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Afghan Follies by Tom Berner

Between early 2004 and early 2005, I spent a year in Afghanistan as the Senior Legal Advi­sor in an exper­i­men­tal State Depart­ment unit called the Afghanistan Recon­struc­tion Group (abbre­vi­ated ARG). This posi­tion gave me con­sid­er­able author­ity to talk to whomever I wanted to talk to, in the Afghan gov­ern­ment (up to the level of Vice Pres­i­dent, I could get an inter­view just by pick­ing up the phone), in the US Gov­ern­ment (I reported directly to the Ambas­sador) and in other gov­ern­ments (the Ger­mans had respon­si­bil­ity for police train­ing, the Ital­ians for judi­cial reform and the British for drug con­trol and my job descrip­tion cov­ered all of these func­tions). A lot has hap­pened since I left, but some things haven’t changed in 5000 years in Afghanistan and these eter­nal truths should be remem­bered before any major pol­icy shifts are made. 

Afghanistan is a war­rior cul­ture, or, to be more pre­cise, it is a com­bi­na­tion of dozens of tribes, each with a war­rior cul­ture. They are sur­rounded by larger, mostly aggres­sive coun­tries: Rus­sia to the North, China to the East, India and Pak­istan (for­merly the British Empire) to the South and Per­sia to the West. The coun­try was formed at the inter­sec­tion of these pow­ers where the indige­nous tribes were just too skilled as war­riors to con­quer.  

And that’s pretty much it for a list of what any Afghan tribe has in com­mon with the oth­ers. A cen­sus in 1974 iden­ti­fied over 40 lan­guages that were spo­ken in the coun­try, includ­ing three vil­lages that speak Hebrew and one vil­lage that speaks an archaic, 1500 year old ver­sion of Ara­bic. The largest tribal group­ing is the Push­tun, com­pris­ing about 40% of the pop­u­la­tion. The King was a Push­tun and for many years, the Push­tun ran the largely pow­er­less cen­tral gov­ern­ment.  

The Tal­iban changed all that. The Tal­iban is pri­mar­ily Push­tun and only a minor­ity of Push­tun at that. They have alien­ated the rest of the coun­try by their fanati­cism. Many edu­cated fun­da­men­tal­ist Push­tun found the Tal­iban to be igno­rant of Islam and sought com­mon cause with the West. Nev­er­the­less, the Push­tun ori­gins of the Tal­iban have dri­ven the tribes even far­ther apart. The Min­is­ter of Water, a non-Pushtun, once told me “the other tribes used to leave gov­er­nance of the coun­try to the Push­tun, while we just went about run­ning our busi­nesses, but the Tal­iban taught us that we can’t trust any­one else to make deci­sions for us.” In some ways, the var­i­ous tribes dis­trust each other even more than they dis­trust for­eign­ers. Tellingly, any water project has to be approved by four dif­fer­ent min­istries, each one headed by a Min­is­ter from a dif­fer­ent tribe.  

The North­ern tribes, in a con­fed­er­acy of war­lords known as the North­ern Alliance, fought the Tal­iban for years. One of the rea­sons the ini­tial inva­sion went so smoothly was because the North­ern Alliance was a well armed force hos­tile to the Tal­iban gov­ern­ment and was only too happy to join forces with the Spe­cial Forces and the US Air Force. That fabled cam­paign of Green Berets on horse­back with lap­tops had a lot of local help.  

Since the inva­sion, the NATO and US pol­icy has been to fight the Tal­iban while dilut­ing the power of the North­ern Alliance war­lords. So the war­lords became provin­cial gov­er­nors while NATO and the US took over the war with the Tal­iban. The Japan­ese were in charge of dis­arm­ing the war­lords and have been fairly suc­cess­ful at it. Then, qui­etly, the war­lords have been fur­ther emas­cu­lated. Gen­eral Dos­tum was encour­aged to run for Pres­i­dent which meant resign­ing from his gov­er­nor­ship. Dos­tum, a chubby lit­tle man who made a fool of him­self pos­ing for pho­tos while sit­ting on a white horse, lost resound­ingly in 2004. Ish­mael Khan — per­haps the best of the war­lords, an able tac­ti­cian who used the graft he accu­mu­lated to build hos­pi­tals and schools and light­ing the streets of Herat — was appointed the Min­is­ter of Power, a scapegoat’s job in a coun­try with very lit­tle elec­tric power and an increas­ing demand for it.  

We are now at a posi­tion where the Taliban’s indige­nous oppo­nents, but not the Tal­iban itself, have lost their power, but not their pop­u­lar sup­port. This is why the cur­rent attempt to reach out to the “mod­er­ate minor­ity” within the Tal­iban is such a poor idea. Even assum­ing that there is such a thing as “mod­er­ate” fun­da­men­tal­ist extrem­ists and assum­ing that the Tal­iban who are will­ing to nego­ti­ate are not just tak­ing advan­tage of an oppor­tu­nity to under­mine the gov­ern­ment from within, the US pol­icy now intends to bar­gain with the mod­er­ate minor­ity of the Tal­iban minor­ity within the Push­tun minor­ity of the Afghan peo­ple while alien­at­ing every­one else, just by virtue of sit­ting down with them. It will be some­what like the early stages of the Viet­nam War, where Pres­i­dent Kennedy dis­rupted our allies in South Viet­nam by approv­ing a coup which killed Pres­i­dent Diem in a fruit­less attempt to achieve a myth­i­cal peace with oppo­nents anx­ious to drive us out of the region.  

We are not los­ing the war. We cer­tainly aren’t win­ning, but that is a big dif­fer­ence. Yes, reporters can get “money quotes” from vil­lage elders angry at the US for shelling Tal­iban posi­tions within their vil­lages and killing inno­cents, but if the reporters were doing their job prop­erly, you would find that the elders are even angrier at the Tal­iban who set up ambush sites inside their vil­lages. As war­rior peo­ples, the Afghans under­stand that the code of a true war­rior requires an army to pro­tect the civil­ian pop­u­la­tion and that, there­fore, an army that starts a fight while hid­ing behind the civil­ian pop­u­la­tion is more guilty than the other side when the pop­u­la­tion is harmed.   

We will start los­ing when Amer­i­can reporters no longer can get anti-American quotes from vil­lage elders and instead don’t come back alive. We will begin to lose when the Tal­iban doesn’t resort to the cow­ardly tac­tics of IEDs, sui­cide bombers and using the civil­ian pop­u­la­tion as human shields and instead con­fronts us head on with sig­nif­i­cant assis­tance from the entire pop­u­la­tion. Then we will have a real war on our hands.

Just because the rest of Afghanistan isn’t fight­ing us now, doesn’t mean that they won’t. The cur­rent Min­is­ter of War, a for­mer war­lord named Gen­eral War­dack, con­fronted a Russ­ian con­voy of over 200 vehi­cles in the mid­dle of the 1980s. He waited until the first vehi­cle got through a long nar­row val­ley with steep walls on top of which his men waited. At the right moment, he destroyed the first vehi­cles and the last vehi­cles in the col­umn and then spent a long, leisurely after­noon wip­ing out the entire trapped col­umn at almost no cost to his own troops. When we would go to din­ner at Gen­eral Wardack’s house in Kabul, the repro­duc­tion of a famous nine­teenth cen­tury British paint­ing hung promi­nently on the wall of his liv­ing room. The paint­ing is called Rem­nants of an Army and it depicts a weary army doc­tor named Bry­don on a spavined horse, the sole sur­vivor of a British col­umn of 16,000 men, women and chil­dren who were wiped out by Afghan tribes in 1842. I always inter­preted that paint­ing on Gen­eral Wardack’s wall as a not-so-subtle warn­ing that we were guests in his coun­try who were sub­ject to a “dis-invitation” at any time. The mil­i­tary under­stood the mes­sage as well, although, char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally, most of the for­eign civil­ians who saw the pic­ture didn’t rec­og­nize the sub­ject, let alone the warn­ing.  

That is not to say we won’t fail in Afghanistan — in fact, I would put the odds of fail­ure at over 50% -  but if it hap­pens, it will not be the result of mil­i­tary action. Instead, it will result from the fail­ure of the nation build­ing we are attempt­ing.  

But that is another story.

Posted in: Afghanistan, Finance, Politics, Public Policy


  1. amb

    so what is the solu­tion to end the war: should tal­iban and their allies come out and fight ISAF face to face?
    why would they do this when their ene­mies have advanced weapons and the most they have are AK’s and RPG’s? they can only resort to IED’s, sui­cide bomb­ings, etc…

    the pun­ish­ment that has been given to afghanistan has noth­ing to do with any­one in power today. the crimes com­mit­ted by the king of afghanistan and the rul­ing clergy in 1904 / 1906 are the sole rea­son for afghanistan being left in the dark ages. not US nor any power can change this, only god save afghanistan from his punishment

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