Home > Democracy, Security and Violence > War, part 5: Afghanistan

War, part 5: Afghanistan

September 11, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

The trend in warfare for the past hundred years or more has been to involve civilians gradually more in every conflict. Many of today’s wars, such as those in Iraq, Turkey, the Palestinian territories, Sri Lanka and Chechnya, pit a government against one or more terrorist organisations who consider their territory occupied by the government. The government, usually a democracy, is attempting to project its power over a wider territory than the people of that territory consider legitimate, with the added bonus of providing the government’s constituents with an enemy around which they can rally, distracting them from the government’s other crimes. They spend millions of dollars buying PR in order to paint themselves as the moral side in the conflict. (Indeed, the Israeli government and its supporters never tire of repeating that it has “the most moral army in the world”, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.) The enemy kills babies. We build homes. Because the organisations resisting occupation are non governmental, they are not militaries and are usually called “terrorists” (or more recently “insurgents”). Particularly since 9/11, soldiers have been the good guys who fight terrorists, and terrorists have been, in George W.’s mindless phrasing, “the evildoers”. Terrorists, insurgents and so on mix with the people, their base of support, which means that when militaries go after them, civilian casualties result. The occupying troops want to convince the locals that they are there to help, and the locals do not really buy it. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission in Afghanistan epitomises this trend.

It seems that the ideal outcome of the mission in Afghanistan is the following. First, decimate the Taliban and al Qaeda, and the other insurgent groups, or at least lop their heads off. That should lead to the outcome of ending tyranny in Afghanistan once and for all. (Officially, as of March 2009, the ISAF is there “to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.” Voters like that mission: the bad guys are mean, sexist, Islamist dictators; and even though we messed up Iraq, maybe we have learned something from it?) Second, help the local population build up infrastructure, improve their health and education, etc., both to win hearts and minds and for the good it would do them. Third, reduce terrorist attacks on Western and other targets. Sorry if this looks like a straw man. I am under the impression it is the vision of ISAF commanders and the public.

The first point regards the difficulty the foreign militaries face in fighting their chosen enemies. First, there is al Qaeda, which is highly resistant to decapitation because it does not really have a leader or a centre. (I suggest not buying into the Zawahiri or Awlaki hype. They are not terrorist masterminds. Let them actually succeed  again before we start fearing them.) I do not know if it is possible to drop a bomb that would kill more than five of them. More centralised groups like Hamas and the PKK have survived the loss of leaders, partly because this kind of group is highly adaptive (more so than large, hierarchical militaries). Then there is the indigenous anti-occupation resistance. As far as I know there are three large groups fighting the foreign troop presence (not including a number of Afghanis recruited for government security forces who have turned on the ISAF). The Quetta Shura Taliban, the Haqqani Network and Hezb-i-Islami Gulbuddin are (I think, though I am by no means an expert on Afghanistan) examples of organisations that it would be very hard to destroy, because they are made up of locals banded together by the cause of ejecting foreigners. They are different from Iraqi resistance organisations, because many of the latter engaged in street warfare, whereas Afghan resistance groups populate the many villages of Afghanistan. In journalist Nir Rosen’s words,

It is impossible to live among the people the way the Americans did during the surge in Iraq, because there is no population concentration, and every home in a village is so far away from another, and there are few roads. You can rumble along a road for a few hours to shake hands and drink tea with some elders only to head back to the base to get a burger and ice cream before the chow hall closes, but the Taliban own the night and can undermine any deal you will make. They are part of the community.

There are some defections from these groups to national troops, but when that happens the defectors are usually enticed by the money. We could probably get most Afghans on our side for, say, $10 trillion over 5 years, but is Afghanistan really worth it? It is even worth the $10m in aid some say is being siphoned out of the country every day (that might be going to anti-ISAF militias)?

(I will not go too far into the regional instability that governments are only exacerbating, but insurgencies in Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan give support to the Afghan resistance and render all attempts to “stabilise” Afghanistan impossible. Even the best “regional strategy” imposed from the top is likely to fail.)

No less significantly, according to Gen. Stanley McChrystal (and all other sources), the Taliban get a big part of their funding from the drug trade. Until the main drug consuming countries (mostly the US, but Canada too) legalise drugs and let legal competitors enter the market, the price of drugs will remain high, Afghanistan will continue to provide the vast majority (about 70%) of the world’s heroin and the Taliban will continue to make millions of dollars off it. Many supporters of the push against the Taliban and other bad guys is their claim that the Taliban are bad, therefore we must fight them. But this argument begs the question. What is missing is the major premise: if someone is bad we should fight them. However, that is not the case. Sure, another 20 years of killing and trillions more dollars and maybe the war could be won for the “good guys”. But besides being a waste of money and lives, I seriously doubt the political will exists for it. The fact is, Afghanistan will go to whomever wants it more, and the indigenous resistance have already shown who that is.

Second, helping the locals. Gordon Brown mapped his vision in 2009: “build basic services — clean water, electricity, roads, basic justice, basic health care, and then economic development.” What a warm feeling taxpayers must get from such a selfless and charitable mission. I am sure some local Afghans have benefited from what the ISAF governments have given them. (See some of those things here.) However, photos for Stars and Stripes tend to obscure reality. Journalist William Dalrymple describes the situation on the ground.

[T]here have been few tangible signs of improvement under the western-backed regime. Despite the US pouring approximately $80bn into Afghanistan, the roads in Kabul are still more rutted than those in the smallest provincial towns of Pakistan. There is little health care; for any severe medical condition, patients still have to fly to India. A quarter of all teachers in Afghanistan are themselves illiterate. In many areas, district governance is almost non-existent: half the governors do not have an office, more than half have no electricity, and most receive only $6 a month in expenses. Civil servants lack the most basic education and skills.

This is largely because $76.5bn of the $80bn committed to the country has been spent on military and security, and most of the remaining $3.5bn on international consultants, some of whom are paid in excess of $1,000 a day, according to an Afghan government report. This, in turn, has had other negative effects. As in 1842, the presence of large numbers of well-paid foreign troops has caused the cost of food and provisions to rise, and living standards to fall. The Afghans feel they are getting poorer, not richer.

The locals are not yet on their way to prosperity. In fact, they are suffering. (See Kate Brooks’ photo essay here.) The situation of women is not getting better, either. The cover of Time a year ago portrayed a frightening picture of an Afghan girl whose husband had cut off her nose, saying that this would happen more if “we” left Afghanistan. What it overlooked was that 9 years of occupation had still not ended the abuse of women. Neither the ISAF nor the Karzai government have brought education or rights to women, and they cannot unseat the people who are taking them away, and they have no credible plan to do so. Moreover, there is something larger that NATO is taking away from Afghans.

The very presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan results in civilian deaths, either in the crossfire of firefights, misplaced (or just really big) bombs, drone attacks that have killed a number of civilians that is still unknown, or when foreign troops go on a killing spree. For example, on May 19, 2011, the Taliban killed 35 people working on US-financed road projects which, at least according to journalist Hashim Shukoor, “the insurgents believe threaten their access to refuges in the tribal regions of Pakistan.” They would not have killed these people had the US not been in the picture. Foreign troops attempting to protect civilians from the Taliban tend to increase civilian casualties directly or indirectly. Brutal weapons are systematically destroying innocent people: they are not as discriminating as those who order their use would have us believe. A tribal elder told William Dalrymple, “How many times can they apologise for killing our innocent women and children and expect us to forgive them? They come, they bomb, they kill us and then they say, ‘Oh, sorry, we got the wrong people.’ And they keep doing that.” The recent escalation of the war is presumably why risk to minorities grew more in Afghanistan this year than in any other country (“Civilian deaths have climbed every year for the past five years, totalling nearly 3,000 in 2010 according to the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.”), and almost certainly why so many Afghans are angry with the foreigners and can’t wait to see the back of them. People tend not to fall for the “throw off your oppressors and we’ll stop bombing you” approach. Rightly or wrongly, people tend to blame the foreigners for their plight, turning to the devil they know to protect them from the one they don’t. As long as the madness of the occupation persists, Afghans will not be turned against the indigenous oppressors in favour of the foreign ones. How many civilians need to die before “the country” is “free”?

The intervening powers might be even less welcome in Pakistan. The ISAF has pushed some of Afghanistan’s problems into Pakistan, and as a result, Afghanistan and northwest Pakistan have become “AfPak”, a stronghold of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. The Pakistani army has lost many soldiers fighting what many Pakistanis complain (ever more frequently with bombs strapped to their chests) is the US’s war. The US has been using drones, an unmanned airplane controlled from the other side of the world. In doing so, it is able to target suspected militants for assassination while exposing no Americans to danger. The number of drone attacks has increased dramatically under Barack Obama, and drones are killing civilians. How many is uncertain, but the painstaking work of Noor Behram suggests that for every 10 to 15 people killed, one militant goes down. (The Brookings Institute finds roughly the same proportion, though it encourages the strikes as a way to prevent al Qaeda terrorism.) One report identified 168 children killed in drone strikes as of August 2011. The strikes injure countless more and “radicalise” (which I believe means “infuriate to the point of violent retaliation”) the locals. There are also certain legal questions regarding drone attacks that have not been resolved, and unsurprisingly the Barack administration does not seem interested in them. As a result of all this unthinking intervention, Pakistan, a country riddled with Islamic extremism and terrorism, armed with nuclear warheads, is becoming less stable by the day. Anatol Lieven fears not so much the Islamist terrorist threat but that a portion of the Pakistani army will mutiny, and the state of Pakistan will collapse. The US destabilised Cambodia while fighting in Vietnam, and we can only hope the fate of Pakistan is less bad than that of Cambodia.

The other thing the ISAF is inflicting on the locals is the single most corrupt and ineffectual government in the world, the government of Hamid Karzai. I know a Taliban or whoever government would be bad, but I don’t really see what good the present one is doing anyone. Karzai knows his people see him as a foreign puppet, and has attempted to distance himself from his backers. He accused the US, UK and UN of orchestrating an election fraud, called NATO an “army of occupation” and threatened to join the Taliban. Attempts to strengthen the central government will not work, as, according to Professor Paul Staniland, “there is very little evidence that winning hearts and minds through legitimate state-building is a path to victory. Building a strong state is often in direct opposition to the will of the population (or at least a significant part of it).” (That should not be surprising to anyone reading this blog. Governments fail to win hearts and minds not because of lack of money or posters but because they are self-interested, violent and irretrievably rapacious.) The Afghan state is not likely to retract its hand from poppy money any time soon, however much control the ISAF governments think they have over it. (Find more on the Afghan drug business and corruption here.) Any government with any hand in Afghanistan is likely to do whatever it can to take the trillion dollars’ worth of minerals reportedly lying under the ground from the locals. Attempts to train locals in being the military or police of a central Afghan state (and the $9b spent on it in 2010) are, needless to say, not going according to plan. More and more “inside attacks” are occurring as Afghans the ISAF trusted turn on the coalition. If the foreign militaries really want to help the people, my suggestion is to help people defend themselves from oppression on the local level and don’t try to prop up or take down any kind of government.

Regarding terrorism, I do not think foreign occupation will reduce terrorism anywhere in the world. There are a few things to note here. Though terrorism itself has various motivations in various situations, a major cause is perceived foreign occupation. In Dying to Kill and Cutting the Fuse, Robert Pape explains a clear pattern in suicide bombings leading to that conclusion, among others. (I’ll let you read those books—they are excellent.) And on the whole, suicide bombings are deadlier than other forms of terrorism. There were no real terrorist attacks by foreign nationals on Western soil until 9/11. After the occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq, there were a bunch.

Terrorism is designed to send a message. When the recent invasion of Libya began, my parents said, “good: get the guy who orchestrated the Lockerbie bombing.” I was initially surprised that they did not realise that Lockerbie had been in retaliation for the attempt on Gaddafi’s life that killed his adopted daughter. Apparently the news, which my parents watch every night, does little to explain that terrorism has causes. In 2006, 18 young Muslims were arrested in Toronto for plotting to detonate truck bombs, storm the Canadian parliament and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and behead the PM. According to Mubin Shaikh, one of the two guys who infiltrated the group, the ringleader’s main point of contention was that “troops are in Afghanistan raping Muslim women”. In 2004, bombs went off in Madrid three days before a general election that were obviously a protest of Spain’s involvement in Iraq. With little regard to Spanish politics at the time, some accused the Spanish people of caving in by electing a new government and immediately ending Spain’s commitment to Operation Iraqi Freedom. However, pre-election polls suggested Spanish voters had been at best lukewarm on the war and the government who had led them to war. For two days following the Madrid bombing, the government tried to manipulate information and blame the Basque militant group, ETA; the public’s finding out it was in fact an offshoot of al Qaeda added anger to shock. A few days after the election, Martin Wolf of the Financial Times wrote an article headed “The world must unite against terrorism”, in which he called the removal of Spanish troops from Iraq a victory for the terrorists. Whether or not that is true is irrelevant. A more important question is, was it the right thing to do? He proceeded to conclude that Britain must not follow suit. A year later, Britain suffered its own terrorist bombing, almost definitely in protest of the UK government’s killing and debasement of Muslims in Iraq. There is no reason to believe that foreign interventions will reduce terrorism.  In fact, as Anatol Lieven points out, “U.S. and British soldiers are in effect dying in Afghanistan in order to make the world more dangerous for American and British peoples.” One possible reason for ongoing wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and so on is to increase the foreign terrorist threat that elites can use to take away more of your freedom. It has worked out that way so far.

But there are other, less official but nonetheless very good reasons for being in Afghanistan.

One is that the US military and its political sponsors have come to regard failure as inconceivable, not an option. This is partly due to the fact that a superpower abhors defiance (which was one reason for Operation Iraqi Freedom), and partly because the military-civilian establishment of the US sees military power as a solution to everything from flexing muscles in order to menace rival powers to staying in power by continuing to supply Americans with cheap consumer goods so they do not have to ask them to lower their standards of living and pay off their credit cards.

Remember how Unocal was trying to build a pipeline through Afghanistan in the 90s? Did you know about that? Well anyway, a natural gas pipeline is still being built. It is a long pipeline, about 1700km long, from Turkmenistan south through Afghanistan and Pakistan to India. It is not owned by Unocal but is still expected to supply gas to the US and Europe, bypassing Russia and Iran, the traditional routes. The US and its allies have an interest in protecting the pipeline.

Even bigger is Afghanistan’s $1 trillion in mineral deposits: “huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and critical industrial metals like lithium — are so big and include so many minerals that are essential to modern industry that Afghanistan could eventually be transformed into one of the most important mining centers in the world”. Do you think ordinary Afghans will benefit from this find? Finding billions worth of diamonds in Sierra Leone didn’t help the people. Let’s ask Libyans and Nigerians how much of their countries’ oil revenue they got. I think fighting over these minerals will make things worse for them.

It almost seems futile to protest the war, because every few months politicians promise they are about to end the mission and draw down troops. Every year they say that this will be “the decisive year”. Then things get more violent, as the opponents of the occupation get more desperate and recruit more people, and the politicians say “just a little bit longer”, like children asking their parents’ permission to stay up late. But the parents are unaware how devious their kids are, and what their kids are doing when the parents’ backs are turned. There is no reason to believe the occupiers and their sneaky, underhanded attempts to hide the truth from those funding the war. The ISAF has 700 bases in Afghanistan, with a $100m expansion of Special Operations headquarters approved only last year. Do you think they are about to leave any time soon? The best we can hope for is enough reporters on the scene who exposes the abuses of all sides, as violence by any party in the name of this war is an indictment of it.

Why do you think Afghanistan is the way it is? It is because war has been imposed on it for decades. Desperate people under pressure for so long do not turn out like us rich-world people. The most competent NATO general will never understand what it is like to be an Afghani. What hearts-and-minds strategy could he possibly contrive? Now we have these self-important democracy promoters, who could do a little better than to prop up the least effective government in the world, and who seem to think we just need a little bit more war before Afghanistan will be fine again. Governments of the ISAF have given no vision—that’s something leaders do—for what Afghanistan should look like, and have no plans that have worked so far. And the heads of state shuffle their national security teams and nothing changes. Now, you can say that the troops are in Afghanistan helping people, but they are also killing people. So whom are they really helping? If foreign troops are there and Afghans who do not like them try to kill them—I know, such ingrates, right?—regular people will get caught in the crossfire. That means the presence of those troops is a cause of the violence. It does not matter who pulled that particular trigger. But these people who think democracy is so important it is worth keeping up this kind of war believe that we have to win and impose our values on these ignorant yokels, and that if some die in the meantime, well, that’s the price you pay. Little bit more war, then we’ll defeat the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, and any other groups that pop up in the meantime, and Afghanistan will be on the road to democracy! Some roads are so bumpy you are better off not driving on them.

Saigon fell to bad guys and the world did not end. Stop trying to control everything. Stop chasing the illusion of stability through dictatorship or military force. It is having the opposite effect.

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