The “reality” of war in Afghanistan

by Joshua Foust on 10/15/2008

You can tell it’s going to be a doozy when it starts like this:

DESPITE their differences over how to pursue the US war in Iraq, Senators John McCain and Barack Obama both want to send more American troops to Afghanistan. Both are wrong. History cries out to them, but they are not listening.

Why, reading Stephen Kinzer, one would expect that what follows is an informed, nuanced discussion of the structural, cultural, and political challenges Afghanistan has faced.

Both candidates would do well to gaze for a moment on a painting by the British artist Elizabeth Butler called “Remnants of an Army.” It depicts the lone survivor of a 15,000-strong British column that sought to march through 150 kilometers of hostile Afghan territory in 1842. His gaunt, defeated figure is a timeless reminder of what happens to foreign armies that try to subdue Afghanistan.

Oh crap. Perhaps if someone is going to lecture the readers of a major newspaper about history, they could at least figure out that this is not 1842. What follows is a disjointed ramble about how more troops on the ground won’t reduce violence levels in Afghanistan, yet the problem is too many high casualty air strikes whose damage drives people into the Taliban; how Afghanistan is drawing more international fighters into its territory from Iraq, yet the reasons behind why those fighters consider Iraq an unsuitable battleground aren’t mentioned; and, finally, throwaway lines like how all our poppy troubles will be solved if we spend $4 billion a year buying it and burning it.

For a man who ran the Istanbul bureau for the New York Times during the last years of the 20th century, you’d think you’d see a bit more nuanced understanding of how either insurgencies or anti-opium campaigns actually work. Turkey has plenty of experience in both. Kinzer also spent a lot of time covering Latin America—where buy and burn programs have, to put it snappily, gone up in smoke.

A far more interesting and informed take on ways to “fix” Afghanistan is this report about tribal movements. It contains not just the trendy (and, in my view, misguided) idea to “coopt the tribes” to do our bidding for us, but a detailed and nuanced understanding of the serious dangers such a policy proposes. More importantly, unlike Kinzer, this is an understanding informed by history, including the spotty history the U.S. already has with tribal and non-state groups in Afghanistan.

In January, Gen. Dan McNeill, then commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, dismissed the idea of supporting arbakai as applicable only in a few provinces, “and it’s not likely to work beyond those geographic locations.”

This remains a concern. The arbakai are strongest in the southeastern provinces adjacent to Pakistan’s tribal areas, like Nangarhar. In the south, the opium trade has corrupted and weakened tribes, making any tribal-based solution there more difficult.

It pains me to admit it, but McNeill was right. Perhaps Kinzer could take another look at the reality of the war he constructs.

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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 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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