Saturday, August 15, 2009


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.


LeDaro said...

When did we assume the duty to be world police and decide how other nations are governed? There is absolutely no justification for this war. We have only added to existing social problems manifolds.

As far as Al-Queda and 9/11 is concerned these people are Arabs not Afghans and never were Afghans. Diplomacy and pressure through Saudi Arabia and Pakistan would have worked to dismantle Al-Queda operatives. Now it is too late for that. It is a lost war and lost cause.

crf said...

LeDaro, there was a justification for this war: AlQaida attacked the US, and was using Afghanistan as a base of operations. We're an ally of the US, and morally, we agreed to help. A primary aim of the war, which was accomplished, was to destroy the kind of large organisational capability that Al Qaida enjoyed in Afghanistan.

Another important aim of the war was to make sure that a group like Al Qaida could not reform in Afghanistan (or in Pakistan).

But that's a problem that hasn't been resolved yet. To ensure that this doesn't happen likely means that there needs to be a stable government in Afghanistan able to control what goes on in its territory.

The war was morally justified. It has been conducted absolutely atrotiously ever since it started though, because apart from destroying Al Qaida as a present threat, it hasn't done anything to advance its other goal to "stabilize" Afghanistan, and there isn't a clear understanding of how to go about this goal (this is primarily the fault of G W Bush). A lot of Canadian soldiers have been killed without anything positive to show for it, merely to prevent even worse happening.

It's pretty despairable. But I'd take some comfort in that the US is not now led by criminal idiots, and is seemingly commited to getting a stable government in Afghanistan, rather than just wishing it would happen by magic.

I'm happy we are leaving. If, in 2 years, the now competently led US doesn't accomplish its goals for this war, then it would be a good idea to leave anyway.

LeDaro said...

crf, you wrote
“Another important aim of the war was to make sure that a group like Al Qaida could not reform in Afghanistan (or in Pakistan).”
Actually there was hardly any Al Quida in Pakistan before invasion and now it is quite powerful there as is Taliban. Both Afghanistan and Pakistan have been destabilized and now the region poses much greater threat as Pakistan has nuclear weapons. And being unstable imagine if these weapons get into the hands of Taliban or Al-Quida. Such possibility did not exist before this invasion. Pakistan was fully in control of its territory with minor, problems which most nations have.

Moreover, Al-Quida has spread into Iraq and other parts of Middle East. All I am saying is that invasion was not the solution. Diplomatic pressure on Saudi Arabia and Pakistan would have worked better. Thanks to Bush and associates the world is manifolds more dangerous place than it was prior to invasion of Afghanistan and then Iraq.

The Mound of Sound said...

Actually CRF, the goal was to destroy al Qaeda, not merely to disrupt its organizational capability. Instead al Qaeda was allowed to escape and morph into a vastly different creature (organizationally) that now spans the length and breadth of the Muslim world and into Europe and North America to boot.

I wouldn't be so quick to assume that al Qaeda has been destroyed as a "present threat" either. Nobody suggests that for a minute. The Arab Street remains as frustrated and discontent as ever and something like an American or Israeli air assault on Iran or Syria would be about all that's needed to whip things up again.

As for the merits of southern warlords versus northern warlords running the place, I'll bet there are a lot of little boys with sore butts who wish the Taliban were still in charge.