We here on the ground are well aware of the debate going on back in the United States over the way forward in Afghanistan. It is pointed out frequently that the international effort in Afghanistan is in trouble, and that changes need to be made in the approach. Two main theories have emerged for consideration by the President. One theory brought forward, not for the first time, is that we should shrink our footprint in Afghanistan and concentrate on counter terrorism efforts in Pakistan; literally just go after al Qaida. The other is the recommendation of General McChrystal which involves a comprehensive and integrated approach to counterinsurgency to deny al Qaida a foothold (again) in a failing state.
It does not appear to ring true to some, rooted in an old world view, that failed or failing states can now be a threat to the national security of developed and successful states. Missed point number one. The thought that a failed or failing state can provide the incubator for international militant action on a scale heretofore unseen is a central concept in foreign policy going forward. Each successive administration that fails to recognize this places the security of the nation at risk through sheer willful disbelief of what has proven to be true. Those who argue archaic world views are less than helpful, having displayed the inability to understand the changing environment in which we live. Some cling to old notions because of fear that working to build governance capacity in failing states will necessarily involve military involvement. This is not entirely true. Military counterinsurgency can be avoided through the careful application of other pillars of national strength before an armed insurgency develops to the point of widespread violence. Building stability is the cornerstone of the new approach, not necessarily armed intervention.
Some argue that Afghanistan was not the birthplace of the non-state operation that brought two of the tallest buildings in the world crashing to the ground and punched a hole in the Pentagon over eight years ago. Yes, some of the conspiracy was performed in places such as Germany and the United States; but the concept, funding and coordination for the execution came through the headquarters in Afghanistan. It is simply willful negligence to fail to acquire the simple information that the Taliban were very active supporters of al Qaida, and that al Qaida reciprocated by recruiting, training, equipping and paying thousands to fight for the Taliban. There was an entire brigade of al Qaida funded, equipped and paid troops who fought alongside the Taliban in their offensives against the Northern Alliance. This brigade was to serve as basic combat training for each of them to take Takfiri revolution to their own countries. Remember those crazy Uighers who were released from Gitmo and are now sipping virgin daiquiris on some tropical island? They came from there. There is an article from June, 2001, quoting them as saying that this is why they were there, to take Islamic revolution back to China. (Of course, we don’t care about that, since really anything bad that happens to China only makes us giggle, anyway. So does the thought of Uighers sipping tropical drinks, though.) Training camps for al Qaida existed in Afghanistan, in areas that were well-controlled by Taliban. Those who wish to excuse the Taliban from any association with al Qaida are, again, willfully ignoring information that is readily available which indicates that the association was close and mutually beneficial.
Afghanistan was a critical component in al Qaida’s ability to further its aims. The failed state of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan was a great threat to American security and this was proven on more than one occasion, finally resulting in the deaths of more Americans than died at Pearl Harbor… most of them civilians.
That being said, a favorite concept of those appealing for the virtual abandonment of a robust counterinsurgency in Afghanistan is one that actually holds some water. This argument states that we have attempted to institute a western-style democracy in a Central Asian country that is not ready for it. This is true; somewhat. It is a simplistic view of the root cause of the apparent inability of the government of The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan to provide security and stability for the people of Afghanistan. We look at the government, struggling with issues of corruption and inefficiency, and throw our hands up proclaiming the Afghans somehow governmentally retarded, incapable of forming a legitimate government, incapable of being governed, even. We point to their tribalism with dismay, announcing that the uneducated masses have no concept of representative forms of social regulation. Many begin to swoon with the enormity of the job. It’s much like a ten year old confronted with the prospect of cleaning his room after being largely unsupervised for months; in the face of such an enormous task, he wishes to do nothing. Yet mom or dad could easily point out that the job starts with picking up the first sock or pair of wrinkled pants and continues with putting away one toy or book at a time. Building new shelves, however, does little to solve the problems on the floor unless that sock is picked up.
Sometimes enormous truth can be found in a single sentence. In this case it’s, “All politics is local.”
Afghanistan is not one enormous job; it’s hundreds of smaller ones. Each requires a mindset that we are working to build not only in Soldiers and Marines but in our civilian capacity-building organs as well. What is broken with Afghanistan is not the top; it’s the bottom. If you look into McChrystal’s plan, you will see it there. He recognizes it, and while he stresses the need to get to work on it now… which is the only thing that most people hear… he points out pretty clearly how he intends to pick up the socks.
For centuries, Afghan society has had as its pillars of local stability organizations at the village and, for lack of a better word, district level based on basically republican if not democratic forms of representation. At the village level, the most basic organizational unit consisted of a combination of elders and mullahs. There was a balance of the religious and secular influence. It was based on a combination of Islamic and Pashtunwali laws which governed individual behavior. This is the system that has been degraded and severely damaged by over thirty years of constant warfare in Afghanistan. This is the foundation for Afghan society, and it is finally being recognized that these traditional structures need to be nurtured and supported. Our efforts during much of the past eight years have been to either ignore or supplant traditional government with what we recognize, sometimes even feeling threatened by traditional social structures. The new plans recognize this failure (could we actually learn from mistakes?) and seek to reinforce and legitimize non-radical traditional systems that will support Afghan society from the foundation. In return, along with efforts at creating a more user-friendly government, the legitimization goes both ways. This has, in fact, worked in Afghanistan before.
While many Americans use the tribalism of Afghanistan as a magical reason why Afghans are incapable of managing their own affairs, it is precisely these systems that provide the best hope for the rebuilding of a society that can withstand the buffeting of extremism. It is the extremism that threatens our security, not whether it takes fifteen or twenty years to reach a literacy rate which meets or exceeds the literacy rates of its neighbors. There is time to work on that, although every literate Afghan is an asset to a stable world. It will flow from the efforts that will be brought to bear on the problems of a society whose traditional leadership has been decimated; alternative, hostile and predatory systems having filled the vacuum at the local level.
Many have asked, “If the majority of Afghans don’t support the Taliban, how can the Taliban appear to have so much success? If the people don’t want warlords, how can they exist?” This is how. The glue of Afghan society has been severely weakened. It’s like a social immune system, and it’s compromised. Young men, who sixty years ago would have strong leadership to look up to at the local level, have found that leadership supplanted. We see some of the same symptoms in America with the pressures against families. It creates a vacuum that is easily filled by other role models. The Taliban actually had to run-off, kill or otherwise suborn strong secular leaders. The mullahs of sixty years ago have been replaced by younger, less educated and in many cases illiterate mullahs who have been influenced by a radicalized form of Islam. Xenophobia, the byproduct of being the speed bump of history, adds to the easy answer. An economy laid in shambles by thirty years of warfare provides young men who are willing to fight for money, easy pickings for an insurgency with foreign and drug money to spend on these employable young men who are constantly hearing a message that it’s okay to kill… hey, it’s for Islam.
It is not an intractable problem. It is a problem, though. Those who claim that Afghanistan cannot work, ever, are too small for the job. They should focus instead on what the difference in price is between two products that are sold by different weight, whether they really can save hundreds of dollars on car insurance by switching to GEICO, and how those geniuses can make it really look like a baby in a high chair can earn enough on investments to hire a clown by using a PDA.
Others are learning that the greater problem of Afghanistan can only be solved at the local level. We have wannabe insurgents in the United States. Look at all those irrelevant neo-Nazis hanging out in their compounds in remote places. They would love to cause as much trouble as the Taliban. Don’t think that if our society were as damaged that they wouldn’t hold more appeal. This can be the end result for radicals in a country such as Afghanistan. Working on the ground floor is what is needed. This is a lot easier than fixing nebulous centralized government, because it is a bunch of smaller projects. (The central government still needs a lot of work, though.) Security is only part of the answer; it always has been.
As for building the security forces up to an enormous level that is unsustainable, just how long to you think that Afghanistan will need such a force? Is it possible that it will only need it as long as there is a significant insurgency in the country? Is it possible that it will not require a quarter of a million active duty soldiers for eternity? I think that the answer to the last two questions is, “Yes, it is possible… even likely.” So let’s put down that tired old meme.
Let’s work on what’s broken. You cannot build a house on shifting sands, but don’t let the nebulous appearance fool you; Afghanistan had these structures which nurtured life and led tribes to live in relative peace. There is a reason why the Hazara have not been wiped out by the Pashtuns, for instance (although the Taliban tried.) The traditional structures worked. General McChrystal has this built into his plan, and the “civilian surge” is appearing (I see them, new ones, all the time.) The other plan is based on silliness and antiquated thinking. It’s a built-in excuse for failure. It’s really what we have been doing for nearly eight years, anyway. Calling it something new won’t change that, and it won’t fix anything… it’ll only make it worse. Let’s not be that small, especially in our heads. Everyone’s got a silly old uncle… on Petticoat Junction they called theirs “Joe”… but that doesn’t mean that his ideas had to go any further than some silly talk at the dinner table.
Here’s a question: In the early 1970’s, Afghanistan led the world in the export of two commodities. Can anyone guess one of them? Bonus points if you can get both.
AfghanQuest bonus points can be redeemed at any Starbucks Coffee, where that and about three bucks will get you a cup of the good stuff. Still… I think you’ll be surprised to know that Afghanistan led the world in these exports, showing that there is potential, even without mining all that iron ore in Bamyan and using their coal to make steel.