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.