Aug 9, 2010


The public debate surrounding the Afghanistan occupation, particularly in the US, focuses on two main options: continuing on roughly the current  path or alternatively pull out and massively deescalate involvement due to a sentiment that the war is not working and it's costs are too high. It is my contention that both options are so poor for the afghan people, and indeed the West, that it is hardly worth discussing which is actually worse. The purpose of this post is to investigate why this is the case and discuss some alternative solutions.

In order to appropriately evaluate any given option we must first identify the metrics we use to claim success or failure; indeed, it is through a myopically narrow metric for success that has arguably led to the public debate being between two such poor options. More than any other factor, the consideration which dominates on both sides of the public debate is the effect on the West and to a considerably lesser degree the West's allies in the region. On the hawk side is the issue of security for the west both from rogue states and reducing the spread and practice of terrorism against western targets of which 9/11 is or course the most blatant example. On the dove side the reasons against wars focus on the cost in lives, in money, in reduced world prestige and power and other factors that focus on the consequences for the west of an occupation in Afghanistan or other regions. Discussion on behalf of the afghan people are usually tangential at best. Interestingly, even if one takes this narrow western-centric metric for evaluating the two options in the public discourse, henceforth referred to as status quo and deescalation, we find that even in this sense both options are unpalatable failures. However, I submit that as a humanist our metric should be widened to focus primarily on the people of Afghanistan and it's neighbors and in so doing we realize why our two options that were possibly debatable in the western-centric metric become quite abhorrent in a metric that includes a strong emphasis on the afghan people. One can become more detailed in our description of this general metric (not to be confused with narrowing it's scope) explicitly identifying factors like reducing civilian casualties, increasing rights and freedoms and increasing the quality of life of afghans and it is important to do this in a more detailed consideration but for our current purposes a loosely defined "afghan-centric" component to our metric will be sufficient.

Let us first consider the two options from the western-centric perspective. In some ways this is unnecessary as it already is to a limited extent part of the public debate although I will restate it here because it is usually only applied to half the necessary considerations. For the "status quo" option the doves are completely correct about the enormous loss in western soldiers lives, financial costs in the trillions between Iraq and Afghanistan and other factors. For the "deescalate" option the hawks are completely correct pulling out of Afghanistan would  undoubtably result in a return to at best the chaos and oppression of the 90s and be a security risks to western interests. This is openly discussed in the public discourse but what is not is applying the dove and hawk arguments to the deescalate and status quo options respectively. For the dove/deescalate option what is rarely considered is what the resulting costs in western lives and funds will be down the road from allowing the region to descend further into instability and the flourishing of militant fundamentalist regimes. The spill over effects from Afghanistan through al Qaeda, the opium trade, arms trade, insurgent training and the spreading of highly militant fundamentalist forms of Islam  will be exported to exacerbate the problems in Iran, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Kashmir, etc. We cannot just consider the immediate saved costs from deescalating in Afghanistan we also have to consider the future costs of any intervention on behalf of the western community in Afghanistan or it's neighbors. We must not forget the lessons of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan after it's proxy war with the soviets ended in the late 80s and the follow up policy of essentially abandoning the country to Pakistani and Saudi stewardship that led to the civil wars, rise of the Taliban and then al Qaeda and the problems we face today. Just as abandoning throughout the 90s saved costs then but resulted in large costs today so too would abandoning now lead to large costs in the future. Less importantly,  we cannot forget the lost economic opportunity costs of having a democratic neoliberalized regime engaging in multilateral investment and trade opportunities that are made impossible in times of war and chaos and if it were to exist would likely have positive spillover effects that would stabilize and westernize surrounding regions (recall we are arguing supposing a pro western metric, not arguing for such a metric).  Finally let us consider the hawk/status quo case. The hawks maintain that the current war is needed for our security. Unfortunately, we are not more secure today then we were on 9/11 with the only real improvement being an increased public awareness of the risks compared to 8/11.  Al Qaeda is now in more countries than ever before with a larger, more decentralized (and thus harder to eliminate) following, antiwestern sentiment in the middle east and south central Asia is back to an all time high after a brief retreat shortly after obamas inauguration which recent polls suggest has completely evaporated, key countries like Iran have become increasingly hostile and belligerent, insurgencies in places like Kurdistan and balochistan are on the rise etc. The London and madrid subway bombings alone proved that 9/11 was not an isolated incident, the threat of which was eliminated after the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan.  So now that we have to bring into question that we are making ourselves less secure with both options and costing us dearly with both options it becomes plain that even by applying the narrow western-centric metric in a fair manner to both sides we see that we are comparing two very much undesirable options.

Let us move now to applying the more important, wider, metric for success which includes a focus on the afghan people to the two options presented in the public debate. Firstly we consider the deescalate option. One only needs to look at the kind of chaos that arose after the end of the cold war in afghanistan or alternatively compare it to the US pulling out of it's failed war in Somalia and that country's subsequent descent into chaos to see how repugnant the deescalate option is for the afghan people. The conditions at the end of the 80s that led to the rise of the Taliban and the civil wars exist today. We have considerable warlordism which control, rather oppressively, large regions within Afghanistan particularly north of the Hindu Kush among  Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara groups. Indeed, the western war has depended on the warlords, as it did during it's proxy war with the soviets, initially for the actual ground invasion (very few US SOF were actually on the ground for the invasion) as well as subsequently for security outside of Kabul and khandahar. The warlords were directly, and are still to this day, supported by the international community, attempts to demobilize and demilitarize them have been futile at best and they retain in many cases extremely oppressive practices on their people. Furthermore, there remains considerable militant sectarianism and tribalism in the Pashtun belt where the Taliban arose.  The Taliban resurgence still is strong (hence our current difficulties) and animosity between Pashtuns and the northern alliance warlords remain high. Further, the ability for jihadists and insurgents of all types to operate not just in Afghanistan but in Pakistan (for the Pashtuns) and in the central Asian states (for the northern alliance warlords) remain and security in these neighboring states has if anything worsened since the collapse of the soviets presence.  Attempts by pakistan, iran, india, saudi arabia and others to extend hegemony for their own purposes also still exist.  So the result is the factors that existed after the cold war that led to Afghanistan's  strife still exist today and deescalating would inevitably create a descent into civil war, sectarian violence, oppressive localized regimes and be terrible for the afghan people.

The situation is actually worse than at the end of the cold war for two main reasons. Firstly the rise of al Qaeda internationalizes and the conflict and makes it more extreme.  The Taliban and even it's more extreme leaders like mullah Omar were fairly inward thinking caring primarily for Pashtun hegemony and expropriating Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan for themselves, they cared little for acts like 9/11 and antiwestern sentiment among them wasn't actually very high.  Al Qaeda however is outward thinking actively committing terrorism throughout the middle east but also Africa, Europe and of course 9/11.  So now we would have to face al qaeda as already established and a Taliban who are now violently antiwestern as the result of our war.  Secondly, the economic situation (the great stabilizer of countries) has deteriorated in most ways except for one: drugs. Afghanistan was once a major exporter of agricultural products, now it is a net importer and reliant on foreign aid to feed itself. The soviets maintained some mining and other industry that is greatly reduced in scale. Instead we have had a massive increase in opium (to make heroine) production which is now over 30% of the official GDP. The drug trade undermines any attempt to establish a state, corruption becomes rampant, it provides enormous funds for both the warlords and the Taliban that make their regimes possible, and these problems get exported to local countries which destabilize them as well. We only need to look at the difficulties in Pakistan before the very much established state under enormous pressure from the US managed to all but eliminate opium production (of course, it just crossed the boarder to Afghanistan and didn't accomplish anything and is again rising today). As an ancillary consequence, addiction rates have skyrocketed in Afghanistan which of course is terrible for their people.  Drugs are actually an interesting difference between the US and the Europeans. In London, 97% of heroine comes from Afghanistan. In the US the majority comes from South America. Perhaps as a deliberate result of this, the American policy towards opium production has been one of willfully ignoring the problem. Indeed it has been explicitly stated that counternarcotics is not part of the mission and that they do not want to engage in "mission creep" and that further there is the undoubtably legitimate risk that being aggressive towards opium would anger the warlords who depend on it and on whom the west depends on in Afghanistan. What is often missed however is that the entire stability of the region is undermined because of the opium production and solving the opium problem goes a long way to solving the other security problems. In contrast, the British have taken some measures with the goal of reducing the drug problem particularly in the Helmand province where they have stewardship but it has been completely ineffective for various reasons. The result of these two main factors namely the rise of al Qaeda and internationalized anti-western sentiment and the replacing of a legitimate economy with a drug economy make the situation worse than at the end of the cold war and we ought to expect a deescalation program to result in a horrific failed state.

For completeness I should address the one way this could theoretically be prevented if the west pulled out namely via the currently established afghan government. The karzai administration now has an elected presidency, parliament, a national army and police force and other state institutions and so it is a priori possible they could retain some level of peace if western support left. Unfortunately they are simply now strong enough for this to be the case.  They are utterly dependent on the west not only for all aspects of funding (the tax system is hopeless at securing funds and besides there is little genuine economy to tax once drug lords get free reign) but also for military security. Even if funding remained but western military power withdrew the current administration would have no hope of policing much of the country even if all the warlords and their security remained on board which is highly questionable if the west left. Currently the national government is more or less equivalent to being mayor of Kabul and it's influence outside of Kabul is limited. In the status quo with hundreds of thousands of foreign troops and a large dependence on warlords for security the Taliban is mounting a robust insurgency, without the west and even some of the warlords it would be hopeless.  We are now forced to accept that should we choose the deescalate option it would be horrible for the afghan people and indeed ourselves.

We now move to considering the status quo option from the perspective of the afghan people. It should be noted that the recent increase in troop involvements since Obama doesn't represent a change in either strategy or tactics, but one of exclusively militaristic scale. Regardless, since it is time limited (or at least so it is still maintained by the Obama administration) and coincides with deescalation and attrition from many euro countries and canada the net result is not as significant an increase as one might think. The recent replacement of Gen. McCrystal with Gen. Patraeus underscores that no significant change in direction is occurring. As such "status quo" as an option includes the Obama administration.

Many of the reasons why the status quo is so poor for the afghan people have already been discussed such as warlordism, oppressive localized regimes, drug trade, little legitimate economy etc. Granted in some places like Kabul treatment of, say, women is undoubtably superior than under the Taliban regime but in many places outside it remains more or less the same. Measurements of the human development index and other quality of life indicators remain appalling near the bottom of the list of countries. One of the most blatant objective metrics is of course the tens of thousands of civilians killed, a majority of these through direct or indirect western military actions. The case stories of villages who get cluster bombed as a result of faulty intel passed to the US via the ISI (pakistans intelligence service, heavily involved with both the Taliban and the current regime) are appalling. Most forms of development in many regions are limited or nonexistent and the resulting quality of life is very poor. We thus conclude that the country is currently in a very bad place after nearly a decade of war and the only real way we can continue supporting the status quo option under the afghancentric metric is if there is legitimate hope for the problem being fixed this way in the future. To see that this is not the case we must investigate further the problems involving the current status quo conduct of the war and see how we can improve them.

As Michael Ignatief pejoratively refers to Afghanistan prior to his rise to Canadian liberal leader what the international community is doing in Afghanistan is "nation-building lite".  It is a useful maxim that without development there can be no security and without security there can be no development. To make a sweeping generalization that ignores the more textured and detailed picture of isolated failures of the nation building effort in Afghanistan, there was simply too little focus on development and the focus on security that existed rarely addressed the root causes and instead was reactive.   The US/UK took the task that focused too far on exclusively providing military security. In some places, like Kabul, this was indeed accomplished but did little to increase security in the Pashtun belt and north of the hindu kush the situation is the same as before the invasion: warlord control.  Development was left to much of the rest of the international community but outside Kabul it was halfhearted and ineffective at best, often owing to the lack of security (take the Japanese road building attempts for example). The simple truth is that the initial war was intended to be as cheap as possible both in lives and money (hence using warlords as the invasion force, backed by US air power) and for the US/UK was in many ways ignored as the war with Iraq, considered far more important, was ramped up. Even by early 2002 much of the funding was getting diverted to supporting the inevitable Iraq war opposed to being spent on development in Afghanistan. There was considerable hope among afghans after 9/11 that the inevitable war would set the stage for a stable nation that would raise the security, freedoms and quality of life for the afghan people, but it was not to be.

Consider for example the Canadian mission. They were given the task of essentially policing khandahar a job their stretched thin military more or less did effectively for some regions of the city. However their lack of ability to extend further and the lack of any help from anyone else meant that the khandahar was being surrounded by the seat of the Taliban resurgence in 2004/5 with little the canadians could do to prevent it. Without security outside khandahar there was little development. Consider, say, the German role which was primarily the development of a national police force which took years to develop even minimally and today remains undertrained, underfunded, and too limited in scale to be effective. The story repeats itself among many of the middle powers involved in the war which are given a limited development goal but fail to achieve it. One large factor prevalent for both NGOs and governments is the increased privatization of the nation building efforts which suck up enormous amounts of funds and accomplish little. This privatization of war also results in feeding the military-industrial complex which perpetuates wars and has objectives differing from those we might ascribe to. Further regarding the NGOs they focus so highly in high profile projects with lots of security, which largely means Kabul. For example an enormous amount of schools were built in Kabul by NGOs which is laudable but few were formed outside Kabul and the level of subsequent funding for things like teachers salaries was far too low some working for over a year before being paid. The declining effectiveness of the international governments and the NGOS even compared to the 90s where they all got up and moved camp from the Balkans is striking.

The result of this underfunded and ineffective lack of focus on effective nation building and development during the early years allowed for the Taliban resurgence and prevents much hope for this changing if we maintain the status quo and hence the status quo, afghan centric option is also unpalatable. Having exhausted the cases of options presented by the public debate in both the western-centric and afghan-centric metric, we are left with the conclusion that we must instead seek a new direction in Afghanistan.

So let us now consider some ways that a new direction might look like. In general this is going to require an increased focus on development and ideally an even larger commitment to security to pave the way for the development. Granted they are completely different situations, but the US has had some phenomenal success with nation building when it commits wholeheartedly such as Japan and South Korea and even the efforts on behalf of the west in the Balkans recently were larger scale and more effective than Afghanistan. A longer term commitment to full nation building and not the lite version we have today is imperative. Several of the factors mentioned above can be fixed by focusing efforts on accomplishing them. The drug problem needs to be a focal point of the solution. There needs to be more pressure on the warlords to demobilize and to reduce their militant influence but this must be coupled by empowering the afghan state to handle the security itself.

An important part of the solution is going to be working with Taliban. To paraphrase chomsky's simple acknowledgement regarding the Taliban, "they are afghans, any solution that is effective will have to involve them". Because first and foremost the Taliban is a populist movement with widespread approval among many Pashtuns, while one can squash their militant capabilities with some marginal success  the underlying sympathies that create the Taliban are much harder to eliminate.  This can be accomplished at many levels from working with the leaders to demilitarize, from providing options for lower Taliban participants to lay down arms in exchange for, say, jobs as was done on a small scale to eliminating some of the source grievances such as endemic poverty and unemployment by building a stable nation. Pakistan must be pressured to do likewise.

It is also important to acknowledge that the problems are not contained to simply afghanistan but that they spill over and are supported by the problems in neighboring states.  Pakistan, and to a lesser degree other neighbors like Uzbekistan, must be pressured and supported to dealing with the problems as well. The relationship between Pakistan and the US is a fascinating one, and contains many of the keys to this story. Pakistan exists as a highly corrupt, highly militarized state that has been propped up largely though extensive US military and financial backing of which it receives more support than all but a few countries. However unlike countries like Israel, Egypt and turkey, Pakistan has complied less with American wishes. It has very openly supported the insurgency in the Kashmir which have nearly escalated to possibly even nuclear conflicts in it's vendetta with India. It defied the world in 98 by testing nuclear devices (as did India) and in 2004 was caught red handed exporting (bilaterally, actually) nuclear tech to Iran, NK and lybia. It horrifically suppresses nationalists in balochistan. Most importantly, it supports the Taliban. While the extent is a matter of debate, it is clear that at the very least components of the ISI still directly support the Taliban and the history of it's previous support and influence of the Taliban during their rise to power is clear. Indeed, the Taliban were seen as the proxy by which Pakistan maintained hegemony over Afghanistan, a result which was tacitly supported by the US as they decide to effectively abandon the region to Pakistani stewardship after the cold war. Today, the ability for the Taliban to exist, regroup, rearm, recruit and hide away top Taliban and al Qaeda leaders within the frontier provinces is crucial for the Taliban resurgence. While it did provide the logistical and some intelligence support for the US war (it had little choice, bush effectively said otherwise the scope of the war would be widenned to pakistans frontier provinces) it remains brazenly noncommittal and ineffective at dealing with the problems in it's borders. It uses US military support to fight it's own, unrelated, insurgency in balochistan opposed to the Taliban in waziristan and what measures it does take are focused on al Qaeda and other Arabs and very rarely on Pashtuns. The US answer to this has consistently been that one cannot pressure pakistan otherwise it may fail to do even the basics it does now, and instead it utilizes drone strikes to try and take out targets which is ineffective, an incomplete strategy and results in considerable loss of civilian lives. The same remains true in the central Asian states where the US has elicited the support of krygzstan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan for it's war effort as well as the use of warlords of those ethnicities but has done effectively nothing to pressure some of these highly oppressive dictatorial militant regimes in ways that would alleviate such pressures on the entire region. There are tens of thousands of religious and political prisoners in Uzbekistan alone, and this country is key to both the drug and arms trade as well as passively supporting warlordism through refusal to address the problems in their own country. The solution in Afghanistan will require extensive pressures and support applied to these other countries to fix the problem holistically as a region. Through supporting democratization, liberalization and reduced militancy in neighboring countries we will also be able to help Afghanistan.

We have discussed several generalizations thus far but an important point is that many of the necessary changes are not at the general level but instead rather specific. There is a general lack of a deep understanding within the UN and actions taken are done based on generalizations. Adding 30k new troops without changing the strategy or tactics is an example of this. In organizations as bureaucratic and large, and as dependent on a select few top down personalities as UN participants are, it is very hard to foster such a deep understanding and to remain flexible to local requirements. At the start of the war, the US had precisely zero pushto speakers in the CIA (a result of their abandonment of the region) and precious few speaking Dari and other local languages. The inability to resist the kind of momentum towards generalizations that persists results in so many specific situations being dealt with poorly because of limited understanding of the situation. The correct picture of afghanistan is a complex, detailed and interrelated one which requires sensitivity to local requirements. For instance, much of the shifts in the last couple years have been borrowed from the more successful Iraq mission. While there are similarities, Iraq and Afghanistan are very different places namely that the former was an actual established state with state institutions,  infrastructure, a middle class, rule of law and an economy both from oil and without it. Afghanistan is a failed state in every sense of the word and requires a different set of tactics, namely more emphasis on nation building. Tactics like COIN which are now being applied in Afghanistan can work in some villages but fail miserably in others. Another tactic that consistently fails is the utter reliance on ariel attacks, in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, that serve to further engender antiwestern sentiment as innocent civilians die and accomplishes little more than cutting off the heads of the Taliban hydra while ignoring the root cause. One only needs to glance collectively at the long list touted by the administration through the media of "number 3" Taliban and al Qaeda leaders killed by air strikes to see how futile this is. Part of the problem is reminiscent of hitlers attempt to invade Russia during ww2. The component of US power that is unquestionably their strongest and cannot be defied in the slightest by the inductance is American air power, just as the blitzkrieg tactics of Nazi Germany were it's largest source of unchallenged power during the European invasion. We too often focus on applying our best attributes without consideration for whether they are or are not effective in some specific situation. Just as blitzkrieg could not contend with the Russian slash and burn pull back tactic in a long cold winter, so too does US air power for all it's strengths not solve the insurgency problems in Afghanistan. This kind of slow administrative momentum that can't adjust to local requirements and focuses on the tactics that worked in fundamentally different situations.

A lot of these changes require a strong international commitment which is hindered by the current power sharing paradigm. The influence of the UN is undermined because of the asymmetric relationship which with the US. While the US supplies by far the largest military component with only Britain bring a distant second, almost all issues get filtered through the lens of what the US desires. When the vision of the US is as narrow and myopic as it has been, the ability for the other internationals to form a strong coherent and expansive vision for Afghanistan is limited. The responsibility for this is of course not just the Americans, for the other internationals show little indication of strong leadership and for the most part are willing to leave the difficult parts of the military component entirely to the Americans. Many good suggestions, solely them mentioned here, have been made by European leadership but directly or indirectly prevented because of American desires. Moving the international power sharing away from the unipolar world of today will require both leadership and a willingness to step up responsibility from the rest of the world as well as increased deference on behalf of the Americans to the international structures like the UN. However with a strong international commitment that engages opposed to ostracizing middle powers who can play an effective role much could be accomplished.

The culmination of this analysis is the conclusion that in a metric that considers both western and afghan interests that the two options considered in the public debate, maintaining the status quo and deescalating the occupation, are both undesirable. However, a third option exists which involves a significant change in direction. This new direction is not merely a matter of increasing the scale, although this is likely necessary, but instead is a multifaceted change in focus. As horrific as 9/11 was, it turned the worlds focus onto a region that was being ignored and sorely needed attention. The opportunity to create a better place and the hope for this future has been squandered but is not yet lost.

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