This election season has seen two candidates debate issues mostly unrelated to the situation in Afghanistan. By “situation,” of course I mean the active war that has raged there since 2001, though one could be forgiven for not quite gleaning this from the way it has been discussed.
From the Obama camp, we have a “plan” that seems directly cribbed from the “Vietnamization” concept implemented by President Nixon (which history tells us did not end well) – declare the Afghans ready, and leave before the door hits us on the way out. To this strategy, he has of course appended a fixed withdrawal date and has broadcast this date to anyone who cares to listen, including our enemy – to such a point that when he refers to Afghanistan, he has already speaking in the past tense about having ended the war.
Governor Romney, meanwhile, has signed on to a slightly softened version of the same story – apparently out of fear that if he openly endorses a removal of the withdrawal date, he will tank his chances in the election. At the same time, his campaign claims that we are making great strides in Afghanistan and that our allies, Afghan and otherwise, are helping greatly, and that the only thing that needs to really be done is to listen to the generals and keep spending money on the military.
The problem, of course, is that reality does not adjust itself to the will of a president, or the desire of a presidential candidate to not be controversial. The mission in Afghanistan is a failure, and it is not a failure because of tactical errors, but because of, along with some other strategic mistakes, the very mission itself.
We entered Afghanistan on a very constrained and realistic mission – in keeping with lessons learned from past wars, I should add – of driving al Qaeda and the Taliban that supported them from the country. After successfully assisting the Northern Alliance in ridding their country and us from the Taliban/al Qaeda menace, we continued to maintain a small footprint. Unfortunately, and apparently for lack of something better to do, our mission suffered a substantial amount of “creep.” Motivated by some perverted belief that democracy would bring stability and security, and not vice versa, we propped up a corrupt and only vaguely democratic government, sustaining its vanities, its luxuries stolen for higher ranking officials, and its supposed sovereignty.
The fact is that the government in Kabul is, and likely never will be, a government of, by, and for the people. Why? Because there is no “the people” in Afghanistan, nor has there ever in modern times been a true centralized government without it being enforced by a foreign power.
Afghanistan is a blob on the map comprised of warring tribes, clans, and ethnicities. A Pashtun from Kandahar shares not skin color, religious sect, family ties, language, climate, or system of morals with a Hazara from Bamyan or a Tajik from Herat. Until recently, the only things they in fact had in common was a complete lack of access to paved roads and minimal access to electricity.
These groups have all to varying degrees ruled themselves, and they have allowed other powers to nominally rule over them when they are a) fair in their application of violence, b) only corrupt to the tolerable level for Afghanistan. Note that I only say that these ruling parties must be fair in their use of violence, not abstain from it, and that the standard of “acceptable corruption” in Afghanistan is a level that most Americans would not even find in the most corrupt wards of Mayor Daley’s Chicago. Unfortunately, the Kabul government, specifically the administrators, all levels of the police, and the higher ranking Army officials, is unacceptably corrupt, and extremely arbitrary in their application of force.
The Taliban, meanwhile, is hardly corrupt at all in its dealings with the locals, and though exponentially more violent, much more consistent in its application of violence - do not help the Americans, let us have access to poppy crops, and keep living your life the way you have for generations and you will not be summarily executed. Little wonder that the locals have not come around to the Kabul government, especially knowing that they are propped up by foreigners on a timetable – there is zero incentive to support them, and extreme disincentive to do so.
So what we have been doing, from an apparent combination of hubris and wont of any better ideas, is overlaying the framework of a liberal democracy on a country that is inherently fractured, violent, and corrupt. It was not the Taliban who tortured women for crimes against Islam, not some extreme group of interlopers – it was the normal, rural Afghans who did, and continue to, murder women for being raped, take multiple 12 year old brides while in middle age, rape young boys at an alarming rate, grow and abuse opium and marijuana, and kill each other over feuds generations old.
Meanwhile, along with this pure mission failure, we have an utter failure of strategy in relying on “allies” who refuse to fight, and allow the Taliban to run rampant in their areas of responsibility. It was little reported when it happened, but much of our “surge” in Afghanistan in 2009-2010 was into areas already supposedly controlled by our European allies, particularly the Italians.
What did we discover there? Taliban base camps, whole provinces run by the enemy and providing funding to terrorist attacks elsewhere in the country with their poppy crop production, and European “soldiers” counting trips out of their compounds to dispose of trash as “missions” and too frightened to enter any villages or leave a free zone that they often negotiated with the Taliban.
These allies have not pulled their weight, in blood or treasure, and any presidential candidate or sitting president who declares otherwise is either ignorant or deliberately putting offending our nearly bankrupt European friends ahead of our soldiers’ safety and our country’s security (I should note the countries to which this does not apply: The United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia. These countries have been serious in their commitment, limited though it might be, and their soldiers have fought hard and lost many comrades in what has unfortunately been a vain pursuit of success).
It does not take much to realize that the current strategy cannot work, and that the strange fantasy land created by a political campaign does not exist, no matter the efforts exerted by our military, and no matter the president. Simply declaring an area pacified and the Afghans ready to lead security does not make it so, and declaring a country a democracy when they hold none of the liberal values that real democracies have been based on since the Ancient Greeks does not make it one. But what to do with the situation we currently find ourselves, and what does “success” in Afghanistan look like? That will be the topic of part two of this blog, to be released prior to the presidential debate on foreign policy this Monday.