. Curiously, in regard to poppy cultivation it seems to be the U.S. military that recognizes this and has studiously avoided participating in eradication efforts itself. It is the State Department that has been somewhat hawkish on opium eradication.

A number of devoted drug warriors in Congress have been demanding much more aggressive eradication programs, including aerial spraying, which the Soviets tried and most Afghans still remember with resentment. That they would advocate a policy that would reduce the GDP of Afghanistan by up to half and seriously destabilize the country is an indication of their delusional devotion to the ideology of prohibitionism. But the Bush administration has to pretend to agree with them and pretend to be increasing its efforts and the Afghan government’s efforts, without doing so much as to really let loose the forces of chaos. It will be a delicate and difficult balancing act for years to come.

Karzai’s Stake

One may wonder why Hamid Karzai doesn’t just thank the U.S. very much for ousting the Taliban and start claiming that things are settling down nicely and it’s time for U.S. forces – about 18,000 military personnel now – to start leaving until only a tiny garrison force is left. After all, while there’s something to be said for having the U.S. taxpayers pay for your security forces, most U.S. demands on his regime are likely to be more destabilizing than not over the medium term.

The reason is probably that the major potential threat to Afghan stability, once they have achieved something of a modus vivendi, is likely to be meddling neighbors. The Soviets came in and tried to run the country in the late 1970s. Iran has at various times meddled in internal Afghan affairs. And Pakistan – without whose strong and sustained support the Taliban would likely not have come to power in the 1990s – has traditionally tried to influence (or run) Afghanistan, although it has been reasonably quiescent on that front of late.

So Hamid Karzai probably sees some benefit in having his Uncle Sam on the ground and willing to fend off potential threats from meddling neighbors – hoping against hope that the U.S. doesn’t follow the usual pattern and betray those it has called its closest and dearest allies and friends. But the relationship is fraught with danger both for Afghanistan and the United States. The U.S. presence might actually strengthen remnant Taliban and al-Qaeda forces rather than weakening them, and the U.S. is likely to make demands on Afghanistan that destabilize rather than buttress Hamid Karzai’s position.

Some 27 American servicepeople paid with their lives for this imperial outpost between March 7 and May 21, and our continued presence there involves the potential threat of coming into fairly open and possibly expensive conflict with one of Afghanistan’s neighbors should Iran, Russia, or (in some conceivable circumstances) Pakistan see an opportunity to gain influence in Afghan politics.

All this is power politics, largely driven by the U.S. desire to have an ongoing military presence in the region. Nobody should confuse it with nation-building, promoting democracy, or fighting terrorism.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).