Getting Out of Afghanistan: William R. Polk, Part 2

William R. Polk is a long-time scholar and analyst of U.S. foreign policy who published an Atlantic article called "The Lessons of Iraq" back in 1958. Two days ago, I posted the first part of his long assessment of the options now available for the United States in Afghanistan. That part dealt with the Soviet failure in Afghanistan and what lessons it might hold.

In parts two and three, Polk turns to American policy options. This installment, number two, sets out some of the basic but often-forgotten realities of Afghanistan. In the final part, which will be ready later today, Polk examines the trade-offs for America and Afghanistan and recommends a course of action.
 

Toward a Feasible Afghan  Policy
By William R. Polk


    Too much of what we read in reports and analyses on Afghanistan is based on wishful thinking. It is late, but not too late, to move toward an affordable and sustainable policy.  To arrive at such a policy, we must begin by considering historical, geographical, ethnic and economic realities on the ground rather than merely focusing on what the Afghans, the Americans and other nations desire.   

I The Basic Facts

Afghanistan has a surface area of 6.5 thousand square kilometers (about the size of Texas or the combination of France, Belgium, The Netherlands and Denmark) of which 85% to 90% is mountainous and/or desert.  The central massif, broken by deep valleys, rises to a maximum height of nearly 8 thousand meters and much of the south and west is sand, rock or salty marsh. Thus, the economically "usable" Afghanistan is comparable to just Florida or the combination of Belgium and The Netherlands. The country has few known natural resources. Energy has been particularly lacking.  Water power is hampered by erosion, causing generators to disintegrate and storage lakes to fill with sediment.  Both oil and coal have been found but have only begun to be developed.  Timber is in very short supply, with forests covering less than 5% of the surface; much of the earlier forest areas have been denuded (destroyed by war or cut for fuel).   Ground water almost everywhere, except in the far north,  is unavailable while rain falls heavily and creates often devastating floods  in March-April.  Other floods come when snow melts in mid summer.  These times are inappropriate for most agriculture; so Afghanistan cannot feed itself.  The  reality is that Afghanistan is and will remain a poor country.

The population has risen over the last half century, from perhaps 10 million in 1962, when I first went there, to 31-33 million in 2012.  Today,  over half of the Afghanis are below the age of 18, so a major upsurge of population can be anticipated in the years ahead.  Before the Soviet invasion and occupation, the population was at least 80% rural:  most Afghans were settled peasant farmers, living in some 22,000 villages, but perhaps 1 in each 8 or 9 was a nomad.  Religiously, about 5-6 people in each 10 are Sunni Muslims and somewhat more than 3-4 in 10 are Shia Muslims.  Ethnically, the population is divided into at least two dozen communities of which the Pushtuns (aka Pathans) (4 in each 10), the Tajiks (3 in each 10) and the Hazaras (1-2 in each 10) are the largest.  These groups speak off-shoots of the Indo-European family of languages, mainly Dari, a dialect of Farsi (Persian).  Smaller Turkish and Mongol groups speak languages in the Ural-Altaic (or East Asian) family while other, even smaller,  communities speak languages in the Semitic family of languages.  Thus, Afghanistan is culturally, socially and politically diverse.

While, the diversity of the country is evident, it is important not to exaggerate its effects.  The inhabitants of the cities, towns and villages share shaping influences of means of earning their livings, religious belief and practice and historical experience.   The best known traditional code of life is the Pushtunwali of the Pushtuns,  but similar "social contracts" are  echoed in the other communities;  Islam in Afghanistan, like Christianity in Europe and America, is divided, but overall there is an intense loyalty to it;  and the experience of nearly all Afghans, shaped by generations of warfare, set them apart, they fervently believe, from all foreigners.  At minimum, the Afghans have a unity in their difference from others.

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Throughout history, central governments have functioned only intermittently and in sharply limited spheres except in the few cities.  Effective government is traditionally primarily a function of village communities: each village runs its own affairs under its own leaders; its inhabitants were economically virtually autarkic, making most of their clothing and tools and eating their own produce. 

 This lack of national cohesion thwarted the Russians during their occupation: they won almost every battle and occupied at one time or another virtually every inch of the country, and through their civic action programs they actually pacified many of the villages, but they could never find or create an organization with which to make peace. Baldly put, no one could surrender the rest. Thus, over the decade of their involvement, the Russians lost about 15,000 soldiers - and the war. When they gave up and left, the Afghans resumed their traditional way of life, what might be called "the Afghan way."

"The Afghan way" is today manifested in three aspects of government:
  first, the central government is weak.  Its writ is hardly noticed, much less obeyed, outside of downtown Kabul and a few other cities.  Religious law, outside the control of government, is supreme.  Secular law exists only on paper.  Those who can read it are usually powerful enough not to have to  pay any attention to it.  Many of the powerful, rich and well-connected have their own private "armies."  Indeed, the most striking characteristic of Afghanistan is that it is a country of private armies.  Thus, as Thucydides wrote of the ancient Greeks, "the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must."  Poorer Afghans live in fear of theft, kidnap or murder.  Their only recourse is the payment of protection money.  It follows that such government as exists, at least outside village communities, is corrupt at every level, from the traffic policeman to the president.  A UN study in 2010 found that officials and thugs "shake down" their fellow citizens each year to an amount equal to about a quarter of the country's gross domestic product.  The sometime US commander, General David Petraeus, described the ruling institution as a "crime syndicate."  

    A June 2010 report to the US House of Representatives Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs entitled "Warlord, Inc." detailed one aspect of extortion and corruption to show how millions of foreign assistance dollars are funneled into the crime syndicate.  As the report makes clear, there are four major results of this activity:  the crime syndicate becomes overwhelmingly powerful; the action of the Karzai family and associates demeans the very concept of government; the participants in the scam will do anything to continue the flow of money into their hands; but, they are hedging their bets by moving their new fortunes and their families abroad with all deliberate speed in full public view.  As President Karzai himself already admitted in a well-publicized speech in November 2008, "The banks of the world are full of the money of our statesmen."  Consequently, virtually no Afghan acknowledges the legitimacy of the Karzai government or its edicts.   Most competent observers believe that once American troops are withdrawn, the existing government will collapse.  Those now in power obviously agree with this assessment as shown by their rush to get their fortunes and their families abroad to safe havens.

The traditional Afghan means of achieving political legitimacy is not by the system the central government,  partly at American insistence, has employed: election.   Even if it were, election is discredited today as fraudulent.  The traditional Afghan way to achieve legitimacy is by consensus.  Every social group, beginning in each village, comes together in a council.  In the Pushtun areas, these councils are known as jirgas;   in the Tajik area, shuras; and in the Hazara area, ulus.  These councils are not, in the Western sense of the word, institutions; rather they are "occasions."  They are called into being when some locally pressing issue cannot be resolved by the local headman or a respected religious figure.  The members are not elected but are accorded their status by popular acclamation. Often the members are religious leaders.  The code they enforce is what the local people see as their "way."  That is, what they believe to be fair, right and proper.  Throughout Afghanistan the definition of these attributes is Quranic.

While such councils seem exotic to Americans, they are, in fact, remarkably widespread - the wartime Yugoslav partisans created odbors for similar purposes; as did the Greek EAM andartes.  In Greece then, as in Afghanistan today, they were led by men regarded by their neighbors as ipefihinos or "responsible men." Similar needs gave rise to juntas in revolutionary Spain; "councils of public safety" in revolutionary America; comités de salut public  in revolutionary France;  and soviets in revolutionary Russia.  None of these groups came about in elections; indeed, it is the electoral process itself that is exotic in most of the world. It still has not taken root in many places including Afghanistan.

As broader areas perceive common issues,  local assemblies then give rise to "elevated" councils.  In Afghanistan, local councils joined in regional councils to deal with shared concerns and ultimately coalesced into a single national council, known as the Loya Jirga.  The Loya Jirga shares characteristics with constitutional assemblies.  Its role in Afghan life was never fully understood by either the Soviets or the Americans.  That role is described in the current constitution as "the highest manifestation of the will of the people of Afghanistan." Its will was thwarted by US interference behind the scenes to impose Hamid Karzai as interim president of the country in 2002.  Consequently, the working of the Loya Jirga was regarded by many Afghans as corrupted by foreign forces.  

Third, virtually all Afghans share a deep commitment to Islam.  In fact, Afghanistan is perhaps the most religious of all the Muslim lands.  Religion permeates all aspects of life, literally from the cradle to the grave.  And the most common Afghan version of Islam, a variation of the Hanafi School of law, is the most rigid now being practiced.  We think of the extremists as members of the Taliban (literally "religious students"), but they would have little power if what they enforced was not what Afghans believed to be proper.   

This perception is demonstrated by Afghan history.  Twice in the last half century, Afghan governments tried to lead their citizens into a modern (read: "Western") program of reform.   In the 1960s and 1970s, the government of Prime Minister Mohammad Maiwandwal seemed to be on the way to turning Afghanistan into a progressive modern state with heavy emphasis on the liberation of women, the spread  of education and openness to foreign influences.  His administration was easily overthrown; a decade later, the culturally more progressive of the two Communist parties, the urban-based Parcham, took power and set in motion an even more radical modernization program.  In reaction, large units of the army went into rebellion, butchering "modernists" and their Soviet advisors.  Huge uprisings broke out all over the country, even in larger towns and cities where reformist ideas were more acceptable than in rural areas.

When it conquered most of Afghanistan in 1996, the Taliban government enforced the strictest form of Islam practiced in modern times;  many of its draconian actions were derived from the Old Testament and are proclaimed but not practiced in Ultra-Orthodox Judaism and in some obscurantist Christian sects.   For implementing them, the Taliban regime has been widely criticized not only by non-Muslim foreigners but also by most non-Afghan Muslims.  To our eyes, the Taliban was seen as imposing an ugly,  retrograde, "Medieval" rein of terror, but it was not so regarded by many, possibly even most, Afghans.  Thus, two of the things to be determined in Afghanistan's future are how rapidly and how much such attitudes can be expected to change.   Many intelligent Afghans, including former senior members of the Taliban organization, have told me that such change will come but is unlikely so long as the country remains under foreign occupation.

Afghan society is also notable for its poverty.   That has always been true, but during the brutal Soviet invasion and occupation and in the devastating civil war that followed, nearly 1 in each 10 Afghans was killed or died and about 5 million people fled to Pakistan or Iran while other millions - no one knows how many - lost their homes but stayed in Afghanistan.  Most living inhabitants have known no time of peace or even minimal security.   Large numbers are sick or suffering from wounds and lacking in skills needed to improve their condition.
 
Public health and education are both near the bottom of the world scale:  more than 1 Afghan in each 3 lives on less than the equivalent of US $0.45 (45¢) a day  and more than 1 in each 2 preschool children are stunted because of malnutrition.  They are the lucky ones: 1 child in 5 dies before the age of 5.  Life expectancy is about 45 years.  On education, nearly 90% of Afghan women and nearly 60% of Afghan men are illiterate.   Only 1 in each 5 Afghan children attends primary school and from ages 7 to 14 at least 1 in each 4 drops out of school to work.  

Both the Soviet and American occupation forces have mounted "civic action" programs with the proclaimed purpose of raising the standard of life of the Afghan people.  Obviously, the Afghans need help, so Americans  - and the Russians before them - have thought that they should welcome efforts to aid them.  But independent observers have found that they do not.  Based on some 400 interviews throughout the country, a team of Tufts University researchers found that "Afghan perceptions of aid and aid actors are overwhelmingly negative."  We must ask why this is.

The reason appears to be that the Afghans, and particularly  the insurgents, understand from published pronouncements that "civic action" is a form of warfare.  In their decade of occupation, that is the way the Russians used it; it is the way the American government uses it today.  The official position was neatly summed up by General David Petraeus as he fought in Iraq:  "Money," he said, "is my most important ammunition in this war."  The Afghans take him at his word.

Related to this perception of the actions of foreigners, Afghans generally suffer from what might be called an "invasion complex."  Throughout history -- with rare exceptions --  Afghanistan has been more acted upon than acting upon others.  In the long period of pre-history, it was the route by which Central Asian invaders (probably the founders of the ancient Indus River civilization and certainly the later Indo-European tribesmen who founded India's later kingdoms) reached the sub-continent.  Afghanistan was the route across which Alexander the Great's Macedonians, various other East Asians fleeing from China and invading Turks plunged into South Asia.  More recently, it was the scene upon which the conflict between Tsarist Russia and British India, the so-called Great Game, was played.  Finally, Russia invaded in 1979 and occupied the country for a decade.  A vicious civil war followed until the Taliban took control of about 90% of the country in the late 1990s.  Their government was overthrown by the US in 2001.  Supported by some NATO military contingents, America has occupied the country ever since.  This long experience has left a residue of fear and even hatred of foreigners that permeates Afghan society.

The country is landlocked, about 500 kilometers from the nearest sea, and is surrounded by Iran, Pakistan, China and the former Soviet Union with frontiers aggregating some 5.4 thousand kilometers.  The capital, Kabul, is only about half as far from the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, as New York City is from Washington D.C.  The area in between, which the British called "the Northwest Frontier,"  is the homeland of the Pushtuns, a Pashto-speaking, Sunni-Muslim people.  Roughly one-third of them --14 million -- live in Afghanistan (where they make up about 40% of the total Afghan population) and the other two-thirds -- 25 million -- live in Pakistan (where they aggregate about 16% of the total population).

Afghanistan's neighbors have undeniable interests in the country:  when it is weak, foreigners intrude and when it is strong it reaches into their domains.  Particularly in religion, it interacts strongly with both South and Central Asia and Russia where 1 in each 7 is a Muslim and are rapidly increasing.  Pakistan's interests are the closest, but it is not alone:  India seeks to use Afghanistan to backstop its policy toward Pakistan and Kashmir; China has a new interest in Afghan energy production; the Russian Federation wants to prevent encouragement of Muslim disaffection in its Central Asian provinces and its allies; Iran shares Shia Islam with a major ethnic community, the 1 to 2% who are Hazaras, has deeply influenced Afghan culture including the language of the majority of Afghans and seeks to choke off the pernicious drug trade originating in Afghanistan.

The roles of foreigners have undergone major changes in recent years and these changes will increasingly affect what is possible for outsiders to accomplish. First the Soviet Union and later America and the European Union have each fought for a decade against Afghan opponents.  Neither has "won."  And, in the course of warfare and occupation, new interests new interests have been created.  Among these is the almost desperate need of their leaders to avoid admitting failure.

Foreigners find failure easy in Afghanistan.  It is known as the graveyard of empires.   The British lost a whole army there in 1842 and two subsequent campaigns ended in failure; a Russian invasion in 1929 was a near catastrophe, and in the 1979-1989 occupation as mentioned above, the Russians lost about 15,000 soldiers.  The American invasion and occupation, has so far cost over 2,100 casualties and perhaps five times that many gravely or even permanently wounded.   Few believe it can succeed.    

    These are the key facts forming the pattern in which policies must be accommodated; so what is possible to do that is acceptable to the Afghans and foreigners?

Stay tuned for part 3, with Polk's answers to that closing question, later today.

Presented by

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

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