Why We Fight

All the talk of abandoning Afghanistan to its fate ignores history

Many in the press have begun to declare the war in Afghanistan either unwinnable (off the words of one outspoken British commander) or some cynical exercise in colonialism. David McKiernan, the general in charge of NATO’s International Security and Assistance Force (ISAF) (which oversees security for much of Afghanistan), disagrees, noting that the situation is really not as bad as some make it out to be, and there remain many reasons for hope. While this assessment clashes with the recently leaked National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that declared Afghanistan was in a “downward spiral,” the general has a point: reports of Afghanistan’s demise are seriously premature.

Of course, problems remain legion, from the growing insurgency in the east and south to the grinding problem of corruption, which seems to be driving even non-Pashtuns into the arms of the insurgency. There remains too little money to build an economic base in the countryside, and too few troops to provide security. But in some areas, such as telecommunications (an often neglected side of a reconstruction focused on roads and bazaars), there has been stunning progress—from 99 percent unavailability in 2002 to 80 percent availability today. Elsewhere, there are signs of local Pashtun resistance to the insurgent movements, indicating the fight for “hearts and minds” is far from lost.

But just looking at the last two years, which is the focus of almost all media coverage of the country, misses the point badly. A common complaint, for example, is that there must be a strong, centralized government in Kabul—a claim repeated by well-meaning think tankers and pundits alike. This misses the real history of how society works in Afghanistan. In 2002, Olivier Roy, a noted expert on Afghanistan, wrote (pdf) that the various communities of the countryside have needed “a distant but benevolent and legitimate state, regarded as a broker or an ally helping to establish a favourable local balance of power and influence.” These communities also have needed a state to deliver general services, like access to roads, healthcare, and schooling.

Yet most reconstruction activity in Afghanistan is not focused on creating a “distant but benevolent and legitimate state,” but something decidedly Western, and alien to Afghans. The NIE cited above sees a weak central government as the problem, rather than the solution—just as it thinks arming and funding tribal militias with no allegiance to that central government is a way to promote its legitimacy. This cuts against history to an alarming degree: M. Nazif Shahrani, an anthropologist who has studied Afghanistan for decades, argued in a recent book that Afghanistan not only does best with a weak government, but also with rich foreign supporters.

This is certainly the case historically. Even during its relatively brief period of independence in the 20th century, Afghanistan’s government was wholly reliant on foreign largesse. While this support vacillated between Iran, the U.S., and the USSR, the point is that Afghanistan’s government could not have functioned at all without large injections of foreign aid. (Even then it did a miserable job of remaining a coherent country, as demonstrated by the Bukharan Rebellion of 1928, the 1929 coup, the Safi Rebellion in 1945-6, the Gujar Wars of the 1960s, the Balochi insurgency of the 1970s, and then the Communist Coup of 1978.)

Nevertheless, the cries for withdrawal are silent about who or what would take the West’s place should it withdraw. It would almost certainly be Pakistan (which is currently funding the Taliban in order to do just that) in some areas, and Iran in others. Neither can be said to be exactly opposed to supporting international terrorist movements—a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy in both parties.

The U.S. has already tried abandoning Afghanistan to its own fate after achieving some short-term objective—as the poignant last scene of Charlie Wilson’s War ably showed. The 1990s were not a period of stability, peace, or reason. In fact, it was after Afghanistan was abandoned to a fractured and violent group of militias that the Taliban found space to move in and “create” order. And it was through al Qaeda they found a patron saint in the guise of Osama bin Laden. And it was an American belief in the power of air strikes to destroy camps when they could and its ability to fund proxies when they couldn’t that gave all of these groups the space needed to arm themselves and wreak havoc across the planet.

Withdrawal, strategic or otherwise, has been tried, and it was an abysmal failure. Why isn’t this mentioned more often by those outlets either quoting or publishing analysts and officials who advocate it? We should let history be a guide to this debate, not a forgotten sidenote.

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Joshua Foust is a military consultant. He is a contributor to PBS Need to Know, a contributing editor at Current Intelligence, and blogs about Central Asia and the Caucasus at Registan.net.