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Afghanistan: The Best Way to Peace

Report on Progress Toward Security and Stability in Afghanistan

US Department of Defense
October 2011, 138 pp., available at www.defense.gov

An Enemy We Created: The Myth of the Taliban/Al Qaeda Merger in Afghanistan, 1970–2010

by Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn
Oxford University Press (to be published in September 2012)
Erik de Castro/Reuters
US soldiers firing at Taliban positions, Shalay Valley, Kunar Province, Afghanistan, October 4, 2011

The United States and its allies today find themselves in a position in Afghanistan similar to that of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, after Mikhail Gorbachev decided on military withdrawal by a fixed deadline. They are in a race against the clock to build up a regime and army that will survive their withdrawal, while either seeking a peace agreement with the leaders of the insurgent forces or splitting off their more moderate, pragmatic, and mercenary elements and making an agreement with them. The Soviets succeeded at least partially in some of these objectives, while failing utterly to achieve a peace settlement.

To date, that is just about true of the West as well; and while international support for the US position is much stronger than it was for the Soviets, our Afghan allies are much weaker and more fissiparous than theirs. Our Taliban enemies have been much more worn down militarily than the Afghan Mujahideen were by the Soviets during the late 1980s. But the Taliban and their allies draw on the same deep traditions of Islamist resistance to foreign “occupation” among the Pashtuns of Afghanistan and Pakistan as did some of the Mujahideen groups that fought against the Soviet occupation. (While Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, making up perhaps 40 percent of the population, they also make up about 15 percent of the Pakistani population and are concentrated along the Afghan border.) The Taliban have, moreover, comparatively safe bases in Pakistan to which they can withdraw. They will remain a very serious force.

Several recent studies and memoirs deal wholly or in part with the Soviet period in Afghanistan and draw lessons for our own campaign. Afgantsy, by the former British ambassador to Moscow Sir Rodric Braithwaite, is by far the best account in English of the Soviet experience there, and brings out very well how, in their fight against the Afghan Mujahideen, the Soviets wrestled with many of the same intractable Afghan realities that have bedeviled our efforts. A Long Goodbye, by Russian historian Artemy Kalinovsky, is an excellent account of the Gorbachev administration’s handling of the actual withdrawal process and the futile Soviet search for a peace settlement.

Two fine books by veteran journalists describe the period from the 1980s to the present. Edward Girardet, a reporter and television producer who has covered Afghanistan since the 1979 Soviet invasion, has written Killing the Cranes, an account that contains some of the best descriptions of Afghan people and events that I have read, and as a Western memoir of Afghanistan can stand comparison with David Chaffetz’s classic Journey Through Afghanistan from the pre-Communist era.1 Ghosts of Afghanistan, by the British Guardian journalist Jonathan Steele, is a more analytical account that explicitly links the Soviet and Western experiences and ends with a powerful and eloquent argument for peace with the Taliban.

Much bigger, and much more open to question, is The Wars of Afghanistan by Ambassador Peter Tomsen, President George H.W. Bush’s special envoy to the Afghan resistance from 1989 to 1992, and participant in various official and semiofficial missions thereafter. Tomsen’s work contains many fascinating anecdotes, and is indispensable reading for all students of Afghani-stan and the US achievement there over the past generation. However, its underlying message is all too typical of official Washington: despite some criticism of US errors, Tomsen attributes all the real guilt for what has happened in Afghanistan over the past twenty years to Pakistan and its “proxies.” This argument contains a measure of truth, but ignores the frequently horrible nature of the West’s own Afghan allies, the awful dilemmas faced by Pakistani policymakers, and the extent to which radical forces have attracted mass support.

Readers should balance Tomsen with an extremely important memoir-analysis by Riaz Mohammad Khan, a Pakistani diplomat who served as foreign secretary of Pakistan from 2005 to 2008. While sharply criticizing some aspects of the Pakistani military’s strategies regarding Afghanistan, he also brings out well the sheer intractability of the Afghan situation, and the degree to which Pakistan too has been trapped by forces and developments beyond its control.

It is exceptionally important that US policymakers read the book by Mohammad Khan, because there is a strong tendency in US official circles and in the US media to treat the Pakistani state as the enemy in Afghanistan, and to assume that Taliban resistance in Afghanistan would largely disappear if Pakistan could somehow be bullied or bribed into submission. This misunderstands the deep popular sympathy on the part of the Pashtuns on both sides of the border for the Taliban, who are seen among many Pakistani Pashtuns as a legitimate resistance force. A perspective such as Tomsen’s risks embroiling the US in a conflict with Pakistan that would greatly increase the terrorist threat to the West.

In one important respect, we can only hope that we do as well as the Soviets in Afghanistan. After the Soviet military completed its withdrawal at the start of 1989, the Afghan state that it had fostered fought on with surprising resilience. Indeed, remarkably enough, the Soviet-backed administration of Mohammad Najibullah Ahmadzai in Kabul outlasted the Soviet Union itself. Its collapse in April 1992 occurred when it did because the end of the Soviet Union also brought an end to Soviet supplies of fuel, guns, and money.

The record between 1989 and 1992 brings out the fact that it is highly unlikely that the Taliban will be able to storm Afghan cities after the US withdrawal. The respective logics, on the one hand, of guerrilla warfare, as successfully practiced by the Mujahideen and Taliban, and, on the other hand, of siege warfare are diametrically opposed. The first requires hit-and-run attacks followed by the rapid dispersal of forces. The second requires the concentration of enemy forces for a prolonged period—at which point they can be successfully blasted by the superior firepower of the other side.

This is what happened to the Mujahi- deen when, with Pakistani encourage- ment, they tried to capture the city of Jalalabad in March 1989. I witnessed that battle as a journalist for the London Times. The contrast between that terrifying battle and previous experiences with the Mujahideen, when I had felt in no serious danger except from mines, has remained with me ever since.

Instead, Pashtun cities like Kandahar may fall to defecting forces from within, just as the final blow was dealt to the Najibullah administration by splits in its own ranks, and above all by ethnic tensions between Pashtuns and Tajiks, who are Afghanistan’s second-largest ethnic group. From this point of view, we are if anything in an even worse position than the Soviets—a weakness that stems from the fact that the Soviets in 1979 inherited a battered but still functioning Afghan state and army that embodied the fragile and limited but real advances in modernization that had been made in Afghanistan during the previous century. By 2001, almost nothing of that was left. Moreover, long-suppressed ethnic tensions—for example between Pashtuns and Tajiks—burst out after the Soviet collapse in 1991, and have grown since the US invasion in 2001, leaving the West and the Hamid Karzai administration to deal with a dreadful legacy of ethnic atrocities and hatred.

The Afghan National Army put together by the US after 2001 was at first overwhelmingly dominated by non-Pashtuns, with its high command drawn almost exclusively from the ranks of Tajiks from the Panjshir Valley in north-central Afghanistan, previously commanded by the great Mujahideen leader Ahmed Shah Masoud, who was assassinated by al-Qaeda. During the years since, great efforts have been made to increase Pashtun recruitment—in part, by bringing back ex-Communist Pashtun officers who were trained in the Soviet Union and served alongside the Soviet army. (Najibullah was an ethnic Pashtun, as is President Karzai.)

However, the proportion of soldiers from Greater Kandahar and Greater Paktika—the largely Pashtun heartlands of the Taliban and Haqqani insurgencies—remains small. Two recent memoirs of the war in Afghanistan, by the US former soldier and official Bing West and the British former intelligence officer Frank Ledwidge, include accounts of occasions when they saw Tajik officers treating local Pashtuns with ferocious arrogance and intimidation. If this kind of thing takes place with US and British soldiers present, it is not hard to imagine what will happen after they leave.2

Moreover, the Afghan Communist state and army were quite well integrated. As is apparent even from the Department of Defense’s report on Afghanistan of October 2011, what America has done is to create a huge Afghan army—but one that is overwhelmingly dependent on US help to pay and arm its troops—alongside a weak and shamefully inept civilian state.

Finally, the Soviets were not burdened by even the appearance of democracy. Najibullah could remain president for life with full Soviet backing. We by contrast have in Hamid Karzai a leader who is far weaker than Najibullah; whose prestige has been disastrously undermined by corruption, incompetence, and the rigging of the 2009 presidential elections; and who according to the Afghan constitution has to step down when his second term expires in 2014. As US officials candidly admit, there is no plausible US plan for how to manage the succession to Karzai. When a list of possible candidates is assembled, each one looks disastrous, especially from the point of view of ethnic relations. Karzai himself may be thinking about how to remain in power, or about how to pick a trusted associate to succeed him. Couple this with the planned withdrawal of US ground troops in the same year, and a truly catastrophic prospect begins to emerge.

In these circumstances, it is highly probable that government-equipped military forces of one group or another will sooner or later stage a takeover of much of the country. The willingness of the US Congress and public to go on subsidizing Afghanistan would then be gravely undermined. If the coup were seen to be led by Tajik officers, there would be a counter-coup by Pashtun officers, and so on. If the Pashtun parts of the army lost in Kabul, many would defect to the Taliban—replicating in many ways the pattern of the civil wars that followed the Najibullah regime’s fall in 1992.

The Afghan civil war would then intensify drastically and continue indefinitely. The Taliban could not capture even Kabul, let alone the non-Pashtun areas to the west and north, in the face of the opposition from Tajiks and other ethnic groups backed by the US, India, and Russia; but the dividing lines between the different territories would be drawn in battle, and amid horrendous bloodshed.

To avoid such a ghastly outcome, I am convinced with Jonathan Steele that we would do well to prepare ourselves to seek a peace settlement with the Taliban leadership. Once an eccentric and even despised view, this argument has in recent years been made by an increasing range of leading figures involved in Afghanistan, including the commission led by former Undersecretary of State Tom Pickering and former UN Special Adviser Lakhdar Brahimi; the Afghanistan Study Group, uniting many US experts; Michael Semple, another former UN official; and the former British ambassador to Kabul, Sherard Cowper-Coles.

  1. 1

    David Chaffetz, A Journey Through Afghanistan: A Memorial (1981; University of Chicago Press, 2001). 

  2. 2

    Bing West, The Wrong War: Grit, Strategy, and the Way Out of Afghanistan (Random House, 2011); Frank Ledwidge, Losing Small Wars: British Military Failure in Iraq and Afghanistan (Yale University Press, 2011). 

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