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.

There was, too, a strong Afghan national identity distinct from that of Iran or Pakistan or the Soviet Union. Pashtunistan might be a real enough geographic construct, but so, very definitely, is Afghanistan. As Ismail Akbar, a writer and analyst in Kabul, told me: “Thirty years of war and Pakistani interference have weakened Afghan national identity from the heights of the Zahir Shah period. But even the mujahideen civil war of the early 1990s, in which the groups were split along ethnic lines, could not break up Afghanistan. And if that couldn’t, nothing will.”

Afghans were so desperate for a reunited country after the internecine fighting of the mujahideen era that they welcomed the Taliban in Kandahar in 1994 and in Kabul in 1996, as a bulwark against anarchy and dissolution. Afghanistan, frail and battered over the years, is nevertheless surprisingly sturdy as a concept and as a cynosure of identity.

Stanley McChrystal’s job is to serve as the deus ex machina for the rebirth of that modestly well-functioning mid-20th-century Afghan state, and for Afghanistan’s fade-out from the front pages—the definition of victory in our imperfect world. McChrystal, the hybrid product of the übermacho Rangers and Special Forces subcultures within the U.S. Army, is now the philosopher’s weapon against those vast impersonal forces of history and geography, and, I might add, the agent of deliverance from our post-9/11 mistakes in Afghanistan. Because by our own disastrous actions—by our own agency, in other words—we ourselves, in a process Tolstoy explains well in War and Peace, have helped contribute to fate. Not that McChrystal sees himself as fitting into the “great man” theory of history—another form of determinism, it can be argued. He told me that he merely sees opportunities where others don’t.

“Afghanistan was a cakewalk in 2001 and 2002,” says Sarah Chayes, former special adviser to McChrystal’s headquarters. “We started out with a country that hated the Taliban and by 2009 were driving people back into the arms of the Taliban. That’s not fate. That’s poor policy.” We enabled an administration, led by Hamid Karzai, that is less a government than a protection racket, in which bribery is the basis of a whole chain of transactions, from small sums paid to criminals at roadblocks in the south of the country to tens of millions of dollars smuggled out of the Kabul airport by government ministers. The myth is that the absence of governance in Afghanistan creates a vacuum in which the Taliban thrive. But the truth, as Chayes explains, is the opposite. Karzai governs everywhere in the revenue belt, synonymous with Pashtunistan, in the south and east of the country: the Taliban succeed in these very places, not because of no governance but because of corrupt and abusive governance.

Referring to the evolution of the former mujahideen commanders into gangster-oligarchs under Karzai, an Afghan analyst, Walid Tamim, told me: “Warlords like Rabbani, Fahim, Sayyaf, and Dostum have all been empowered by Karzai and the U.S. government. Why is [Taliban leader] Mullah Omar any worse than these guys?” Ashraf Ghani, the country’s finance minister from 2002 to 2004, explained: “The core threat we all face is the Afghan government itself. About two-thirds of revenue is lost to abuse. This isn’t like corruption in Indonesia, where money is stolen but things still get built; here it is all looted, because the warlords are insecure about what may come next in Afghan politics.” Even as American officers talk publicly in bland clichés about partnering with and improving the performance of the Karzai government, the grim reality of Afghan public life is distinguished by corruption, criminality, and poverty.

I knew and wrote about Karzai in the 1980s, when he was a representative in Peshawar of the pro-Western mujahideen faction of Sibghatullah Mojaddedi. Mojaddedi had very little military presence inside Afghanistan; he and Karzai were no threat to anybody. Karzai had impressed me as personable, enlightened, sensitive, and, now that I think about it over the distance of time, weak. I genuinely liked him. But alas, he is said to be bored by actual governance. As Ghani points out, “He is not an organization man with the requisite management abilities,” and thus he lacks the skill to build a popular power base like the one the late Afghan Communist leader Babrak Karmal was able to build in the late 1970s and early 1980s, or even like the one the Soviet puppet Najibullah built later on. And without a power base of his own, and with the Americans distracted since 2003 by Iraq, Karzai has had few others to rely on but the warlords and his own knee-deep-in-graft family.

The Soviets may have been occupiers, but they were truly interested in Afghan governance in terms of the advice they gave and the puppets they chose—unlike the United States, obsessed as we have been with hunting alQaeda. Karzai is “unsalvageable,” according to a senior Western official I talked to. Moreover, Afghanistan is so “broken and shattered,” as he put it, with no human capital to staff the ministries, and with the worst accretion of bureaucratic habits from the Soviet, mujahideen, and Taliban eras, that if this were the 1920s, Afghanistan, with all its history of unruly independence, would be an obvious candidate for trusteeship, with a great Western power being granted a mandate for it. But this is the early 21st century, and so we have to accept the myth of Afghan sovereignty. Thus, our imperial-like burden is coupled with the absurd (by 1920s standards) task of showing demonstrable results by the planned drawdown in 15 months, in order to legitimize what will be, in effect, a long-term trusteeship.

To accomplish this gargantuan mission, we have stood up the doctrine of counterinsurgency, the rough military equivalent of liberal internationalism, moral interventionism, and nation-building rolled into one. Counterinsurgency’s core goal is to protect and nurture the civilian population—the center of gravity in postmodern war—and psychologically and physically separate it from the insurgents. Culturally sensitive troops build schools and dig wells for the villagers, even as they train and mentor local forces to fight the enemy, and strive to monopolize the use of force in a given space.

Counterinsurgency is not new to the U.S. military—indeed, it dates back at least to the Philippine War more than a century ago—but its lessons were repeatedly forgotten by the U.S. Army over the course of the 20th century. To make sure that doesn’t happen again, the Army and Marines cooperated on a Counterinsurgency Field Manual, published three years ago. Remarkably, its introduction was written by a former director of Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy, Sarah Sewall. In it, she notes that the manual “challenges much of what is holy about the American way of war,” for it directs U.S. forces to “make securing the civilian, rather than destroying the enemy, their top priority.” But what is the counterinsurgent to do, given that in an era of total war as waged by radical Islamists, distinguishing between combatant and noncombatant is often impossible? The answer, according to Sewall, is to “assume more risk.”

In order to be a more effective weapon of war, American ground forces are therefore becoming more like armed relief workers. They will still train to kill, they will continue to kill in counterterrorism operations, and they will be prepared to kill in more-traditional kinds of interstate war that might erupt in the course of the new century. For the moment, however, American troops will incur more casualties in the service of idealist interventionism, in a place far less developed than either the Balkans or Iraq.

But just as some liberal idealists supported intervention in the Balkans but opposed it in Iraq (correctly, as it turned out), some liberal idealists are skeptical of the mission in Afghanistan. Probably the most incisive critique of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan was written by Rory Stewart last July in the London Review of Books. Stewart is the former director of Harvard’s Carr Center and a prospective Conservative parliamentary candidate in the United Kingdom. He has run a nongovernmental organization in Kabul, and is the author of the masterful travel work The Places in Between (2004), about walking across Afghanistan. He is both a humanitarian and an Afghan-area expert. Yet he feels that the professed U.S. mission in Afghanistan, which assumes counterinsurgency as a “moral obligation,” is itself a form of determinism: we automatically assume a solution in a wickedly diverse and complicated country where no solution of the kind we foresee is likely to be had. As he put it,

There are no mass political parties in Afghanistan and the Kabul government lacks the base, strength or legitimacy of the Baghdad government. Afghan tribal groups lack the coherence of the Iraqi Sunni tribes and their relation to state structures … Afghans are weary of war but the Afghan chiefs are not approaching us, seeking a deal. Since the political players and state structures in Afghanistan are much more fragile than those in Iraq, they are less likely to play a strong role in ending the insurgency.
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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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