Are they a people? This is the basic problem that plagues American policy in Afghanistan. Pundits and politicians who oppose continued US military involvement in Afghanistan argue that we should withdraw and let "the Afghans" take responsibility for their own governance and their own military security. Supporters of continued, or escalated, US military involvement argue that we need to fight on in order to defeat an insurgency that seeks to topple the "Afghan government."
The problem with both of these positions is that they assume that there is such a thing as "the Afghans" and that it is meaningful to talk about "Afghanistan" as though it were a genuine nation-state. I submit that this is incorrect. Rather, Afghanistan is a quintessential "fake state", that is, a nation that is not the product of the organic evolution of the history of the people living there, but instead, an artificial political entity that was cobbled together by outside imperial forces in order to serve their own ends.
Therein lies the fundamental conundrum facing America's involvement in Afghanistan. It is a conundrum that is likely to arise frequently throughout the world during the Twenty-First Century, particularly in Central Asia and Africa. The problems presented by fake states such as Afghanistan pose significant difficulties for traditional military strategies, including the counterinsurgency, or "COIN", strategy currently becoming popular among many younger officers in the Pentagon. Unfortunately, as I have ultimately concluded, as explained below, these very difficulties also make it virtually impossible for the US to end its military involvement in Afghanistan anytime in the near future. The key to US success, however, lies not in military strategy, whether it be the COIN strategy or something else, but in the strength of US commitment to the principle of multilateralism, and the willingness of the US to look to assistance from new allies, including China, India, and even Russia and Iran.
Let's first take a look at the question I posed at the outset of this post: who, or what, are "the Afghans"? The word "Afghan" is derived from the Persian name that was given to tribes of people who speak the Pashto language. These people generally refer to themselves as the "Pashtun". "Afghanistan" is basically a Persian word meaning "the land of the Afghans", i.e., the Pashtun. Right off the bat, you have to wonder about the legitimacy of a country the name of which is derived from the name that outsiders gave to the people living there.
But is Afghanistan really the land of the "Afghans", assuming that that term actually refers to the Pashtun. The Pashtun are the largest single ethnic group in Afghanistan, comprising about 40% of the country's total population, which is roughly 28 million. However, there are several other ethnic groups living in Afghanistan. Tajiks are about 27% of the population. Tajiks are ethnic Persians, but unlike Persians living in Iran who are Shiite Muslims, almost all Tajiks are Sunnis. There is, however, another Persian-speaking ethnic group in Afghanistan, the Hazara, who are Shiites, and they comprise about 10% of the population. The ethnic origins of the Hazara are somewhat mysterious, as many believe them to be descendants of the Mongolian army led by Genghis Khan. You also have groups who are of ethnic Turkic ancestry, primarily Uzbeks and Turkmen, who are also Sunni Muslims and together comprise about 15% of the total population. Finally, there is another ethnic group speaking a Persian dialect, the Baloch, who make up about 2% of the total population.
Thus, "Afghanistan" is a land made up of many peoples other than "Afghans", again, assuming that this term refers to the Pashtun. Now consider the flip-side of this fact: there are actually far more Pashtun (i.e., "Afghans") living outside of Afghanistan than there are living in Afghanistan. There are roughly 27 million Pashto speakers living in Pakistan, almost all of them in the North-West Frontier Province and the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas ("FATA") of Pakistan bordering on Afghanistan. This is more than double the number of the Pashtun living in Afghanistan. So again, one has to wonder how legitimate this country really is -- the majority of the people living in the "land of the Afghans" are not Afghans, and the majority of the Afghans actually live in another country.
There is a similar pattern with respect to the various other ethnic groups living in Afghanistan. It is almost axiomatic that there are large numbers of Tajiks, Turkmen, and Uzbeks living in the neighboring former Soviet republics of Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Similarly, most of the Baloch in the world live not in Afghanistan but in the neighboring province of Pakistan called, not surprisingly, Balochistan (sometimes spelled Baluchistan).
In short, as I said at the outset, Afghanistan is the quintessential "fake state." Its population is a hodgepodge of different ethnic groups having little in common with each other and no great desire to be part of the same country. On the contrary, all of these groups have far closer ties of language and culture to their country-folk living in countries adjacent to Afghanistan. These factors largely account for conflicts going on today in Afghanistan. Afghanistan exists as a country today only because there are lines on a map that say it exists. The people who drew those lines were not "the Afghans".
Map of Afghanistan showing ethnic groups http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Map_of_Ethnic_Groups_in_Afghanistan,_by_district.svg
Today's nation-state of Afghanistan is a legacy of imperialism. Specifically, it is a product of two major imperial competitions: the "Great Game" of the Nineteenth Century and the Cold War of the Twentieth Century. These two historical events largely account for the dysfunctionality of today's Afghanistan.
The Great Game refers to the competition that took place during much of the Nineteenth Century between Russia and England for control of Central Asia. As the Russian Empire expanded into Central Asia, taking control of the areas that today comprise the former Soviet Republics in the region, England attempted to seize control of the area now known as Afghanistan to serve as a buffer against further Russian expansion, protecting British India as well as Persia, which although technically independent, was essentially a British protectorate. Thus, England fought two wars in Afghanistan in the Nineteenth Century (and a third in 1919). The Anglo-Afghan Wars became immortalized in popular culture through the poetry of Rudyard Kipling and the fictional character of Army Surgeon Dr. John Watson, whose service in Afghanistan left him with a lifelong limp and a trusty service revolver that he always brought along on his adventures with his housemate, Sherlock Holmes.
The general perception is that the Afghan Wars were a disaster for England, leading in large measure to the cliche that Afghanistan is the "graveyard of empires." While it is true that England never succeeded in conquering the territory that we today call "Afghanistan", and England lost a large number of lives in the effort, it is incorrect to view the results of the wars as nothing more than an exercise in futility from the British perspective. In 1893, a British diplomat, Mortimer Durand, negotiated a treaty whereby a large segment of Pashtun-occupied territory was annexed by England and incorporated into British India. The line of demarcation separating British India from the rest of the Afghan territory was known as the "Durand Line." Modern day Pakistan is essentially the western section of the old British India, and the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan that still exists today is none other than the Durand Line. This is why the bulk of the Pashtun population today lives not in Afghanistan but in Pakistan. It is also the reason why the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is viewed as illegitimate by most of the Pashtun.
An independent kingdom of Afghanistan was established in the area of the modern state in the 1920s, following the conclusion of the third Anglo-Afghan War, which again ended with the Durand Line intact. Afghanistan thereafter receded from the attention of imperial powers, maintaining neutrality in World War II and through most of the Cold War.
In 1978, a pro-Soviet party, the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) came to power. The PDPA attempted to implement a quasi-Marxist program based on secularism, land reform, and support for women's rights. The Carter Administration, led by the fervently anti-Soviet Zbigniew Brzezinski, attempted to capitalize upon the religious backlash that the policies of the PDPA had engendered by directing covert aid to Islamist opposition forces, generally known as the Mujahideen. In 1979, one of the leaders of the PDPA was assassinated and the Soviet Union launched an invasion of Afghanistan. The United States continued to fund the anti-Soviet Mujahideen, directing aid through Saudi Arabia and the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI. In addition, Islamic fundamentalists from Saudi Arabia and other parts of the Muslim world flocked to Afghanistan to fight the Soviets alongside the Mujahideen. These groups became known as the "Afghan Arabs", and their charismatic leader was Osama Bin Laden, a member of a wealthy Saudi family and a fervent Wahhabi Muslim.
In 1989, the Soviet army prepared to withdraw from Afghanistan having suffered substantial casualties. Before withdrawing, Soviet President Gorbachev attempted to interest the US in a negotiated settlement that would have established a coalition government in Afghanistan, leaving the pro-Soviet President Mohammed Najibullah with a share of power. By this time, the first Bush Administration believed that "victory" had been achieved in Afghanistan and that the Soviets had no leverage to negotiate anything; accordingly, the US rejected the proposal for a coalition government. Gorbachev thereafter carried out the withdrawal of the Soviet troops without a negotiated settlement.
The Najibullah government collapsed in 1992 and Najibullah himself was executed. Najibullah was an ethnic Pashtun, and he was defeated by a coalition of non-Pashtun "warlords", primarily supported by Tajiks and Uzbeks. The warlords who overthrew Najibullah had little Pashtun support and Afghanistan essentially had no central government. Afghanistan thereupon entered into a state of civil war, not surprising given the country's vast ethnic diversity. Political power devolved upon the local warlords who drew allegiance based on local ethnic and tribal groupings. Without Cold War rivalries to motivate it to do anything, the US took no action to stabilize Afghanistan or to rebuild its shattered economy. Although Afghanistan degenerated into a state of bloody civil war and the rest of the world paid little attention, it is not correct to say that it was unconnected to the outside world. Afghanistan's connections, however, passed through two of globalization's darkest passages: drug trafficking and violent religious extremism.
While the cultivation of opium poppies has a long history in Afghanistan, the business took off during the Soviet invasion. The Mujahideen turned to opium production as a means of financing their resistance to the Soviets. Professor Alfred McCoy contends in his book The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity In The Global Drug Traffic (2003) that the CIA and the ISI helped to promote drug trafficking in Afghanistan in order to finance the Mujahideen. While that claim remains controversial, there is no question that the CIA and the ISI have a long history of ties to one of Afghanistan's most notorious druglords, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Hekmatyar was one of the principal players in the overthrow of the Najibullah government.
Drug trafficking in Afghanistan continued to expand following the departure of the Soviets, and today, Afghanistan is the world's largest producer of opium, as cultivation has declined in other parts of the world such as Southeast Asia and Turkey. There are several reasons why the trade has flourished in Afghanistan. The cultivation of opium poppies is a very labor-intensive process. It requires a very large number of poppies to produce a small quantity of opium. The process of extracting opium paste from poppies and drying it so that it can be converted into opium, and ultimately morphine and heroin, is laborious and time-consuming. Accordingly, the business of growing opium poppies tends to be attractive only in a subsistence economy where alternatives do not exist. Moreover, because the profitable cultivation of opium poppies requires the maintenance of vast fields of poppies, the crop is subject to ready eradication by law enforcement authorities. Thus, the opium trade thrives when two conditions are present - a subsistence economy and the absence of a strong government - and post-Soviet Afghanistan certainly had both of these characteristics. The flourishing opium trade in turn gave further fuel for the Afghan civil wars, not only by providing funding for the competing warlords but also by creating a shared incentive not to permit the establishment of a central government.
Religious extremism in Afghanistan was also in many ways a biproduct of the Soviet invasion. Although Afghanistan has long been a Muslim country and all ethnic groups tend to be conservative Muslims (about 90% Sunni), Afghanistan did not have a history of politicized Islamism prior to the Soviet invasion. The CIA and the ISI saw the promotion of Islamic fundamentalism as a way of stoking anti-communist sentiment. Saudi Arabia helped to finance madrasahs (religious schools) throughout Afghanistan, promoting the fundamentalist Wahhabist sect of Islam. As noted, Islamic fundamentalists led by Bin Laden and his followers had descended upon Afghanistan to aid the Mujahideen in fighting the Soviets.
By the mid 1990s, an extremist Islamist group led by Mullah Mohammed Omar began to assume a dominant position among the Pashtun tribes fighting in the post-Soviet Afghan civil wars. The group was a direct outgrowth of the madrasah movement, and its name, "Taliban", is the Pashto word for "students". By 1995, the Taliban had seized control of Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, and it established the closest thing to a central government that Afghanistan had seen since the departure of the Soviets. The ascendancy of the Taliban among the Pashtun, however, did not put an end to the civil wars. On the contrary, the primacy of the Taliban incentivized the non-Pashtun opposition to coalesce and form the "Northern Alliance", made up of various competing warlords supported by groups of Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazara.
For reasons of ideology and practicality, Mullah Omar cultivated a close relationship with Bin Laden, who returned to Afghanistan after being expelled from Saudi Arabia and Sudan. Bin Laden became an implacable foe of the Saudi royal family following the first Gulf War - Bin Laden felt that he should be the one to oust the secular Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, not the American infidels - and he dedicated himself to a program of overthrowing the Saudi royal family and driving Americans and all non-Muslims not only out of the holy lands of the Middle East, but out of the entire Muslim world that made up the historical Caliphate. Bin Laden, who had now organized a loose global network of violent Islamist extremists known as "al Qaeda" (which means something like "the network" or "the database") headquartered in Afghanistan, directed a series of attacks against the Saudis and various western interests, culminating in the attacks of September 11, 2001. Mullah Omar refused to cooperate with American requests to apprehend Bin Laden.
In late 2001, the US launched an attack, primarily aerial, against the Taliban. With American air support, it was relatively easy for the ground forces of the Northern Alliance to drive the Taliban out of Kabul. In early 2002, Hamid Karzai, a veteran of the Soviet war who had acted as a CIA contact in funding the Mujahideen and one of the few prominent ethnic Pashtun who had supported the Northern Alliance against the Taliban, was installed as the new President of Afghanistan. By this time, the Bush Administration had bigger fish to fry, and it was already planning its invasion of Iraq. The Bush Administration committed relatively few ground troops to Afghanistan, and it was content to let the Northern Alliance carry out "mopping up" operations against the Taliban. A relatively small force of NATO "peacekeepers" was brought in to keep the peace. The Bush Administration also paid little attention to the state of the economy of Afghanistan, and the opium trade continued, and even expanded, as the economic backbone of the country (when it was in power, the Taliban had actually taken some steps to reduce opium production).
The Taliban, however, was not "mopped up" and there was no peace to keep. It is important to remember that the Taliban is not simply an Islamist extremist movement; more importantly, it is a Pashtun movement. The leadership of the Taliban, along with much of the leadership of al Qaeda (probably including Bin Laden), simply left "Afghanistan" and crossed the Durand Line and moved into the Pashtun areas of Pakistan, primarily in South Waziristan, part of Pakistan's FATA. As noted previously, Mortimer Durand's imaginary line had never meant very much to the Pashtun. Now ensconced in Pakistan with the leadership of al Qaeda, Mullah Omar and his followers proceeded to organize a new "branch" of the Taliban among the Pashtun living in Pakistan, where, as noted, most of the Pashtun (i.e. "Afghans") actually live.
Map of Pakistan Showing Provinces
The Taliban had long enjoyed a cozy relationship with the Pakistani government, particularly the ISI. Indeed, elements of the ISI looked with favor not only on the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, but also on the growing influence of the Taliban in the Pashtun regions of Pakistan. The Pakistani military is trapped in a mindset that views India as its sole enemy in the world, and many in the military and the ISI view a radicalized Pashtun population as shock-troops in what the Pakistani military sees as an inevitable war with India over Kashmir. Thus, although the US has ladled vast sums of money and military aid into Pakistan in the years since 9/11, little of it has gone towards fighting the Taliban. While much of the money has simply disappeared due to corruption, much of it has been diverted into military projects designed to strengthen Pakistan's position in a conflict with India. The last thing the Pakistani military has wanted to do is use the money to fight a radicalized Pashtun population, Pakistan's most enthusiastic supporters for a religious war with India.
By 2008, the Taliban had gained extensive influence throughout Pakistan's Pashtun regions in FATA and the Northwest Frontier Province, even moving into heavily-populated areas such as the Swat Valley and getting perilously close to Pakistan's capital city of Islamabad. In addition, a combination of factors enabled the Taliban to carry on a highly successful insurgency in Afghanistan. The booming opium trade provided the Taliban with a ready source of funding, and the ineffectiveness and corruption of the Karzai government fed a growing body of support for the Taliban among the Pashtun. American forces were inadequate to confront the Taliban, and most of the non-American and non-British NATO forces were peacekeepers ill-equipped to engage in deadly military confrontations. Moreover, the Taliban's success in Pakistan provided it with an easy avenue of escape when faced with opposition by American forces or Afghan forces loyal to the Karzai government - mostly non-Pashtun remnants of the Northern Alliance, poorly suited to fight in the Pashtun territory in which the Taliban thrives - by simply crossing over the Durand Line into sanctuaries in Waziristan. US and Karzai government forces could not attack the Taliban in Pakistan, and as noted, the Pakistani military had little interest in doing so on its own. The Taliban's growing influence in Pakistan strengthened the position of violent Islamist extremists throughout Pakistan, and not just among the Pashtun, as demonstrated by the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in December 2007 and even more dramatically by the massacre perpetrated by Pakistani extremists in Mumbai in November 2008.
President Obama ran on a platform of supporting a more aggressive pursuit of the war in Afghanistan and shifting US troops from Iraq to Afghanistan. In March 2009, that is precisely what President Obama did. President Obama discharged General David McKiernan as commander of NATO troops in Afghanistan and replaced him with General Stanley McChrystal, a proponent of counterinsurgency strategies who had worked closely with General David Petraeus in Iraq.
Since March, the situation has continued to deteriorate in Afghanistan. The bungled and almost certainly fraudulent election of August 2009 raises serious doubts about the legitimacy and efficacy of the Karzai government. In many ways, Karzai has always been the American-supported token Pashtun in what is really a non-Pashtun Northern Alliance government; accordingly, Karzai's lack of electoral support is not surprising. The Taliban has continued to press its military advantage and support among many Pashtun tribes, leading General McChrystal to recommend a further increase in US troop levels, absent which a Taliban military victory in the near future appears likely, at least according to General McChrystal.
The prospect of further US military escalation in Afghanistan has given rise to a domestic political backlash, particularly among Democratic Party liberals. Senator Feingold has called for a timetable for the withdrawal of all US troops from Afghanistan. The more moderate Senator Levin, Chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has come out in opposition to any further increase in the level of US troops. There are rumors that Vice President Biden has counseled President Obama to reject General McChrystal's recommendation for additional troops, and instead begin a withdrawal of US ground troops and a strategic shift towards a more limited objective of using airpower to target al Qaeda outposts. President Obama has stated that he is considering all options, making it clear that he is not going to be rushed into making any decisions about his future course of action in Afghanistan.
Objections to continued US involvement in Afghanistan have been even stronger in the liberal media. NY Times columnist Bob Herbert has written strongly and repeatedly in favor of a speedy withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/22/opinion/22herbert.html Liberal blogs have been virtually unanimous in opposing US involvement. Andrew Sullivan, whose current ideology is somewhat unclear - he is an openly gay, Catholic, self-proclaimed conservative who aggressively supported the Iraq War but turned against it and endorsed Obama - has veered beween strongly favoring withdrawal, http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2009/09/conservatism-and-afghanistan.html to arguing in favor of "muddling through" for the time being. http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2009/10/the-afpak-dilemma-the-case-for-muddling-through.html
A common theme that runs through virtually everything that is said or written in favor of a prompt withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, is that it is a "quagmire" and "another Vietnam." However, there are few relevant similarities between the conflicts in Afghanistan and Vietnam. Vietnam was primarily a "proxy war", played out against the backdrop of the Cold War in which the combatants were serving as stand-ins for the rival great powers. There is no such situation in the world today. On the contrary, all of today's great powers share identical interests with the US in Afghanistan: eliminating instability in Central Asia and preventing all of the externalities that flow from a failed state, such as terrorism, refugees, drug trafficking, and potentially even ethnic cleansing and genocide. It should also be emphasized that the Vietnam War can only be understood in terms of its role in the death throes of European colonialism. The adversary in Vietnam - the movement led by Ho Chi Minh - was a national liberation movement that successfully defeated one colonial power, France (and to a large extent, another would-be colonizer, Japan), and viewed the US merely as another colonial power seeking to take control of the country away from the Vietnamese. This perception of the US role in Vietnam was not without basis, and more than anything else, it was the US failure to understand that the Vietnamese viewed us as colonialists that doomed our involvement. Again, nothing comparable to that is involved in Afghanistan.
This brings up a second theme often asserted by proponents of US withdrawal, namely, the refrain that Afghanistan is the "graveyard of empires", as demonstrated by the failures of England and Russia. However, it is worth remembering that the objectives of the British and the Russians in Afghanistan were unabashedly colonial - they wanted to conquer it and make it part of their empires. If that were the US objective in Afghanistan, I would certainly agree that we would fail and properly so. However, even the most confirmed devotee of Noam Chomsky would have a hard time making the case that the US is trying to colonize Afghanistan. Unlike Iraq, Afghanistan has no oil or virtually any other natural resources of any great value (although there may well be significant untapped mineral resources in Afghanistan). Indeed, that is one of Afghanistan's major problems, and the reason why it is having trouble building an economy based on anything other than opium. It seems clear to me that the US has no ulterior colonial ambitions in Afghanistan, and that our objectives in pursuing this conflict are exactly what we say they are: preventing Afghanistan and the neighboring Pashtun areas of Pakistan from serving as a safe haven for al Qaeda, as was the case on 9/11.
Although the military situation has deteriorated in Afghanistan, there has been some encouraging news from Pakistan. There are signs that the Pakistani military has finally begun to shift its priorities away from preparation for a war with India, and to pursue violent extremists such as the Taliban in FATA with real vigor. These efforts by the Pakistanis have been aided immensely by US missile strikes, as demonstrated by the killing on August 5 of the leader of Pakistani Taliban, Baitullah Mehsud, an odious fellow with close ties to Mullah Omar and Bin Laden. As the Pakistani military has gradually become more serious about pursuing violent extremists such as the Taliban, there has also been a noticeable improvement in India/Pakistan relations, albeit still a long way from anything that might constitute a breakthrough. http://www.atimes.com/atimes/South_Asia/KI30Df01.html There can be little doubt that all of this would change in the event of a US withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the Pakistani military would undoubtedly again cozy up to the Taliban.
Instead of looking to Vietnam for historical analogies, I would suggest that a far more apt analogy is the conflict in the Balkans in the 1990s. Like Afghanistan, the former Yugoslavia was a "fake state" that was created not by the people living there, but by outsiders seeking to reconcile old imperial interests in the wake of World War I. Like Afghanistan, Yugoslavia had deteriorated into a state of civil war and there was essentially no central government. And most importantly, like Afghanistan, the warring ethnic groups in the former Yugoslavia had compatriots in neighboring states, and the ongoing Yugoslav civil war threatened to spread conflict throughout the region.
While the situation in the former Yugoslavia today is far from perfect, it is pretty good. Most people on both the left and the right would agree that the American military intervention in the Balkans in the 1990s was a success. I opposed military intervention at the time, but I readily admit now that I was wrong, and hopefully, I learned something from my mistake. (Actually, I didn't so much oppose American involvement in the Balkans, as I believed that the US should do more to act in concert with Russia rather than Western Europe; a pretty good idea in fact, just a few years ahead of its time). http://www.nytimes.com/1993/05/23/opinion/l-us-and-europe-have-different-balkan-aims-297493.html What we as a country should have learned from the experience in the Balkans are some of the parameters as to how and when US military force can be used effectively in dealing with Twenty-First Century conflicts. US military intervention in the former Yugoslavia was a necessary but not sufficient condition for a resolution of the conflict. US military action in the Balkans succeeded not simply because of the military strategy we followed, but because we were successful in making the conflict a matter of regional importance. Virtually all of the countries of Europe cooperated with the US in resolving the conflict, and most importantly, the cooperation provided by European countries was not limited to military assistance. In addition to providing peacekeeping forces in the former Yugoslav republics, European governments, and perhaps even more importantly European businesses, actively worked to build an economic infrastructure that would enable the former Yugoslavia to become integrated into the European community. That is essentially the "success story" that has been taking place in the Balkans in recent years (the current economic crisis has presented a bit of a speed bump in that process).
These lessons are directly applicable to Afghanistan. The key to success in Afghanistan is to stop viewing the conflict as simply an "American problem", and to begin addressing it as an enormous problem for the entire region of South-Central Asia. The countries that are most directly affected by the conflict in Afghanistan are those in the region: India (and of course Pakistan), China, Russia, and Iran. The impact on India and Pakistan of a US withdrawal and a Taliban victory has already been pointed out. Afghan drug trafficking has a huge impact on the countries of the region. Much of the Afghan heroin flows into Russia, which is now believed to have the world's largest population of heroin addicts. http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-russia-heroin25-2009sep25,0,2349140.story A great deal of Afghan heroin also flows into Iran, which has also long had a major problem with heroin addiction, leading the Iranian government to begin assisting the US in trying to eradicate Afghan drug networks. http://www.afghanconflictmonitor.org/2009/05/un-hails-iran-for-curbing-afghan-heroin.html#atuid-4ac4fcec30cbf3a1
The ethnic conflicts in Afghanistan also play a crucial role in destabilizing the region. The consequence of a US withdrawal will not simply be a Taliban victory, it will likely be a resumption of the Afghan civil war that had been ongoing since the end of the Soviet invasion. Again, it bears emphasis that the Taliban is essentially a Pashtun movement, and the Pashtun are only 40% of the population. The ethnic groups that make up the other 60% of Afghanistan would undoubtedly oppose the Taliban, as they did by forming the Northern Alliance. These ethnic groups have country-folk in the neighboring former Soviet republics and in Iran, and it is likely that the conflict would spread to these countries. The governments of the former Soviet republics are already of dubious stability, and they could readily be challenged by violent Islamist movements. Ethnic conflicts in Afghanistan could even embroil China, as the Muslim Uyghurs of the Chinese province of Xinjiang (which also borders on a small piece of Afghanistan) are ethnically and culturally related to some of the Turkic ethnic groups of Afghanistan, and growing militancy among Uyghur separatists is already a matter of considerable concern to the Chinese government.
Whenever any suggestion is made that the US should look to other countries to take a more active role in Afghanistan, the suggestion almost invariably refers to America's "allies" in NATO. However, it is unrealistic to think that most European countries will be willing to make any more significant military commitment to Afghanistan other than by supplying peacekeeping troops, and that is of limited utility until there is a peace to keep. A far more fruitful source of allies is in the immediate region, namely, China, India, and even Iran and Russia. Notably, General McChrystal has recently pointed out that Iran is actually playing a very positive role in using its influence in Afghanistan to assist the US. http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2009/10/iran-in-afghanistan.html In all of the hubub about Iran's nuclear program, the media seems to have missed General McChrystal's statement that Iran may be one of our most valuable allies in Afghanistan. There is no reason why China and India cannot also be encouraged to take a more active role in assisting the US in the conflict. And while the prospect of another Russian incursion into Afghanistan probably sounds pretty unattractive to everyone - to the Russians most of all - Russia can nevertheless provide other forms of assistance, primarily through their relationships with the former Soviet republics. Moreover, as in the case of the conflict in the Balkans, assistance by the regional powers can include economic aid as well as military assistance. In particular, Chinese and Indian businesses have recently shown themselves to be quite adept at developing natural resources in some of the most remote countries of Africa. There is no reason why these skills can't be applied to the development of Afghanistan's significant untapped mineral wealth. This can be the key to building an economic infrastructure in Afghanistan that is essential to any prospect for peace.
I am not a military expert, and I do not have an opinion as to the correctness of General McChrystal's recommendation as to the need for increased US troop levels. What I do know, however, is that aggressive American diplomacy to get the other powers in the region more involved is just as important as military strategy to achieve success in Afghanistan. As in the Balkans, US military involvement is necessary but not sufficient to resolve the Afghanistan conflict. Fortunately, President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton made a wise choice for their point-person in the region. Richard Holbrooke is not only perhaps America's most experienced diplomat, he is the person who displayed considerable diplomatic skills in dealing with the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. We need him to apply a similar approach here.
It is likely that the country of Afghanistan in its current form will cease to exist over the next few years. There are many possible scenarios as to what may happen. Like the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan could simply break up into several separate countries based on the ethnic divisions in the country. It is also possible that the different ethnic groups could not simply seek to break away, but could also seek to unite with their country-folk in neighboring countries (Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, etc.). This could be particularly problematic as it pertains to Pakistan, which itself is, in many respects, a "fake state". The Afghan Pashtun could seek to join with the Pashtun in FATA, or the Afghan Baloch could seek to unite with secessionists in the Pakistani province of Balochistan. Instability in Balochistan is one of those sleeper issues that could suddenly burst onto everyone's radar screen in the next few years. Balochistan is geographically the largest province of Pakistan, but it is very sparsely populated. It is a mountainous region that has lots of nooks and crannies that provide ideal hiding places for terrorists, and it is believed that Mullah Omar has now moved to Balochistan since Pakistan has stepped up its anti-Taliban activities in FATA. The Persian-related Baloch have few ties of language and culture to the other peoples of Pakistan, although there is a substantial Pashtun minority in Balochistan. The Baloch often resent the "Indians" (i.e., Punjabis and Sindhis) who dominate the Pakistani government, and there is an active secessionist movement. While radical Islamism has never held much sway in Balochistan, and its secessionist movements have largely been secular and nationalistic in character, that could all change with the growing influence of the Taliban, and al Qaeda, in the province.
[An aside: A number of years ago, I saw a bumper sticker on a New York City taxi reading, "India Out of Baluchistan!" I had no idea what this meant, as I had no clue where Baluchistan was. After looking it up in an atlas, I was still at a loss because it did not seem as though India was in Balochistan, and hence cannot get "out", since Balochistan does not border on India and it is on the far southwestern part of Pakistan, bordering Iran. Ultimately, I figured out that there are two possible interpretations of the bumper sticker. "India" is the term that Balochis use to refer to the dominant parts of Pakistan, namely Punjab and Sindh, so the cab driver could have been a Balochi separatist. On the other hand, Pakistan has often accused India of fomenting secessionism in Balochistan, so the cab driver could have been a Pakistani protesting against Indian meddling in the Pakistani province of Balochistan. I love the kinds of education you get just by living in New York.]
On the other hand, it is conceivable that notwithstanding its ethnic diversity and the various secessionist forces at work, Afghanistan could continue to exist as a single sovereign state, albeit in a highly decentralized federated form. Managing these changes in a way that minimizes bloodshed and instability throughout the region will pose significant military and diplomatic challenges for the US. Richard Holbrooke may well be the only person in the world with relevant experience in handling such problems.
Many Americans will continue to question why the US should be expending lives and treasure in Afghanistan. It is difficult for most Americans to see how the conflict in Afghanistan has an immediate impact on America's security. Opponents of continued US military action argue that we can better defend ourselves against al Qaeda by strengthening homeland security. Andrew Bacevich, a sharp critic of US military involvement in the world who is particularly skeptical of COIN strategies, proposes prompt withdrawal from Afghanistan and a shift to a "containment" strategy for dealing with Islamist radicals. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/09/25/AR2009092502011_2.html?sid=ST2009092503588 But in today's world of globalization, national security cannot be achieved simply by closing our borders. Global interconnectedness has many, many positive aspects, but it also gives rise to global dangers. The opium produced in Afghanistan's poppy fields flows directly into the shooting galleries of America's inner cities. A group of religious fanatics given sanctuary by the government of Afghanistan can plot to cause the deaths of thousands in New York and Washington. [And, as I observe above, even passions about conflicts in a place as far away as Balochistan can find their way onto the bumpers of New York City taxis.] The unfortunate reality is that opposition to all wars is not a viable policy in today's world. As Barack Obama accurately stated in articulating his opposition to the Iraq War back in 2002, we cannot oppose all wars, only dumb wars. Afghanistan is not a dumb war. We have to build better alliances with the great powers in the region, and it would be dumb for the US to fight this war alone, but approached correctly as an exercise in multilateralism, American military involvement can be an indispensable component to bringing about a favorable resolution in Afghanistan.
Addressing the conflict in Afghanistan will not only pose a test to President Obama's diplomatic skills, it will require the application of the full range of his formidable political skills. President Obama must present the case for American military involvement to the American public rationally but forcefully. President Obama is up against two strains in American attitudes about foreign policy that pose significant obstacles to a sound policy in Afghanistan. These strains are unilateralism and isolationism. As I have argued before, these strains are in many ways two sides of the same coin. http://democraticcore.blogspot.com/2009/07/reclaiming-liberal-patriotism.html Americans have a tendency to believe that we should always act alone in international affairs (the cowboy mindset), and if we can't do whatever we want to do by ourselves, we should not try to do it at all. President Obama must persuade the American people that this attitude is simply not a viable one in Afghanistan, or indeed, virtually anywhere else in today's world. We cannot walk away, but we cannot do it alone. And we must learn to think about the world in a new way. The Twenty-First Century is not a Euro-American world. To thrive in this world, Americans must learn to think about acting in concert with people who may seem different from us - not just the Indians, but the Chinese, the Russians and even the Iranians.
Afghanistan is probably just the beginning. The scenario now playing itself out in the Afghanistan conflict is likely to be repeated many times in the decades ahead, primarily in Africa, which is chock full of "fake states" left by European colonialists. America will not be able to avoid becoming involved in these conflicts; nor should we, at least, not if we care about stopping things like famine and genocide. Acceptance of multilateralism, and a willingness to look beyond our historical alliances in Europe for new partners, will be the key to our success.
Finally, a note on sources. I highly recommend the work of Pakistani writer Ahmed Rashid. He has an excellent piece in the current edition of The New York Review of Books updating the situation in Afghanistan. http://www.nybooks.com/articles/23113 Anyone interested in digging deeper to get an understanding of the region should read Rashid's outstanding trilogy: Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia (2000), Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia (2002), and Descent Into Chaos (2008).
As always, I also recommend the writings of Thomas P.M. Barnett, whose writings on Afghanistan, as on just about every other global issue, are among the best things out there. http://thomaspmbarnett.com/weblog/2009/10/gelb_on_the_need_to_socialize.html#