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.

Meanwhile, Stewart goes on, “the Taliban can exploit the ideology of religious resistance that the West deliberately fostered in the 1980s to defeat the Russians.” But at the same time, he says, the ethnic-Pashtun Taliban are unpopular, even as the ethnic-Hazara, -Tajik, and -Uzbek populations are wealthier and more powerful than they were in the 1990s and will resist Taliban attempts to take over their areas. Even if the Taliban did overrun a major city, they are unlikely to repeat the mistake of the 1990s and shelter alQaeda. In short, the Taliban are neither as easily defeated nor as dangerous as we like to think. Forget about state-building or counterinsurgency, he implies, which remains “the irresistible illusion.”

McChrystal and his team are burdened by Stewart’s misgivings. Contemplating failure for a moment, McChrystal told me, “We’ll know it when we won’t be able to move our troops around.” McChrystal had Stewart to dinner to talk about his article. “He’s got a different point of view,” McChrystal said, uncharacteristically struggling for words. “I just think that Afghanistan has been a country and that the pieces can be put in place to make it work.”

“Look,” said Sir Graeme Lamb, a former British Special Air Service commander and McChrystal adviser, “we don’t have a grand design [as Stewart thinks]. We’ve been doing this kind of thing in Iraq, the Balkans, Northern Ireland, Africa, and other places for a long time, and we’re comfortable in these thresholds of complexity and chaos. We’re the men ‘in the arena,’ to take a line from Theodore Roosevelt. We will adjust the positions of authority on the battlefield in 2010 so that good things can naturally emerge.”

Furthermore, McChrystal’s team has problems with Stewart’s analysis. Major General Michael Flynn, McChrystal’s intelligence chief, views the Taliban less benignly:

“Like the rest of us,” Flynn told me, “Mullah Omar is a decade older and wiser than he was on 9/11. He has restructured his political organization to give it more staying power, if in fact it gets back into power. In the meantime, they are killing us with IEDs [improvised explosive devices] the way the mujahideen killed the Soviets with our Stinger missiles. This is a vastly harder enemy than in 2001. They’re better than even the Eritreans were [in the 1970s and 1980s]. They absolutely know insurgency doctrine and are spread throughout the country, including the north, in order to disperse us, which they are succeeding at.” Unlike Stewart, Flynn believes that if we left Afghanistan, the Taliban might well be able to triumph over non-Pashtun groups.

Not only are McChrystal and his team determined to battle against fate in the form of the Taliban, but they do so in the firm belief that they will get Afghanistan onto the crooked and murky path of development. “We know what success tastes like, from Iraq; we’re a team that has won national championships,” declared Flynn, who was with McChrystal in JSOC. In The Story of the Malakand Field Force (1898), about the struggle to stabilize what is today the Afghanistan-Pakistan borderland, Winston Churchill posits that a great nation has three choices: to turn a country like Afghanistan into a replica of British parliamentary democracy, which he says is clearly impossible; to withdraw completely, which he says is also impossible; or to work with the tribes and the material at hand through a variety of means. McChrystal, who told me he was halfway through the book, agreed that the third choice—Churchill’s choice—is really the only one we have.

What does it mean to work with the tribes, Churchill-style; what does it take to overcome the geographical and human terrain here? The story of Colonel Chris Kolenda, of Omaha, Nebraska, is instructive. Kolenda, a West Point graduate with the sharp-eyed, comforting manner of a family physician, commanded the 1st Squadron of the 91st Cavalry from May 2007 to July 2008 in northeastern Afghanistan, on the border with Pakistan. When Kolenda’s 800-soldier battalion arrived, armed violence was endemic. Coalition headquarters in Kabul blamed a Pakistan-based insurgency. “The conventional wisdom was wrong,” Kolenda told me. “Almost all of the insurgents were locals who fought for a whole variety of reasons: they were disgusted with ISAF, as well as the government in Kabul; their fathers had fought the Soviets and now the sons were fighting the new foreigners.”

Then there was the “psychodrama of interethnic and clan frictions,” abetted by the fractured mountainous landscape. The area was populated by Nuristanis, Kohistanis, and Pashtuns, all of whom harbored disdain for the Gujars, migrant farm workers from over the border, who, in their eyes, were “not real Afghans.” (So much for the argument that there is no Afghan national identity.) The Nuristanis, in turn, were divided into the Kata, Kom, Kushtowz, and Wai clans. The Kom were split into hostile and well-armed groups whose current divisions stemmed from the war against the Soviets in the 1980s, when some of the Kom backed the radical forces of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, known as the HIG, or Hezb-i-Islami-Gulbuddin, and other Kom sub-clans were loyal to the moderate National Islamic Front of Afghanistan. The Kata, meanwhile, were generally loyal to the Lashkar-e-Taiba (“Army of the Righteous”), which carried out major attacks against India from bases in Pakistan. The Pashtuns themselves were divided in some cases, on account of blood feuds, into five elements.

Kolenda apologized to me for “getting down in the weeds,” but explained that until he’d learned who was who, and who was fighting whom, his battalion couldn’t make progress and escape the cycle of ferocious firefights that had characterized the first three months of its deployment. “People were often giving us tips about bad guys who weren’t really bad guys, but simply people from another faction with whom the tipster had a score to settle.”

Overlying all of these divisions was a society atomized by three decades of warfare: indeed, because of Afghanistan’s short life expectancy, most people in Kolenda’s area of responsibility had known nothing but fighting all their lives. The landed aristocracy of elders that once functioned as the social glue had dissolved; in its place came a violent lower class of young men, disaggregated by clan and ethnicity, battling for a hazy idea of justice. The Taliban had been gone from power for seven years. The 17-year-old fighters here barely remembered their benighted rule, and now saw anti-government groups as the good guys against the foreign occupiers.

Finding the right elders and providing them with seed money that would help them regain control of their young men was painstaking labor. You couldn’t just build a school or dig a well: a new school in one valley could enrage people in the next. Money was often doled out only after violence by the locals stopped. “Then they built the school,” Kolenda said, repeating an Afghan proverb: “If you sweat for it, you’ll protect it.”

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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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