Military April 2010

Man Versus Afghanistan

Divided by geography, cursed by corruption, stunted by poverty, staggered by a growing insurgency—Afghanistan seems beyond salvation. Is it? From Somalia and the Balkans to Iraq, the U.S. military has been embroiled in conflicts that reflect an age-old debate: Can individual agency triumph over deep-seated historical, cultural, ethnic, and economic forces? Drawing on his experiences in Iraq, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, Stanley McChrystal, has his own answer to that question.

To treat every country as an empty slate full of hopeful possibilities is risky: what is doable in one place may not be in another. As the philosopher Raymond Aron suggests, we must pursue an ethic rooted in a hesitant determinism. We need to recognize obvious developmental differences between peoples and regions, but not oversimplify, and leave our options open. We cannot in every instance struggle unconditionally against fate, even though we have a military that will do so if so ordered.

And thus we confront Afghanistan: a country whose citizens have a life expectancy of 44 years and a literacy rate of 28 percent (far lower among women), and only a fifth of whose population has access to clean drinking water. Out of 182 countries, Afghanistan ranks next to last on the United Nations’ Human Development Index (just ahead of Niger). Iraq, on the eve of the U.S. invasion, was ranked 126th; its literacy rate hovered around 70 percent. Afghanistan’s problems on a developmental level are not only more profound than Iraq’s, but vaster in scope, as Afghanistan encompasses 30 percent more land. Consider, also, that 77 percent of Iraqis live in urban areas (concentrated heavily in Baghdad), so reducing violence in Greater Baghdad had a calming effect on the entire country; in Afghanistan, urbanization stands at only 30 percent, and so counterinsurgency efforts in one village may have no effect on another.

Moreover, whereas Mesopotamia, with large urban clusters across a flat landscape, is conducive to military occupation, Afghanistan is, in geographical terms, hard to even hold together. Cathedral-like mountain ranges help seal divisions between Pashtuns and Tajiks and other minorities, even as comparatively few natural impediments separate Afghanistan from Pakistan, or from Iran. Looking at a relief map, one could easily construct a country called Pashtunistan—home to the world’s 52 million Pashtuns—lying between the Hindu Kush mountains and the Indus River and overlapping with the Afghan-Pakistani frontier. The Afghanistan-Pakistan border is in reality no border at all but, in the words of Sugata Bose, a Harvard historian, “the heart … of an expansive Indo-Persian and Indo-Islamic economic, cultural, and political domain that [has] straddled Afghanistan and Punjab for two millennia.”

Afghanistan emerged as a country of sorts only in the mid-18th century, and a case can be made that with the slow-motion dissolution of the former Soviet empire in Central Asia, and the gradual weakening of the Pakistani state, a historic realignment is now taking place that could see Afghanistan disappear on the political map: in the future, for example, the Hindu Kush could form a border between Pashtunistan and a Greater Tajikistan. The Taliban—the twisted result of Pashtun nationalism, Islamic fervor, drug money, corrupt warlords, and, now, hatred of the American occupation—may be, in the view of Selig Harrison, the director of the Asia Program at the Center for International Policy, merely the vehicle for a grand transition that a foreign military run by impatient civilians back in Washington can do little to deter.

Yet another reality points to an entirely different conclusion. The dispersal of Afghanistan’s larger population over greater territory than Iraq’s is basically meaningless, British Army Major General Colin Boag told me: because 65 percent of the population lives within 35 miles of the main road system, which approximates the old medieval caravan routes, only 80 out of 342 districts are really key to military success. Afghanistan is not some barbaric back-of-beyond, but the heart of a cultural continuum connecting the cosmopolitan centers of Persia and India. In fact, Afghanistan has been governed from the center since the 18th century: Kabul, if not always a point of authority, has been at least a point of arbitration. Especially between the early 1930s and the early 1970s, Afghanistan experienced moderate and constructive government under the constitutional monarchy of Zahir Shah. A highway system on which it was safe to travel united the major cities, while estimable health and development programs were on the verge of eradicating malaria. Toward the end of this period, I hitchhiked and rode buses across Afghanistan. I never felt threatened, and I was able to send books and clothes back home through functioning post offices.

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Robert D. Kaplan is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, in Washington, D.C.

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