KANDAHAR—Afghanistan is about to spike in the news this summer, as 17,000 more marines and soldiers arrive from the United States and pour into the southern Kandahar region. They will advance down roads and river valleys where American troops have never ventured in eight years of war here, and deliberately stir up a hornet’s nest of Taliban strongholds in Mullah Omar’s backyard. This incursion will lead to fighting and attendant casualties perhaps on a scale that Americans have not seen since the early days of the surge in Iraq. It will be part of an ambitious effort whose scope American commanders here dare not name or admit to, even to themselves: nation-building on a grand scale. To succeed, they must overcome the Afghan landscape itself: a sprawling expanse of high desert wrinkled with tortuous hills and wave upon wave of cathedral-like mountain ranges that segment the population into countless valleys and separate regions. Indeed, for the first time since the U.S. invaded here in late 2001, Americans are about to lead a great battle against culture and geography.
Video: "Unconventional Warfare"
Photojournalist Louie Palu shares footage and commentary from the front lines of the war in Afghanistan.
Whereas Iraq is highly urbanized with the capital of Baghdad exerting a powerful demographic and psychological influence on the rest of the country, in Afghanistan any military effort has a tendency to get lost in mileage. In Iraq, the setting up of small military outposts in individual neighborhoods—the heart of the surge strategy—created a webwork of hubs over a flat and densely populated landscape, with each outpost leveraging the success of the other. In Afghanistan, such outposts are often completely isolated from the other, with any success consequently self-contained.
And yet the military situation in Afghanistan is not nearly as dire as the one in Iraq on the eve of the surge in late 2006. Civilian casualties, despite rising 40 percent since 2007, are still 16 times lower than in pre-surge Iraq. Even today, with Iraq clearly on the mend and out of the news, it still accounts for twice as many civilian casualties as Afghanistan. Despite the disappointment with the American-led coalition, fewer than ten percent of the Afghan population support the Taliban, according to recent polling; neither do the Taliban and the other anti-government insurgents have a unifying or charismatic leader. There is no Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh, or even a Muqtada al-Sadr. While resilient—that is, able to quickly replace leaders who are killed—the Taliban are not resurgent as news reports have claimed. The capital of Kabul has never been in danger of falling, notwithstanding periodic, spectacular attacks that energize the world media, such as those against the Indian Embassy and the Serena Hotel in Kabul, as well as the one on February 11 in which three ministries were targeted. In fact, that last attack was seen as a victory for the government because the ministries were quickly retaken by the Afghan army and police with little help from the NATO coalition. As American commanders repeatedly told me and three other reporters during a week of travel, a Taliban victory is not only not inevitable, “it is not even probable.” Moreover, despite the boomlet of stories comparing Afghanistan to Vietnam, the home front in America is not nearly in the same degree of turmoil over this war as it was over the one in Iraq three years ago. Finally, the Americans, in spite of all the reports of civilian casualties from air strikes, are still the most popular outsider in the eyes of Afghans, says Christopher Alexander of the United Nations office in Kabul.
On the other hand, the raw material for modern nationhood in Afghanistan is much weaker than what exists in in Iraq. Literacy rates in the Pushtun belt of the south and east that has seen most of the serious fighting is under ten percent, with women’s literacy hovering near zero in many places. Starting with the 1979 Soviet invasion, 30 years of warfare have decimated traditional structures of authority and the human capital here: there are little or no skill sets among the population for the most basic administrative tasks. Afghanistan exhibits the same stage of human development as the poorest sub-Saharan African countries. One regional governor told us that he has to micromanage everything because there are so few competent people around him.
Indeed, the government of President Hamid Karzai is weak, corrupt, and tribal to the core, with members of his family such as Ahmad Wali Karzai complicit in the drug trade. Karzai governs through his own Popolzai tribe of the Pushtun ethnic group, even as many positions in his government are manned by ethnic Tajiks from the north, who are former members of the Northern Alliance that helped the U. S. topple the Taliban regime in 2001. Karzai has also permitted former mujahidin commanders such as Ismael Khan, Rasul Sayyaf, and Mohammed Fahim to emerge as corrupt oligarchs. The result is that despite Karzai’s own royal Pushtun lineage and his dependence on blood relations rather than institutions, he is increasingly disliked by his fellow Pushtuns. The Taliban, in this sense, are merely the latest incarnation of Pushtun nationalism on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. (That’s why an American accommodation with elements of the Taliban will only lead ethnic Tajiks to rearm, possibly igniting a civil war.)
But just as the central government is weak, so are the insurgents. The Taliban are just one of many anti-government syndicates that fight often at cross purposes with each other. In the south stretching from the Pakistani border town of Quetta to Kandahar are the Taliban-proper. In the southeast, stretching from Pakistani Waziristan into Khost, Gardez, and unto Kabul itself is the network run by former Afghan mujahidin leader Jalaluddin Haqqani. In the east is the HIG, or Hezb-i-Islami Gulbuddin, run by another former mujahidin fighter against the Soviets, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. And these represent only a few of the groups operating here, not to mention the insurgent factions inside Pakistan, which are more ideological than the ones in Afghanistan, owing to the more ideological nature of Pakistani Islam.
The rugged, utterly porous Afghanistan-Pakistan border is recognized by neither side, but is instead an informal line demarcated by the British in 1893. Tens of thousands of Pushtuns cross the Khyber Pass border post each week in both directions without showing any identity cards, even as hundreds upon hundreds of jingle trucks pass through daily uninspected. The inability to regulate the frontier harks back to the tenuous nature of the Afghan state itself.
There is nothing ancient about Afghanistan. It came into existence only in the early 18th century as a buffer between the civilizations of Persia and the Indian Subcontinent. It soon became a buffer between the Czarist empire in Russia and the British Empire in India. The very situation in Afghanistan today, with different spheres of influence being carved out behind the screen of daily warfare, attests to this history. In the south and east, the radical Islamist insurgency is itself a reassertion of the concept of Pushtunistan on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. In particular, Baluchistan in the south is becoming a Wild West area of arms bazaars and opium labs. (In fact, most armed insurgents in Afghanistan were trained not in Pakistan’s tribal areas but in Pakistani Baluchistan, further proof that no solution here is possible without military action inside Pakistan.) In Afghanistan’s northeast, tribes in Kunar and Nuristan will fight any outsider, even those from the next valley. In the north, where it is more peaceful, trade is intensifying the links between ethnic-Tajiks and Uzbeks who straddle the border between Afghanistan and the former Soviet Central Asian republics. Western Afghanistan is coming under the political and economic domination of Iran, which supplies the city of Herat with electricity, even as the Iranian rial is the main currency in circulation. The Iranians are sending arms and military trainers into this part of Afghanistan. While the Shiite Iranians are against a takeover of Afghanistan by the Sunni extremist Taliban, they also want to keep Afghanistan weak, and to bleed the Americans as much as they can. (The Spanish contingent of several hundred NATO troops in western Badghis province—in the heart of Afghani Greater Iran—practically never leaves its base.)