Brickbats

by Joshua Foust on 1/10/2009

See if you can spot the fundamental problems with these authors trying to write about Afghanistan.

THE TRUTH ABOUT THE TALIBAN
It is also important to emphasize a fact often ignored in the debate on Afghanistan: The Taliban had never been an explicitly anti-American outfit. In fact, the Taliban were created by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Pakistan, all allies of the U.S., in or around 1993 with the goal of preventing pro-Iran elements from controlling Afghanistan after the fall of the Communist regime. Nursed on the Salafist ideology, the Taliban saw itself at war primarily against Shiites and other non-Salafist Muslims rather than against the U.S. or any other “infidel” power. The mass of Taliban literature, including addresses by Mullah Muhammad Omar, their emir al-momineen (“commander of the faithful”), contained no specifically anti-American themes. A year before 9/11, the Taliban had opened talks with the Clinton administration to establish diplomatic ties with the U.S. Clinton had dispatched a number of high-profile emissaries, including the then-envoy to the U.N., Bill Richardson, to Kabul for talks with Taliban leaders.

For their part, the Taliban used Zalmay Khalilzad, who was to become a key diplomat in the Bush administration, as its chief lobbyist in Washington. In August 2001, just weeks before the 9/11 attacks, Taliban foreign minister Mullah Wakil Ahmad Mutawakil told me that his regime would soon open its embassy in Washington. Hamid Karzai, the future president of Afghanistan, was to be the Taliban ambassador.

—Amir Taheri, “In Search of the Afghan Maliki,” National Review Online, 15 December 2008.

U.S. officials tend to assume that power in Afghanistan ought to be exercised from Kabul. Yet the real influence in Afghanistan has traditionally rested with tribal leaders and warlords. Offered the right incentives, warlords can accomplish U.S. objectives more effectively and cheaply than Western combat battalions. The basis of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan should therefore become decentralization and outsourcing, offering cash and other emoluments to local leaders who will collaborate with us in keeping terrorists out of their territory.

—Andrew Bacevich, “Redefine Victory in Afghanistan,” Newsweek, 8 December 2008.

Geostrategically, Afghanistan is not as inherently important as Iraq, but the Afghan-Pakistan theater has become the focal point of extremist groups such as al-Qaeda, so we must treat this war as a priority. Thankfully, with U.S. forces downsizing in Iraq, President-elect Barack Obama and his new defense team may now have the means.

—Michael O’Hanlon, “Playing for Keeps,” USAToday, 07 January 2009.

The common thread: ignorance or outright distortion of history, a professional focus on the Middle East instead of Afghanistan (or Central/South Asia), and a reliance on stereotypes and assumptions about Afghanistan itself. I explore this a bit more in a CJR piece to be posted on Monday, but I really cannot fully express just how foul I find this sort of opportunism.

For the record:

Amir Taheri is doing little more than repeating Taliban propaganda. Steve Coll, for example, documented in Ghost Wars that while Hamid Karzai was a Taliban supporter in the mid-90s because they removed the warlords from Kandahar (more on that below), he turned into an opponent after the Taliban murdered his father in Quetta. And Ahmed Rashid, who wrote one of the two definitive histories of the Taliban in Taliban (the other is by William Maley, who just wrote an incisive letter to the New York Times about Bob Herbert’s own Afghanistan brickbat of a column), documented quite extensively how the Taliban were not at all pro- or neutral-American, not limited to anti-Shiism, and not even remotely primarily opposed to Iran until the massacre at Mazar-i-Sharif in 1998. Subsequent scholarship, including that contained in the excellent The Taliban and the Crisis of Afghanistan by Robert Crews and Amin Tarzi, further corroborates just how wrong Taheri’s portrayal is. And calling Zalmay Khalilzad was a knowing advocate for the Taliban is false; while he did indeed pen op-eds about why Washington should support them, and even worked as a liasion between Unocal and the Taliban government, he wasn’t their agent.

Andrew Bacevich fundamentally misunderstands how communal relations work in Afghanistan. But most appallingly, he seems ignorant of the fact that in areas where warlordism was particularly dire, the Taliban found its most enthusiastic converts. He similarly overstates the role and power of tribal leaders, and doesn’t seem to get that by any measure we have of gauging this, the one thing Afghans do not want is a return to Warlordism.

Finally, for Michael O’Hanlon to argue that Afghanistan is relatively unimportant geostrategically, and only as much as it “has become” the focal point of Al Qaeda, is ludicrous. Afghanistan was the focal point of AQ before September 11 and before the Iraq War, and it remains so today. He seems to treat the importance of Afghanistan as a luxury we can now afford to address, rather than the vital interest we should never have ignored.

I think this sort of exercise is important. Taheri, Bacevich, and O’Hanlon all appeal to different segments of the political spectrum. That is, naivete about Afghanistan, and the subsequent advocacy of failed or unwise policies, is becoming increasingly common now that Afghanistan is moving back into the limelight. What’s more, they are very influential—all three (and obviously many more) can shape policy to an outsized degree. Recognizing the fundamental problems in how they frame the situation is an important first step toward counteracting that influence.


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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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