The Bad War: Afghanistan Seven Years Later

NATO came to Nurat on July 11th. There were seventy soldiers, 45 of them members of the American troop complement that has occupied Afghanistan since the fall of 2001 and 25 members of Hamid Karzai’s ragtag national army. Because the air isn’t thick enough at that altitude for helicopters to operate reliably, the men had to drag most of their gear up to their new outpost in a high valley on the border of Kunar and Nuristan provinces. There they built their small combat outpost, one of a string of such spartan facilities along the country’s remote eastern frontier with Pakistan’s Tribal Areas.

Residents of the Weygal Valley did not greet them warmly. U.S. forces attached to NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), sometimes deploying unmanned Predator planes, had been blowing up local civilians with seemingly reckless abandon. Seventeen Afghans, including doctors, were killed nearby a week before the establishment of the mini base at Nurat. In a country where American attacks on wedding parties are so routine that they have become a cliché, the deaths of 47 people in Nangahar province two days later—including the bride—prompted 150 tribal leaders from Weygal to travel to Kabul to lodge a complaint with President Karzai. Karzai repeatedly postponed the meeting, and they eventually left in disgust. It was July 11th.

Two days later, in the early morning of the 13th, hundreds of Taliban fighters routed the NATO force at Nurat. Nine Americans were killed; 15 more and four Afghans were wounded. The base has since been abandoned. The village is under Taliban control—a state of affairs that the locals, disgusted with NATO’s indiscriminate use of air power, seem to prefer.

The incident at Nurat is but the most recent example of the U.S. military being forced to evacuate a base it had built. Routs have become so commonplace in Afghanistan that official spokespeople have even come up with a new word for the loss of a facility: “disestablished.”

Disestablished—or perhaps more succinctly, “unestablished”—serves as a succinct description of the situation in post-Taliban Afghanistan. The basic components of a viable nation-state—security, infrastructure, cohesive central control—remain unestablished more than six years after the fall of Kandahar to forces of the Northern Alliance, an ad hoc group of warlords armed and funded by Russia, Iran and neighboring states during the Taliban era of the late 1990s, and later found a deeper-pocketed patron in the U.S. after 9/11. “Nation building lite,” the term State Department officials used to brag about the United States’ shoestring commitment to the Karzai regime now looks more like malign neglect.

“It is disappointing,” the Democratic National Committee said in a statement on July 24th, “that John McCain doesn’t recognize that the war in Afghanistan was not only the first major conflict after 9/11, and is in fact a major front in the fight against terrorism. No wonder John McCain doesn’t understand why the American people are looking for new leadership that will bring the war in Iraq to a responsible end so we can direct the resources we need to getting the job done in Afghanistan.”

The truth, as usual, is more complicated. There were two major jihadi training camps in Afghanistan during the late 1990s, but both were closed before 9/11. Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda lieutenants lived near Kandahar during the late 1990s, but had left by 9/11. On 9/11, Al Qaeda, the training camps and bin Laden were all in Pakistan—the latter in a Pakistani military hospital. The Taliban government would have collapsed without arms and money from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Agency.

Before 2000, Afghanistan was indeed a “major front in the fight against terrorism.” But the U.S. didn’t invade then. When it did go in, and throughout the subsequent occupation, the best moral justification for the war in Afghanistan became: getting warmer.

The “good war”—the war that Barack Obama and other Democrats say we should be fighting, the war represented in countless political memes as “the ball” that Bush “took his eye off” when he became distracted by the war in Iraq, the war which Obama promises to dispatch 10,000 more troops in a new “surge”—has never looked less winnable. (“I don’t think there is any doubt that we were distracted [by the invasion of Iraq] from our efforts to hunt down Al Qaeda and the Taliban,” Obama told CBS News in one of his typical recent iterations.)

“Afghanistan—The Right War,” shouted the cover of Time magazine’s July 28th issue.

So many Afghan provinces have fallen under direct Taliban control that NATO has been forced to offer them legal recognition. June 2008 was the single deadliest month for U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan since bombs started raining on Kabul in October 2001. The month featured two startling developments: a daring Taliban raid on a prison that freed hundreds of prisoners, many of whom to rejoin their comrades in arms, and the incipient full-scale offensive by thousands of Talibs against the city of Kandahar. Four hundred seventy-six Americans, and tens of thousands of Afghans, have died in the war that began in October 2001. Yet America and its allies will almost certainly lose the war in Afghanistan.

“The Taliban is likely to maintain or even increase the scope and pace of its terrorist attacks and bombings in 2008,” confirms a Pentagon analysis, anticipating a summer offensive that some South Asia experts predict could presage the endgame—the return of Taliban rule nationwide next year.

Last week I received a request for an interview by a news affairs radio program in northern California. “As you are probably aware, it is not easy to find an American voice that advocates a US/NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan,” the producer wrote. “For example, I got an e-mail today from a progressive media group with a list of possible speakers, all of whom highlighted the purported reemergent Taliban/al-Qaeda threat.” I declared Afghanistan unwinnable in 2001 and have since authored three books explaining why. To my knowledge, I remain the only syndicated columnist or editorial cartoonist in America who thinks we should get out of Afghanistan as well as Iraq.

How did I know the Afghan War would go bad? Many factors entered my analysis, but two incidents I witnessed in November 2001 crystallized my pessimistic point of view.

The first was the way Afghans of various political and ethnic affiliations treated one of my fellow journalists, a Russian radio correspondent who had served in the Soviet army that occupied Afghanistan in the 1980s. They loved him! I asked them why. “We love Russian people,” they’d say. “But you killed them mercilessly,” I’d reply. “Of course,” they’d explain. “They were invaders. Invaders must be killed.” What about Americans? “Of course, Americans too,” they’d say, a little sadly. “After we kill them all, however, they are welcome to come back as tourists and friends.”

The second incident took place on a dirt road in Khanabad, where I noticed a group of Afghan Tajiks, including an old guy with a long beard, weeping quietly in the street. A couple of U.S. soldiers had kicked down a door and were inside a house, presumably searching for weapons.

“During Soviet times, under the Taliban, even during the civil war, no one dared break into a man’s home,” the old man told me. “No one. Even if the Taliban came to execute you, they knocked on the door politely and waited for you to come outside.” I knew we weren’t going to win then and there. Word of the Americans’ treatment of Afghan men—flexicuffing them, grinding their faces into the dirt with their boots, placing bags over their heads—spread quickly. Battles were still raging in Kunduz and Kandahar between the U.S.’s allies and Taliban holdouts, but the Americans had already lost the war for hearts and minds.

What went wrong? How did a war marketed as a defensive police action to bring terrorists to justice (and, as an added bonus, liberate millions of oppressed women) lose its moral imperative so quickly? Why did so many Americans—including millions who would later march in the streets to protest the Iraq War—fail to see that it had been lost?

It is impossible for a citizen of the United States of America to understand what it’s like to live in a place without law and order. In the Land of the Free, rogue policemen harass black drivers, sell drugs, even rape suspects with broomsticks. Our president violates basic civil rights, going so far as to sign off on torture. But even in the most dangerous neighborhoods in the most crime-ridden cities in the U.S., law and order exists. If you shoot someone, a witness will almost certainly call the police, who will come as quickly as possible to take you to jail.

This is not true in Afghanistan. When I was there during the late fall of 2001, my Afghan translator expressed amazement at my suggestion that we meet for dinner at 6 p.m. “That’s after dark,” he said. “We will be killed.” I asked him what the odds were of encountering trouble. “No odds,” he replied. “Death is certain.” Like most Afghans, Jovid had never been outside the confines of a walled compound with reinforced bulletproof doors at night.

Unchallenged street violence makes other issues recede in importance. I watched a boy—he couldn’t have been older than 15—level his AK-47 and fire randomly into a group of women walking across a village square in Kunduz province. Bouncing in the back of a shockless Soviet pick-up truck, my eyes met those of my traveling companions—heavily armed Northern Alliance soldiers, Afghan Tajiks, fellow reporters. No one said a word. There was nothing we could do.

In a place where you can shoot people just for fun, where average life expectancy is 43, you don’t care about racial equality or women’s rights or freedom of the press. The environment is a abstraction. All you dream about is the ability to walk down the street.

One of my colleagues, a Swedish cameraman named Ulf Stromberg, made the mistake of opening his door at about four in the morning. Two kids, probably Northern Alliance soldiers, robbed him of his cash and satellite phone, and shot him to death. I went to the new government’s local office in Taloqan to file a report the next day.

“What for?” he asked.

“When things calm down,” I explained, “you could launch an investigation.”

He let out a grim chuckle and waved me toward the door. “Things don’t calm down here.”

Except, of course, under the Taliban. In early 1994 thirty students (“talibs”) of a one-eyed village priest named Muhammed Omar told him that a local warlord’s militiamen had created a checkpoint, not only to shake down drivers but to rape girls. “How could we remain quiet when we could see crimes being committed against women and the poor?” Omar asked Pakistani journalist Rahimullah Yusufzai. Ordering his charges to grab 16 guns, Mullah Omar’s avengers executed the mujahedeen rapists, creating a vigilante legend that would eventually lead him to supreme power.

The Pashtun-dominated Taliban were brutal and capricious rulers. They were particularly hard on areas dominated by other ethnic groups such as Uzbeks, Tajiks and the Hazara. Fun—music, movies, kites, even keeping pigeons—was banned. Women whose burqas revealed a patch of skin were beaten by the roving thugs of the Ministry for the Prevention of Vice (an idea suggested by the Taliban’s Saudi allies). And they took hammers to artifacts in the national museum. But, if nothing else—mostly, it was nothing else—the Taliban delivered law and order. Justice was sure, swift, extreme, and effective. Violent crime plummeted. For the first time since the Soviet invasion in 1979, it became possible to drive the length of Afghanistan without encountering a single militia checkpoint, much less a robber.

When the Taliban left, anarchy returned.

Pentagon experts estimated that invading and occupying Afghanistan with sufficient troop density to provide street-level law and order would have required between 400,000 and 500,000 soldiers, the same number General Shinseki famously wanted for Iraq. (Afghanistan has about the same population and square mileage as Iraq, but with far more challenging, extremely mountainous terrain.)

Instead, a few thousand CIA operatives and Special Forces units parachuted into northern Afghanistan, doled out millions of dollars in cash to figures who controlled private armies, like Ishmail Khan of Herat, Tajik General Muhammad Atta (not the 9/11 hijacker) and Uzbek warlord Rashid Dostum, based near Mazar-e-Sharif. U.S. airstrikes “softened” Taliban positions (as of 9/11, only about 300 Al Qaeda fighters were left in all of Afghanistan), allowing America’s newly-purchased allies to walk in. To Western eyes, it was a brilliant strategy. The Taliban melted away into the mountains. The Northern Alliance took power in Kabul. But it set the stage for three catastrophic problems.

First, the Taliban weren’t really defeated. Adhering to the classic guerilla tactics that Afghans had employed in their wars against Great Britain and the USSR, they laid low, waiting to regroup while studying their adversaries. Second, the occupation was so thin that Afghans in much of the country could go weeks or months without catching a glimpse of an American soldier. Throughout the first year of the occupation, with the war against the Taliban deemed “won” by an arrogant and triumphalist Bush Administration, only 8,000 U.S. forces were deployed—the majority holed up at Bagram airbase near Kabul, by far the safest city in the country. I asked a Pentagon spokesperson why they were there rather than quelling the violence in places like Jalalabad and Helmand province, where warlord militiamen were making many Afghans nostalgic for the Taliban. “Because they’re safer there,” she explained. Which brings us to the third disastrous outcome of the American strategy: allowing the warlords to rule each area under their control as medieval fiefs.

Balkanization worked out well for the residents of Herat, where Khan’s access to Turkmenistan’s electrical grid and control of lucrative customs posts at the Turkmen and Iranian borders brought in enough cash to build Afghanistan’s own Wally World, complete with paved streets, uniformed police officers and working traffic signals. General Dostum’s Mazar turned ugly, beginning with his systemic weekend-long massacre of 10,000 Taliban POWs, under the supervision of U.S. Special Forces. Outside the “Mayor of Kabul”‘s limited control, Afghanistan returned to the warlordism, and a low-grade version of the civil war that reduced it to rubble between 1992 and 1996.

Karzai tried to buy off the warlords by offering them cabinet posts, only to lose whatever credibility he might have once enjoyed. “I watched the Taliban stone rapists,” a woman told me. “Now the rapists in the government.”

“In a move that foreshadowed America’s trouble in Iraq,” The New York Times reported in 2007,” [Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld] failed to anticipate the need for more forces after the old government was gone, and blocked an early proposal from Colin L. Powell, then the secretary of state, and Mr. Karzai, the administration’s handpicked president, for a large international force.” Today there are 53,000 forces under NATO and U.S. command fighting in Afghanistan. But even Obama’s proposal for an additional 10,000 wouldn’t get troop strength anywhere near the magic half a million. With the economy in shambles and the military stretched in Iraq and at foreign bases around the world—UC San Diego professor Chalmers Johnson counts more than 500,000 full-time service personnel stationed overseas besides Iraq—we simply can’t afford a full-fledged “flood the field” strategy.

Others complain about the slow—a less charitable reading would be non-existent—pace of construction projects in the world’s poorest country. Only about $3.4 billion a year has been allocated for Afghan reconstruction, less than half of the budget for Iraq—which was in far better shape. Moreover, no one knows what happened to the money. Five years into the occupation, the Times reported that not even a single building had been erected in Afghanistan thanks to U.S. foreign aid.

“The international community has spent many billions of dollars toward the nation’s reconstruction,” writes Nancy Hatch Dupree, director of the American Center at Kabul University. “Yet not much progress can be seen. Poor management and lack of coordination among aid agencies are the major reasons for this dismal record.”

Only one highway had been paved—a road to service a pipeline to carry Kazakh oil and Turkmen gas from Herat to Kandahar. A military advisor said: “I could count on the fingers of one or two hands the number of U.S. government agricultural experts” in Afghanistan, a nation whose economy is 80 percent farming.

“I said from the get-go that we didn’t have enough money and we didn’t have enough soldiers,” said Robert Finn, U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2002 to 2003. By 2005 it became statistically more dangerous for a U.S. soldier to serve in Afghanistan than Iraq. “I’m saying the same thing six years later,” said Finn.

The Democratic narrative, picked up by Barack Obama in his presidential bid, has 51 percent of Americans still convinced that that the war in Afghanistan is worth fighting. A recent ABC News-Washington Post poll finds that 44 percent of the public thinks things are going well there—down from 70 percent in 2002, but still significantly more than the views of journalists, military experts and scholars who follow Afghanistan and Central Asia carefully. Their conventional wisdom is that forced withdrawal is imminent, anywhere from two to five years away—leading to surprising attempts to issue blame.

“Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai is not doing as much as he should to build an effective administration,” The Economist argued recently. “And George Bush is not doing as much as he could to twist Mr Karzai’s arm.” Karzai has faults, but they pale next to his weaknesses—direct control of about 10 percent of his nation’s territory, an empty treasury and a powerful, comparatively well-funded neighbor—Pakistan—that arms and funds the resurgent Taliban. If Afghanistan falls out of the U.S. orbit, it won’t be Karzai’s fault.

In the final analysis, the outcome of the current effort to tame the Hindu Kush may come down to the possibility that colonialism is dead. Throughout the 20th century, no nation has ever successfully occupied another one. It may have taken time, not to mention bloodshed, for citizens of a nation-state to force out invaders. In the end, however, occupying armies have always been forced to withdraw.

© 2008 Ted Rall, All Rights Reserved.