Everything tells us how to “really fix” Afghanistan

by Joshua Foust on 1/28/2010 · 8 comments

While it’s cool to note that the military is always “fighting the last war,” which means they’re focused on what they just did rather than what they’re doing now, I think the world of punditry suffers from a worse problem: fighting the wars everyone else forgot about. This is especially true in Afghanistan, where people think it clever to reference Alexander, Genghis Khan, the British Empire, and Soviet Russia as examples of why the war is impossible/unwinnable/being fought wrong.

Well, except now people are learning about other wars as well. It’s bad enough that writers think it’s witty to jump from 326 B.C. to 1200 A.D. to 1842 and assume that’s all history has to offer; when they look at unrelated wars and try really hard to draw parallels, I sometimes wonder if they just hate the very concept of understanding something (no, I’m not referring to Iraq for once).

So, since there is nothing in Afghanistan’s past that could tell us where we went wrong and how we might effectively end the war (sarcasm!), let’s see what the media is telling us to analogize now.

Start with Tajikistan. Afghanistan’s neighbor to the immediate north, Tajikistan fought a fairly brutal civil war between Islamists and former Communists for a big chunk of the 1990s. Refugees fled for Afghanistan, it got so bad. But now, Tajikistan is a fairly stable place—poor as hell, desperate for electricity, and with some lingering security problems that may or may not be a big deal. So is this a good model for Afghanistan?

In November, George Gavrilis wrote in Foreign Affairs that we should, in fact, look to Tajikistan for a solution to Afghanistan’s problems. Gavrilis says, in essence, that the peace process worked in Tajikistan because the international players in the peace process set their sights low and tried to calm things down on the cheap. Warlords, he says, are “an enduring feature of Tajikistan’s political landscape,” even under the Soviets, and the UN never tried to defang them. This was enough, he says, to keep Tajikistan at peace even if it’s neither democratic nor prosperous: “Tajikistan has attained a level of political stability such that a return to civil war, extremism, and chaos seems unlikely.”

In 2008, however, Shahrbanou Tadjbakhsh had already compared (pdf) Afghanistan and Tajikistan peacekeeping experiences, and came to a remarkably different conclusion:

The success of the externally-led Tajikistan peace process can be attributed to the common search for collaboration between international organizations and regional powers and the gradual sequencing of the different stages: negotiation for power sharing, followed by consolidation, and finally state-building. By contrast, the changing motivations for intervention, the isolation of the Western alliance from regional actors, and the external actors’ own role as parties to war, which provokes escalating reactions, are the potential elements of failure in Afghanistan.

Hrm. Both Gavrilis and Tadjbakhsh discuss the war only in terms of external actors—neither discusses the internal dynamics of Tajikistan to any great extent. That would seem an important component to any plan for ending a civil war: Erica Marat, for example, argues that the reason Tajikistan failed to contain its Islamist insurgency while Uzbekistan succeeded was largely due to differences in how accommodating each ruler was to Islamism and separatist movements. In Afghanistan, there is no similar dynamic. In Tajik political circles, there was broad consensus on both sides that negotiations were the only path to resolving the war; in Afghanistan there is no equivalent dynamic at work yet.

But can we draw broad analogies from Tajikistan to Afghanistan? RFE/RL reporter Farangis Najibullah tries to do just that:

Over a decade on, although Tajikistan is still far from being a prosperous, democratic society, its success at ending a civil war and forging reconciliation has led some to suggest that the Tajik experience could be applied as a model in neighboring Afghanistan.

The comparison is more than superficial. The two neighbors share a common language, religion, and culture, and the same challenging topography. The United Tajik Opposition — a motley coalition of Islamist fighters, warlords as well as democrats — bears some similarity to the Taliban-led insurgency currently raging in Afghanistan.

At first, the two sides in the conflict, the Moscow-backed secular government and the United Tajik Opposition, supported to some extent by Iran, showed no sign of compromise, vowing to fight until the end. But the ongoing war, with its human casualties, devastation, and growing waves of refugees, took its toll on both sides as well as on neighboring countries.

Actually, that is entirely a superficial comparison. Whether climatically, culturally, linguistically, politically, or even religiously, only a part of Afghanistan is like Tajikistan. The Taliban were Pashtun, and not mere Islamists—they employ a bizarre syncretic mix of luddism, Pashtun social mores, and radical Islam (the UTO never did such a thing). In the 1990s, when both groups were at their peak, Iran actively opposed the Taliban but supported elements of the UTO. The Northern Alliance was never supported by Moscow.

While no one denies that eventually integrating the Taliban into the government will require tough concessions and difficult choices, right now most of the comparisons between Afghanistan and Tajikistan haven’t moved beyond that basic, high-level concept (which, really, is little more than conflict platitudes). What else can bring us lessons?

Colombia! No, that’s not a joke: Foreign Minister Jaime Bermudez said on Wednesday that Colombia’s success in battling drug traffickers and the FARC insurgency provides many lessons for Afghanistan. Naturally, he is at the London Conference today, quite unlike Iran.

FM Bermudez is not alone in drawing the parallel: Admiral James Stavridis, Supreme Allied Commander Europe, said much the same when he got his job overseeing NATO (and he’s not alone in American flag officers endorsing Colombia as a model to be followed). The U.S. transferred Ambassador William Wood from Bogota to Kabul in 2007; at the same time, the U.S. began to import the infamous Colombia paramilitary drug warriors to train a similar Afghan force.

Of course things in Colombia are not pretty: Medellin, once the showcase city for recovering from drug cartel rule, has begun descending into violence again. Colombian cocaine shipments continue unabated into the U.S. drug market, and the price has risen so high the cartels now employ stealthy semi-submersible submarines to smuggle it.

Needless to say, this blog has argued for years against the push to turn Afghanistan into Colombia—a phenomenon that is made especially galling because there probably are some useful parallels to draw, in particular over property rights. But the people advocating the comparison don’t know enough to discuss it. So, what else?

Byzantium! Oh heaven help me: Eddward Luttwak, the famous military writer, thinks the Byzantine art of war and diplomacy would prove useful in today’s Afghanistan. Never mind that “byzantine” often means confusing or overly intricate… this guy wants America to replicate the political behavior of “the ancient, brutal empire.”

A Byzantine response would be, first to withdraw the west’s scarce, expensive troops, and arm local proxies instead. This was the standard remedy for turbulent, worthless lands where no taxes could be collected, but which were to be denied to enemies: an improvement over the Romans’ fondness for battles of attrition and annihilation…

In Afghanistan, a banal case of divide and rule is impossible. There is no unitary nation to divide. This is well suited to a Byzantine strategy, which would aim not to rule Afghanistan, but to stop the Taliban from doing so. Little persuasion would be needed to co-opt allies. The Shia Hazara distrust the Taliban, who view them as heretics deserving death, while the country’s Tajiks and Uzbeks, who can be as extreme in religion as the Taliban, would not want to be ruled by them either.

The Byzantines would use diplomacy to deal with Afghanistan’s diverse neighbours. They once even persuaded a rival empire to split the cost of guarding strategic border passes, so both could keep invaders out. Today Uzbekistan, which is just across the river from Afghanistan, and its patron Russia, which is just beyond, have every reason to keep the Taliban at bay, given their internal struggles against armed Islamists. Accordingly, the Byzantines would demand from Russia and Uzbekistan the weapons and ammunition that were needed to arm the Tajiks, Hazara and Uzbeks in Afghanistan.

Oh good God, we don’t even need to finish this rubbish to know Luttwak is way out in left field. This blog has been adamant—again, for years—that arming tribes, or militias, or pitting one armed community against neighboring armed communities is not how you end the war. It how you prolong it.

In fact, Luttwak’s ideas all would serve to prolong the conflict, not bring it to an acceptable or manageable low. Simply playing a game of denial with the Taliban would ensure that violence in the South and East continue unabated, as each side commits acts of brutality meant to erode popular confidence in the other (it is the game the Coalition has been playing in the South since 2006, to disastrous consequences). Simply re-arming the non-Pashtun ethnicities in Afghanistan, too, would amount to declaring war on all Pashtuns—a dangerous and racist assumption about the many Pashtun communities who do not actually support the Taliban. Lastly, groups like the IMU, which are largely Uzbek but allied with the Taliban, are direct contradictions of Luttwak’s simplistic and race-based misconception of the insurgency.

Lastly, there is Luttwak’s conception of diplomacy. Neither Russia nor Uzbekistan have demonstrated a shred of maturity one would need to consider them appropriate or reliable partners in discussing a permanent solution to Afghanistan’s insurgents’ international support. His treatment of Pakistan can only be called ignorant—filled with assumptions and arguments without support.

This is tied to Luttwak’s bizarre assumption that we have the right and capability to wisely pick winners and losers within Afghanistan, an assumption that ignores our multiple, repeatedly failed attempts to do so in the past. But hey, Byzantium did so, and even though they also slaughtered millions of people to maintain their empire for a full eight centuries, they were successful. Results without ethics, right?

At its most basic level the push to draw historical analogies to Afghanistan reveal far more about the author than they do either subject of the analogy. While it is possible to draw a limited set of lessons—the role property rights have played in driving government resistance, for example, or perhaps the ways ethnic grievances get manipulated by insurgents to inspire violence—the prominent voices making these analogies don’t limit themselves to what reasonably knowledgeable people consider appropriate. It is why we get ridiculous claims that Afghanistan is the New Vietnam, or even more outlandish comparisons to places like Kosovo.

Here’s my question: why can’t we view Afghanistan on its own terms? Afghanistan itself provides many a useful example of what works and what doesn’t—and often can explain why. A few months ago, I had a wonderful, detailed discussion with Michael Cohen about what lessons we can learn from our own experiences in Afghanistan—a process that hasn’t, to my knowledge, really happened in the country. We don’t have a comprehensive understanding of what we have tried, what has worked, and what has failed—even if we do know of isolated experienced that have offered lessons.

Until we as a community—policymakers, analysts, soldiers, and pundits—actually take the time to do some basic homework, and analyze why we are where we are now and why we are not where we hope to be (and what truncated initiatives have shown the most promise in getting us there), then all this other talk of “lessons” from unrelated conflicts will serve only to muddy the waters. The Great Analogy push is little more than a panicked casting about for solutions that are already there, in our discarded archives and old newspaper articles. That we haven’t gone there first for “lessons” we can draw about the war is nothing more than laziness.


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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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{ 8 comments }

Andy January 28, 2010 at 1:03 pm

I see many examples of what doesn’t work, where are the examples of what does? Have you considered that Afghanistan, in it’s current state, is ungovernable?

BD February 2, 2010 at 2:53 pm

Take a visit to the Panjir Valley. People smile, crime is low, food abundant. It is the one place I’ve been in Afghanistan that actually felt friendly.

ZI January 28, 2010 at 3:06 pm

“is not how you end the war. It how you prolong it. ”

But that’s the whole point, Luttwak is not interested in ending the war. The real question is what is in our interests? And the question should be asked: why not let them kill each other for a couple of decades? What do we have to lose?Perhaps it’s not in our interests but if so why?

This is foreign policy, results are what matter. Nobody is going to praise you for your moral rectitude if you fail. You offer mostly moral counter-arguments.

Joshua Foust January 31, 2010 at 3:18 pm

Where do we make moral arguments? Our argument here is that the study is empirically wrong and scientifically invalid, not immoral in any way.

Zach January 28, 2010 at 3:58 pm

How about dividing the country in two and merging the southern portion of the country (including Helmand and Kandahar provinces) with the western area of Pakistan (North and South Waziristan, which Pakistan fails to properly handle and who threaten Pakistan’s stability) to restore Pashtunistan where the Pashtuns can govern themselves in whatever way they chose and the remainder of Afghanistan now made up almost entirely of Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks can have a functional democracy.

BD February 2, 2010 at 2:49 pm

That would destroy Pakistan. There is a well documented histroical distrust of the non-Pashtun ethnic groups of Pakistan against the Afghan Pashtuns who have repeatidly invaded Pakistan over the centuries. The remainder of Pakistan would be sandwiched between a violent Kashmir and a more violent Pashtunistan. Once you begin dividing along ethnic lines bad things are bound to happen!

AJK January 28, 2010 at 8:54 pm

You Z’s:

Why not promote lots of bloodshed or creating of a 1920’s Nation-State? They’re not unreasonable arguments, y’all seem to have thought about it more than most. At the same time…I couldn’t disagree more.

Pashtunistan doesn’t exist: too many Balochis, Hazaras, Tajiks, Uzbeks, and that’s not including all the smaller groups. It just creates a new civil war without solving the old one. “Whatever way they chose” will just be who gets the bigger guns, which means the best smuggling routes or the best int’l backers. I don’t think this is a solution.

As for just hoping for bloodshed between the sides, that’s what Afghanistan was in the 70’s. If “we” arm “our boys” then “they” arm “theirs” and, well, we have a civil war on our hands. And lots of dead people.

I think it all depends on what your end-goal is: are you trying to get a few years of relative peace to get ISAF out? Are you trying to change Afghanistan into Pennsylvania? Or are you trying to find the best way for it to find its own place?

I’m hardly a fan of endless bases in Afghanistan or Afghan nationalism, but I think there’s a much finer point on it than either of y’all do, personally.

reader January 29, 2010 at 11:49 am

“Until we as a community—policymakers, analysts, soldiers, and pundits—actually take the time to do some basic homework, and analyze why we are where we are now and why we are not where we hope to be…”

That will require asking questions of individuals and groups’ economic, political, and career interests and that will never, ever be asked in this country. To do so would be to rock some of our fundamental national myths and self-image. If you do ask such questions you will immediately be shunted to the side as a quack, naysayer, and general gloomy person. Furthermore, are you honestly asking us to look into nasty events of the past? I thought it’s all about moving forward.

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