With an Afghan general election just five days off, I went wandering through some old posts on this blog. In one from last September 16 I found this prescient passage:
...Unless the United States can craft a much more successful effort, reinforced by international diplomacy, to strengthen Iraq's central government, "we're midwifing the dissolution of the country," Steven Simon, a senior director of the National Security Council during the Clinton administration said.
He continued, "There are two things that every successful state in the Middle East has had to do to insure its viability. One is to stamp out warlordism, and the other is to suppress tribalism. Where that has not happened, you find unsuccessful states, like Yemen, for example - and now Iraq... We're creating dependencies in a decentralized state that will be at risk when we leave."
Note that Simon speaks of "successful" states. That's successful as in viable and functioning, not successful as in democratic. There are a great many functioning states in the Middle East that are still a far cry from democratic.
But if this is the formula for a successful state - the total eradication of warlordism and the suppression of tribalism - why are we tolerating a central government in Afghanistan that both cultivates and empowers warlords, that exists in a highly unstable, symbiotic co-dependency with creatures like Dostum, Hekmatyar and Gul Agha?
If we don't want a successful - as in viable and functioning - Afghanistan, what do we want? Or maybe we don't really "want" anything, maybe we've settled for the worst-possible option, maybe we're simply running on autopilot.
You may have noticed that completely missing from this discussion has been mention of Western (US & NATO) military intervention or the Taliban insurgency. That's because you could hypothetically wipe out the Taliban and remove all Western troops tomorrow and Afghanistan would still be just as far away from becoming a successful state as it ever has been since we arrived. The obstacles to a viable and functioning Afghan government are as great or greater from the inside than from without.
Warlordism enshrines tribalism and operates within a central government only out of convenience and only for so long as its demands are met. If tribalism is suppressed it guts the warlords' power base. Tribalism is the very lifeblood of warlordism. And so the warlords must seize the levers of power to prevent the evolution of a cohesive Afghan nationality, a multi-ethnic reunification.
The way things are shaping up the August 20th election seems to be a warlord popularity contest between Karzai and Abdullah. Karzai was, until very recently, seen as a shoo-in but then figitive warlord Dostum's Uzbek political party/militia (take your pick, it's both), split in his absence with half going over to Abdullah. In a nation where loyalty and treachery are two sides of the same coin, allegiance is an obscure concept. I'd bet that a lot of warlords are keeping a close eye on the Uzbeks to figure out which way to jump.
Which finally brings us to NATO and the Taliban. With all of this skulduggery going on in the rear areas, what do we hope to achieve on the frontlines? If we're not fighting to defend a successful central government, a legitimate, viable and functioning national administration, just what are we aiming to achieve?
I know we're fighting to hold the Taliban at bay and we're not doing too well at that. NATO is now falling back to defend Kabul and the provincial capitals. Gullible journalists may swallow the line that this is some new offensive strategy but falling back is just that - falling. We're not doing this to lure the Taliban into urban warfare where our big firepower advantages - our tanks, artillery and airstrikes - are neutralized. It's so obvious that it makes me cringe when I read the utter crap our supposed journalists mindlessly regurgitate on command.
For all we know the Afghan war may already be lost. As I've written before, in the type of warfare we're fighting, the issue is often decided long before our side, the government side, the heavy firepower and latest toys side, realizes we've lost. Our sheer supremacy in firepower ensures we cannot be defeated, at least not militarily. However insurgencies are political wars, not military wars. They don't have to defeat us, they merely have to survive relatively intact until we get fed up with our inability to achieve victory and simply leave. However our side will just keep up the pointless airstrikes and artillery barrages for years before we throw in the towel.
I think we may have lost this war in Kabul itself many years ago. We were a "no show" when we needed to truly dismantle the country's warlord power structure. It was the slackers in the rear echelons who sabotaged the guys in the frontlines, leaving them nothing worthwhile to fight for, no successful government to defend.
Maybe this election will be a second chance for us. Maybe if Abdullah pulls an upset win, this Pashtun-Tajik upstart might be one last best chance to take down the warlords. If so we'd better be willing to flood that country with the military and financial resources he's going to need. We lost the chance to do that eight years ago and we've been paying for that mistake ever since.