Middle East Primer #4: Afghanistan

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What is the Afghan war all about?

Why are we (that is to say Americans) still there, even if troops are now leaving?

After 9/11, the Bush White House (with Donald Rumsfeld as Defense Secretary) decided to go after the perpetrators of the attacks of that day –al Qaeda–who were then deemed to be residing in Afghanistan.

At that time the country was run by the Taliban, a hard-line Islamic group which had emerged as the winners from Afghanistan’s struggle against Soviet occupation in the 1980s. This is another story, but suffice it to mention here that the US funded anti-Soviet activity as part of its Cold War strategy, and the guys they chose to arm for a proxy war against the Soviets were the Taliban. Here is a classic example of today’s allies becoming tomorrow’s enemies.

Debate in the White House late in 2001 was all about how to react to 9/11. Afghanistan was an easy target, but many in the administration wanted to take out Iraq, and made the case (erroneously) that there was a connection between Iraq and Al-Qaeda. Rumsfeld famously pointed out that there just weren’t any “good targets” (what fun could it be, then?) in Afghanistan, it being a largely rural country, unlike Iraq which boasted large urban areas like Baghdad and Basra.

Really the Bushes and the “Neo-cons” were probably intent on securing Iraq’s oil supplies, teaching the tyrant Saddam Hussein a lesson, and settling scores from Gulf War I, fought by G.W. Bush’s dad, George H. Bush.

Ultimately the administration took on both Afghanistan and Iraq, committing the US to more than a decade (so far) of military engagement with the “region” (that being the wider Middle East and SW Asia).

To take out the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, the US used another time-honored practice of sending advisors (here, the CIA, Special Forces,  and other covert operatives) to work with local enemies of our enemies, in this case the Northern Alliance, a group of anti-Taliban Afghan warlords. Under normal circumstances one would not want to ally with any of these guys, but war makes for strange bed fellows, and that is how we wound up with…strange bedfellows in Afghanistan.

Having overturned the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, using a combination of special forces and Afghan allies, the US then began its manhunt of Bin Ladin, ending in the death of the latter in Pakistan on May 2, 2011.  But before that, under tight supervision of US administrators, a group of prominent Afghani tribal elders  selected Hamid Karzai, a denizen of an old aristocratic family from the country’s predominant Pashtun culture, to lead the government. He later became president of Afghanistan in a general election.

So far, the US has ousted the Taliban, set Al Qaeda to flight, and established a basis for government in Afghanistan. Don’t underestimate the level of chaos in that country, however; gains there were, but in the aftermath of the US invasion, the country was riven by in-fighting, as war lords competed, crime ruled, and the Taliban, sneaking around the periphery of the country, aspired to retake control and continue its all-Islam-all-the-time party. Basing itself in largely lawless “tribal zones” on Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier, it conducted raids on vulnerable villages, often causing villagers to either flee or throw their lot in with them, out of fear and the knowledge that the US presence was too thinly spread to protect them from the Taliban.

The US and its allies never fully appreciated the extent of Pakistani support for the Taliban.  Elements in the Pakistani army continue to secretly fund and support the Taliban after the war, and when Osama bin Laden was discovered, he was living in a large, conspicuous house a stone’s throw from a major Pakistani army base. Why is this? It has more to do with Pakistan’s competition with India, which requires them to have a puppet state in Afghanistan to ensure their edge. This is a higher priority than allowing Afghans to develop their own government, or shutting down the Taliban permanently.

In 2009, US General Stanley McChrystal concluded that “widespread corruption and abuse of power exacerbate the popular crisis of confidence in the government and reinforce a culture of impunity.” Over the last decade, owing to this particular destabilization, the country lost millions of people to emigration, who have only started to come back in the last year or two.

Afghanistan’s path to peace has been rocky, to say the least, often seeming as if the Taliban would make a complete comeback or the country would devolve into permanent lawlessness. But more than a decade after the US-Led occupation of Afghanistan, there are many reasons to be optimistic. Its useful to contextualize Afghanistan. This is not a western European country, where one would expect political transparency and a high level of political engagement in the democratic process. So even If President Karzai has in many ways been feckless and unable to stem the graft, corruption and violence, he should be compared not to Britain’s David Cameron, or Germany’s Angela Merkel, but to his predecessors, the slow-witted bigot and psychopath Mullah Omar, or even before that the Soviet Lackey, Najibullah. Regionally, he is neighbors with the Iranian Republic–about as far from a functioning democracy as you can get, short of North Korea– and Uzbekistan,  whose leader Islam Karimov operates a kind of Neo-Soviet tyranny where the boiling alive of dissidents is not unheard of.

Some 5 million Afghan refugees have returned to their homeland. Once-abandoned villages have in many cases been rebuilt and repopulated. Women, the prime target of Taliban conservative obsession, are being educated in larger numbers than ever, and have more of a presence in the parliament than ever. And the Afghan economy, ticking over at about 2 billion in GDP under the totalitarian Taliban, produces some ten times that amount (granted, much of it in foreign aid).

Ultimately the US, in pursuing al Qaeda and the Taliban, found itself in the middle of a nation-building project in Afghanistan, as well as a regional cold war (Pakistan and India).   It became clear soon after the fall of the Taliban that this would take years, decades even. The US, as it turned out, understood very little about the tribal society it had invaded in order to secure its own interests, and continued to trust its ally, Pakistan, against all the evidence of disloyalty.  Democracy, whatever that may be, cannot be imposed from above, and although it was clear that Afghans, like all other people on earth, want a say in their own government, very different ideas existed about how to achieve this in a tribal context where people tend to vote for their tribal affiliations.

The remaining question today is whether the Nato military draw down scheduled to be all but complete by the end of 2015, will result in a resurgence of the Taliban, or whether the Afghan forces will hold firm, under the leadership of the new president, Ashraf Ghani.


–Article by Bruce Reidel (Ex-CIA) on Obama’s plans for withdrawal


–Pew Research Center paper on successes and failures in Afghanistan


Tired of Reading?

Discovery documentary about the Afghan war

About the Author
Adrian Cole studied Arabic at Exeter University in the UK, Alexandria, Egypt and Harvard University. He is now a freelance writer, living on an island in Casco Bay, Maine, with his wife and children. His book The Thinking Past was published by Oxford University Press in 2014.
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