Will History Too Retreat?

Warning as American Troops Withdraw: Modernise Afghanistan at Your Own Peril
Afghan War
HOMEWARD BOUND US soldiers wait to catch  a flight back home from Afghanistan (Photo: ERIK DE CASTRO/REUTERS)
A BRITTLE SITUATION An Afghanistan National Army soldier looks through the broken windshield of a car in  Kunar. Twenty one soldiers died in a Taliban attack in this town on 23 February(Photo: OMAR SOBHANI/REUTERS)

The attack came at night, and so swiftly that many of the defenders died in their beds. Twenty one soldiers of the Afghan National Army (ANA) were killed and several more taken prisoner. Then the insurgents disappeared, leaving the base and melting back into the steep forested hills of the northeastern province of Kunar. The strike was one of the deadliest in recent years on the Afghan military.

A day later, Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security said it had warned provincial security forces and local administrators that an assault on military outposts in the area was being planned. According to the BBC, intercepts of phone conversations between soldiers and militants earlier in February indicated that attackers had been assisted by sympathisers inside the ANA.

Then, almost inevitably, came the charge of crossborder assistance from within Pakistan. Ghazibad, the district where the attack took place, lies on the frontier. Northeast Afghanistan has long been a base for groups with support networks in the neighbouring state.

The nature of the attack, the apparent strength of the insurgents, the possibility of crossborder links all reinforced the argument of pessimists in the ongoing debate on the future of Afghanistan following the withdrawal of international forces later this year. Many analysts point out how similar the current situation in Afghanistan is to the time of the Soviet withdrawal 25 years ago. Then Moscow withdrew its forces after ten years of bloody efforts to bolster the regime of its choice in the fragmented, rugged country. The fragile set-up they left behind lasted only a few years as the country descended into violent chaos. The consequences are well-known: massive destruction, exodus and loss of life, the rise of the Taliban, the creation of a haven for the Al Qaida and the 9/11 attacks. The question the attack in Kunar posed once again is: are we now watching history repeat itself?

The Soviets spent huge sums, raised a local army (which did much of the fighting against the mujahideen) and built up local figures to safeguard their interests before they were forced, through war weariness and an economy crisis, to withdraw.

Their impact was massive, at least in the cities. In ten years, their intervention wrought huge social changes— bringing miniskirts to Kabul as part of a new and relatively liberal urban culture, reinforcing a process of the creation of Westernised bureaucratic cadres, creating a new technocratic class too, as well as a war economy, and even collective farms. Out in the rural areas, the war led to massive destruction, the collapse of the traditional tribal system and accompanying social hierarchies as well as the spread of new Islamist ideologies and identities in refugee camps in Iran and Pakistan. Many of these legacies— though not the miniskirts— remain. The armoured personnel carriers which littered the gorges between Jalalabad and Kabul when I used to drive in from Peshawar were simply the more obvious relics of a conflict that had left many scars.

Some parallels with the situation now are obvious. President Hamid Karzai owed his accession to power, and his longevity as president, largely to Washington. Mohammed Najibullah owed his to Moscow, though, like Karzai, he did not always do his paymasters’ bidding. Karzai’s successor will be determined by an election which may or may not be free or fair, and will also rely on international (that is, largely US) support to run the country. Any Afghan leader will be mindful of Najibullah’s eventual fate, hanged from a lamp post in central Kabul.

Like that of the Soviets, the US intervention has had a huge impact, and also one that has been much greater in the cities than rural areas. Washington has spent more than $90 billion on reconstruction and relief in Afghanistan. There are some notable achievements: the vast bulk of refugees forced overseas by the civil war have returned, there has been a surge in the number of children enrolled for school and a sharp decline in the rates of infant or maternal mortality, and the country’s economy, albeit from a tiny base and fuelled by a boom based on overseas aid, expenditure and cash from narcotics, has grown rapidly. Travelling through Taliban-run Afghanistan in the late 1990s might have been relatively safe but it was also extremely depressing: there was almost no economic activity, whole regions were effectively depopulated, non-Pashtun ethnic minorities were persecuted, healthcare was largely non-existent, and there was no hope of a better life. Now, perhaps paradoxically, there is a more general lack of security, but more optimism.

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Is that optimism justified? Most analysts outline three scenarios—a nightmare of chaotic violence as rival groups return to all-out civil war, incremental progress towards stability and prosperity, or, finally, a mixture of the first two scenarios with chaotic violence and islands of relative calm coexisting.

The Afghan economy worries some most. Perhaps only 10 per cent of the vast international spend is ‘sustainable’, studies have concluded, so the impact of the drawdown will be very heavy. The inflated property prices in Kabul will decline further, the new shopping centres will be suddenly deserted. All those whose income depended on licit and illicit businesses linked to foreign militaries, governments and aid organisations will have to find new ways of making the large sums of cash they have become used to. The US Congress just decided to give ‘only’ $1.1 billion in assistance to Afghanistan, a substantial enough sum but still only half the amount sought by the Obama administration. There is one significant difference with 1989, however. Then the Afghan economy was in dire condition. Now it has enjoyed years of boom and is connected to that of the Gulf, the Middle East more generally, Central Asia and elsewhere.

Others worry about internal politics. Even if the presidential election scheduled on 5 April goes relatively well, Afghanistan’s institutions remain weak, corrupt and over-centralised. It is far from certain that they can sustain the pressures that will come as factions, communities and rapacious powerbrokers fight for influence. Najibullah was able to exploit tensions among his enemies, though failed to build himself a solid powerbase. Karzai’s successor will also have to divide and rule, all while containing centrifugal forces that have so often caused so many problems and reinvigorating a process aimed at drawing as many insurgents away from violence through ‘reconciliation’.

The biggest concern for most, inside and outside Afghanistan alike, is the security situation—the ongoing civil war. Some raise the prospect of the Taliban, like the mujahideen in the 1990s, successfully ousting a central government within five years of the international withdrawal. They point out that civilian casualties are on the rise—2,959 deaths and 5,656 injured in 2013—as is the military death toll which may be as high as 400 per month. They see no reason why there should be any improvement once tens of thousands of heavily-armed, well- funded, well-fed, well-trained US troops have gone. Others dismiss this as nonsense, arguing that it was the presence of those foreign troops which led to much of the insurgency, that most local warlords and insurgents are effectively local mafia bosses who are primarily interested in protecting their local interests, that though fighting has been bloody in recent months, the government has retaken any lost ground and that ANA troops now fight because in most places there are no international soldiers around to do all the heavy lifting.

Taliban commanders, says one international security official who spends six months a year in Afghanistan, have a life expectancy of around nine months; this alone is a significant disincentive to recruits. Nor, say the optimists, has substantial involvement of elements within the Pakistani security establishment brought an end to endemic factional infighting, nor assured tactical success on the battlefields. Continuing technical innovations in areas such as bomb-making, where advice from Pakistan-based groups appears to have been instrumental in increasing the lethality of devices customarily deployed by the insurgents, has brought little benefit to the insurgents, and suicide bombing continues to alienate the broader population. Even the significant funds possessed by the Taliban— their operations in Helmand alone are estimated to gain them at least $150 million yearly of their total income approaching half a billion dollars—has not led to victory. The Taliban remain almost exclusively Pashtun, unlike the multi- ethnic mujahideen of the 1980s and are thus limited to more or less the areas they now dominate or contest: the south, east and some of the north. The chances of insurgents taking Kabul, Herat, Jalalabad or Mazar-e-Sharif, analysts say, are slim. Some mention the bloody failure of the attempt by the combined forces of several mujahideen factions, bolstered by Arab volunteers, to capture Jalalabad in 1989 as an example of what happens when irregular fighters attempt a conventional operation. A ‘soft’ or ‘informal’ takeover of Kandahar is more likely however, they admit, though much depends on the exact number of troops the US leaves behind under a Bilateral Security Agreement that Karzai’s successor will almost certainly sign.

But what optimists and pessimists agree on is that, if the Afghan National Army can just about hold the line against the insurgents now, they cannot if their funding from the US is cut off. And this does indeed look very much like the post- Soviet scenario. The pessimists emphasise that Najibullah’s fall came once Moscow’s subsidies, which allowed him to pay for his troops and pay off some of the mujahideen factions, stopped coming. But, say the optimists, there are again huge differences. Not only is the US in 2014 very different from the USSR in 1991 in economic terms, there are many other powers locally who might step in. Russia, as the expenditure on the Sochi Olympics showed, can find funds when necessary. India is both more wealthy and prepared to make commitments overseas that would have seemed inconceivable in the early 1990s.

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But if historical parallels are often misleading, historic lessons may still be useful. One is that attempts to ‘modernise’ Afghanistan and centralise power will always provoke significant resistance, some of which will be violent. Women’s education and ‘rights’ will continue to be important flashpoints—as they were in the 1920s, when rebellions led to the fall of King Amanullah, and in the late 1970s when brutal attempts to impose a radical Marxist-Leninist model including schooling for girls and land reforms sparked the unrest which eventually led to the Soviet invasion to bolster the crumbling Communist regime in Afghanistan. The grassroots resistance to the US-led international effort and Karzai’s rule from conservative rural areas may have been primarily from Pashtun tribes, but this does not indicate any great liberalism on such touchstone cultural issues on the part of other ethnic communities, at least outside urban areas. One important lesson from the last decade is that individuals and communities fight for many reasons, but ranking high among them is the sense that they are defending a traditional, customary way of life. Western strategists who insisted that development and employment alone would undermine the insurgency missed this crucial point.

The crucial question of funding the military reveals another of the few certain elements in the current scenario. Since British rule made it impossible for Afghan rulers to cross the mountains and raid the fertile zones of the Indus, Punjab and, more rarely, the Indo-Gangetic plains, successive Afghan rulers—the ‘Iron Emir’ Abdur Rahman, Zahir Shah, Daoud, Najibullah, Karzai—have exploited their country’s greatest resource— its strategic position—to extract the material support from competing powers they need to run their patronage networks. The hardline conservatives and violent Islamist extremists have used the country’s importance as a battleground in the supposed cosmic battle between good and evil, right and wrong, faith and unbelief, the Islamic world and the ‘Crusader-Zionist-Hindu’ alliance to draw in resources from another international community that sees Afghanistan as having huge strategic significance. This strategy continues to dominate. The British may be gone, but raids on the lowlands are still difficult to envisage for even the most excitable local decision- maker. Afghanistan is still to develop a significant indigeneous source of revenue beyond narcotics. Nor is it likely to for many decades. This means that any future ruler—the winner of the April election and his successors—will continue to play the centuries-old game of playing off rival neighbours, regional powers and international players against one another.

In 2006, while on patrol with a British unit, I stopped to talk with an old man in a lane in the town of Lashkar Gah. In broken Urdu, he listed the different armies he had seen on the streets: Royal Afghan, Communist Afghan, Soviet, Afghan auxiliaries operating with the Soviets, different mujahideen groups, US and British. A few hours later, I was talking to Taliban commanders in a mechanic shop near the bazaar. The British are now on their way out of ‘Lash’, as the soldiers call it. Afghans of all factions will now contest control of the battered concrete bazaar, the mud-walled homes, the orchards and fields, the desert wastes around. A final historical lesson must surely be that it is unlikely that no other army will find itself on the old man’s list—or perhaps his son’s or even grandson’s—in the years and decades to come.

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Jason Burke is the South Asia correspondent of the Guardian, the author of The 9/11 Wars and On the Road to Kandahar, and has been reporting on Afghanistan since 1998