Saving Afghanistan

by Joshua Foust on 1/3/2007 · 2 comments

Barnett Rubin has a good essay in the new Foreign Affairs on the problems facing Afghanistan today. Most of it closely mirrors the problems I’ve laid out here, especially the growing problems with drug cultivation and organized crime, corruption, a general sense of Western apathy, and, of course, Pakistan.

The rushed negotiations between the United States and Pakistan in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 changed Pakistan’s behavior but not its interests. Supporting the Taliban was so important to Pakistan that Musharraf even considered going to war with the United States rather than abandon his allies in Afghanistan. Instead, he tried to persuade Washington to allow him to install a “moderate Taliban” government or, failing that, at least to prevent the Northern Alliance, which Pakistanis see as allied with India, from entering Kabul and forming a government. The agreement by Washington to dilute Northern Alliance control with remnants of Afghanistan’s royal regime did little to mollify the generals in Islamabad, to say nothing of the majors and colonels who had spent years supporting the Taliban in the border areas. Nonetheless, in order to prevent the United States from allying with India, Islamabad acquiesced in reining in its use of asymmetrical warfare, in return for the safe evacuation of hundreds of Pakistani officers and intelligence agents from Afghanistan, where they had overseen the Taliban’s military operations.

Now the Taliban are back and stronger than ever before. As Rubin notes, “few insurgencies with safe havens abroad have ever been defeated.” He’s right—so long as we ignore Pakistan’s role in the violence in Afghanistan, we are essentially saying we are unconcerned with winning the conflict.

Even more important is Rubin’s overview of Afghanistan’s history with the west.

In the eighteenth century, as neighboring empires collapsed, Afghan tribal leaders seized opportunities to build states by conquering richer areas in the region. In 1715, Mirwais Khan Hotak (of the same Kandahari Pashtun tribe as the Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar), overthrew the Shiite governor of Kandahar, then a province of the Iranian Safavid empire; seven years later, his son sacked Isfahan, the Iranian capital at the time. Subsequently, a Turkmen leader, Nader Shah, captured Isfahan and went on to conquer Kabul and Delhi. When Nader Shah was assassinated in 1747, the commander of his bodyguard, Ahmad Khan Abdali (a member of the same Kandahari Pashtun tribe as President Karzai), retreated back to Kandahar, where, according to official histories, he was made king of the Afghans at a tribal jirga. He led the tribes who constituted his army on raids and in the conquest of Kashmir and Punjab.

The expansion of the British and Russian empires cut off the opportunity for conquest and external predation — undermining the fiscal base of the ruler’s power and throwing Afghanistan into turmoil for much of the nineteenth century. As the British Empire expanded northwest from the Indian subcontinent toward Central Asia, it first tried to conquer Afghanistan and then, after two Anglo-Afghan wars, settled for making it a buffer against the Russian empire to the north.

The British established a three-tiered border to separate their empire from Russia through a series of treaties with Kabul and Moscow. The first frontier separated the areas of the Indian subcontinent under direct British administration from those areas under Pashtun tribal control (today this line divides those areas administered by the Pakistani state from the Federally Administered Tribal Agencies). The second frontier, the Durand Line, divided the Pashtun tribal areas from the territories under the administration of the emir of Afghanistan (Pakistan and the rest of the international community consider this line to be the international border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, although Afghanistan has never accepted it). The outer frontier, the borders of Afghanistan with Russia, Iran, and China, demarcated the British sphere of influence; the British enabled the emir to subdue and control Afghanistan with subsidies of money and weapons.

(Emphasis mine) In other words, not only can the current clash in Afghanistan be seen in part as merely the latest stage of an inter-tribal Pashtun war that is centuries old, but that our methods of dealing with it, including current NATO policy, is the same bad idea the British tried more than a century before us.

Major changes in policy toward Pakistan must take place if Afghanistan is to have a chance of success. I am not as optimistic as Rubin is, in part because I think he not only minimizes the ability of the American leadership to pull an about-face about a man they have annointed as our best regional friend in the war on terror, but also the prospects of developing non-opium economic activity. Afghanistan is just damned tough to get to, and only super-high yield crops, like opium, offer enough economies of scale to make it truly worthwhile. Simply saying “Washington must creat livelihoods for the rural poor” is nice, but no one really knows how to do that. His focus on cleaning up governmental corrution with Afghanistan itself, however, is spot on, especially his take on involving the local tribal leaders in administering the provinces.

And, on a personal note, it’s nice to see an actual scholar with local experience echoing the problems I’ve noticed in my own amateur research.


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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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{ 2 comments }

Aamir Ali January 7, 2007 at 3:53 pm

Pakistan is not the cause of Afghan violence. The failure of the Afghan government and the enormous civilian casualties the US and NATO are responsible for are the cause.

“Blame Pakistan” is the latest attractive and incorrect theory westerners have latched on to.

Joshua Foust January 7, 2007 at 6:38 pm

Yes, clearly noting that Pakistan has been a jumping off point for the Taliban and various insurgents since at least 1980 is just a western ruse to save NATO’s face. If you really think I try to spin for NATO, or Karzai, then I question your reading skills.

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