Afghanistan: One Year, Eight Times?
There is a – perhaps apocryphal – anecdote I remember hearing about why the US lost the Vietnam War.
A number of years into the Vietnam War, probably 1971, a US Army general was asked why more progress hadn’t been made in defeating the North Vietnamese. After all, his questioner said, “We’ve been here seven years.”
“We haven’t been here seven years,” the general is said to have shot back. “We’ve been here one year, seven times.”
In terms of US and European intervention in Afghanistan — diplomatic postings, military tours, and the ebbs and flows of interest by the international press — is it possible that we’ve only been in Afghanistan one year, eight times?
As the Obama administration considers its new steps forward in Afghanistan, here are some facets of the Afghanistan question that I don’t think have received the media attention they deserve.
Pakistan is Playing the US in Afghanistan To Stick It To India.
Everyone knows that the Taliban would not survive if not for their support coming from within certain segments of the Pakistani government, particularly Pakistan’s military intelligence services, the ISI. (In fact, were it not for Pakistan, many, many more Afghans would be speaking Russian right now.)
Of course, Pakistan and India are (tediously) bitter enemies, owing to their claims to the disputed border region of Kashmir.
Both nations want it. Both stake their national identities on the concept of “resistance” to the other over Kashmir. Both are nuclear powers.
Pakistan sees Afghanistan as an Indian client state. And they’re not wrong. Since 2001, India has provided $1.2 billion in assistance to Afghanistan – making it the largest regional donor.
A destabilized Afghanistan makes Pakistan happy insofar as it prevents India from gaining a bigger regional foothold than it already has – especially by blocking new pipeline routes through Afghanistan to Central Asia (via Iran) that energy-starved India would profit from.
So, that IED you just read about killing US or British troops in Helmand? It doesn’t matter what the bomber thought when he was setting it. An IED’s political DNA could very well trace it back to Kashmir.
“Taliban” Fighters Will Defect at the Drop of a Hat. Now if only the US Would Find a Hat To Drop
As Foreign Affairs magazine points out, the history of warfare in Afghanistan is a history of mass defections.
Afghan fighters side with the winners. When the going gets tough, the Afghan fighter… leaves. He joins the other side.
As Foreign Affairs points out:
Afghan fighters are not cogs in a military machine but guardians of specific interests – the interests of the fighters pledged to them and of the tribal, religious, or political groups from which these men are recruited. Few factors have motivated Afghan commanders over the years more than the desire to end up on the winning side….
Their rationale was obvious: in a war that drags on, changing camps means living and holding on to power, as well as saving one’s family and one’s village. Thus in Afghanistan, battles have often been decided less by fighting than by defections.
The article goes on to list several examples of history being decided not by valor in the face of overwhelming odds, but by quitting.
The story of senior Taliban commander Abdul Wahid — and his patriotic rationale for having done so — is a case in point.
In December 2004, Wahid defected from the Taliban. Three years earlier, Mullah Omar asked Wahid to surrender Kandahar to coalition forces, which he did. Apparently after finding the on-going war a little difficult for his tastes, Wahid decided that the 2001 demand was his loophole: by surrendering Kandahar, Mullah Omar no longer qualified as “Commander of the Faithful.” So Wahid would therefore follow the new leader – who clearly had the ability to lead Afghanistan through these troubled times. President Hamid Karzai was his man now, allowing Wahid to walk away, all the while reaffirming his commitment to the nation.
Critically, Foreign Affairs calls on the US and its allies provide improved security to ordinary villagers — probably bombing them a little less — hand in hand with an information campaign to portray those who align with coalition forces as “patriotic Taliban truly devoted to the causes of Islam and an independent Afghanistan.” Once there’s a “good” Taliban – which makes villagers’ lives better — a tipping point would be reached whereby “bad” Taliban would see their anti-coalition position as a detriment to their pursuit of patriotism – and would simply walk away.
The “Taliban” Are Narco-Traffickers First, Jihadists Later
Gretchen Peters’ book “Seeds of Terror, How Heroin is Bankrolling the Taliban and al-Qaeda” reveals in frightening detail the extent to which the Taliban has survived – and thrived — courtesy of the heroin trade, and how little has been done the by the US and its allies to counteract it.
Peters (a former colleague of mine in the Cambodia press-corps) explains how outside the top tier of Osama Bin Laden and Mullah Omar, very few of the so-called “Taliban” are ideologues bent on a campaign of global jihad. “Taliban” has now become a term encompassing “a gang-land style grouping of tribal leaders, businessmen, regional warlords, and thugs” all of which work in the global heroin trade.
In a broad stroke, impoverished farmers grow poppies to survive; it’s bought by smugglers, who pay the various elements of the “Taliban” taxes to transport the drugs across their chunks of territories, a process that is repeated an ever changing amount of times, (including a stop where raw opium is processed into heroin), until the drugs reach the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, where the highest taxes are paid, this time, profiting the upper reaches of the Taliban linked with al-Qaeda.
There are no direct links between drug traffickers and Mullah Omar, Ayman al-Zawahiri, or Osama bin Laden. But there doesn’t have to be.
It’s a myth, Peters reports, that Mullah Omar’s Taliban were ever opposed to the heroin trade as “unIslamic.” Rather, it’s the use of narcotics that is unIslamic, Mullah Omar and company have said — but there is no edict against its cultivation.
What’s more, the Bush administration policy of spraying poppy fields actually plays into the hands of terrorists, by driving the price of heroin up.
In fact, during their rule of Afghanistan from 1996-2001, the Taliban stockpiled heroin specifically in order to drive the prices up. Then as now, vast heroin stores function as the Taliban’s “federal reserve.”
Peters has met with US Special Envoy to Afghanistan, Richard Holbrooke, who press reports suggest is serious about redefining how the US counters the Afghanistan drug trade – and the millions it makes for the Taliban.
As Peters point out, the 9/11 Commission estimates the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington only cost $500,000 to carry out – about what terrorist groups can earn dealing heroin in the space of a week.