Monday, 13 July 2009

Afghanistan is a war, not a country

Afghanistan is a forgotten country.
We all know where it is but most of us forget what it is. To most people, Afghanistan is a war. A policy point. A problem.
US democratisation initiatives try to remind us that Afghanistan used to be a country, that there is future after the war. The problem is, whatever the future holds post-war, Afghanistan has been at war for so long that there is little left that could be called a country and what is still there, is at war.

Where does this story begin? With the Americans arriving five years ago? With the Taliban taking power? With the Soviets? When was Afghanistan not at war? When was it last just a country? And how does this story end?

For many Westerners the war has lost its newness 'oh yeah, that's still going on, isn't it?' is not an uncommon reaction. Yet with more troops pouring into the country than ever before, there is no end in sight. As Afghanistan heads into elections – in a desperate pretense of normality – 4,000 US marines arrived in Afghanistan's troublesome Helmand province a few days ago. This is the biggest offensive since the war began. Surely there are now enough marines on the ground to completely flood Helmand's poppy fields and kill two birds with one stone: chase the Taliban out of the area and end opium production. Regime change and crop change in one fell swoop.

Guns and money should do it.
Guns will drive out the bad guys.
Money will pay for the roads that will allow consumer crops to be taken to market before they rot, pay the blood bondage that keeps many farmers tied to opium barons and pay cash incentives for the switch from the very profitable poppy to something far less profitable albeit more benign.
Guns will persuade the undecided. And the drug barons. Maybe.
Then when Afghanistan goes back to being a country, ideas of social responsibility, legality, social and agricultural development can be debated.
Trying to discuss those now, while the war is raging seems like a cruel joke. Pretending normality is simply lurking, pretending the war has not obliterated everything that used to be Afghanistan, for better or for worse.

Everything apart from the Taliban, that is.

Marines are now combing villages in areas that were until recently held by insurgents. The latest offensive is reputed to have met with little resistance. But that is not because the insurgents gave up. It is because the insurgents slipped away. Again. And the 'boundaries' moved. Again. And the Taliban retreated across the border to Pakistan, again, because Pakistan failed to up numbers and simply deployed the existing, insufficient garrisons. Again.

Same old then?
Well not exactly. There is some variation. NATO has put more emphasis on protecting the locals rather than killing the bad guys on this occasion. If it works, they'll stick with this model. Keeping them alive, you see, is the first step to convincing them we mean well. Next step – which is what the marines are working on now – is to persuade them we really are there to stay, the Taliban are not coming back and it is safe to vote in the upcoming presidential elections. Only problem? It's been five years that the Americans have been fighting the Taliban and, although still 'there' in large geographical terms, US forces have not always managed to successfully hold onto territory. What is now the domain of the marines tomorrow could be back in the hands of the Taliban. So although the marines are promising secure civic participation now, will they still be around tomorrow? Or will the Taliban be back, killing everyone who voted in the election against their explicit warning?
Do that and I'll kill you, say the Taliban wielding their guns. That's pretty persuasive. The Marines' job is to say 'don't mind them, we'll keep you safe'. But how convincing is that?

Captain Bill Pelletier stressed that there had been no civilian casualties or damage to property, no artillery, aerial bombings or other indirect fire in a long time. Read: things are improving. But is this progress enough for the Afghans to believe the Taliban are not coming back? After 5 years of inconclusive confrontations, what would it take for people to believe? And why would people risk their lives to vote in an election that means nothing, as what passes for their country now is a set of half-baked structures propped up by the US? Why risk your life to be a citizen of a war when the very war isn't even yours?

'Afghanistan' is not a country. It is a bloody conflict, a losing battle, shorthand for all the questions US decision makers forgot to ask before engaging.
'On s'engage, puis on voit' didn't work for Napoleon and it didn't work for Bush. So it makes sense if the Afghans themselves are reluctant to put their lives in the hands of US marines who, as an army should, can always resort to a tactical retreat if the Taliban return and things get ugly. This is a war, after all.
Only for some it's also home. Ravaged, unsafe but still home. Tactical retreat is not an option.

The US may be realising this. They have shifted their strategy, confirms military strategist Anthony Cordesman. They now seek to hold onto territory and build lasting security. Right. And what was the strategy before? Lose territory and wreak havoc?

Naturally that's not what Cordesman means. US forces have proved time and again that they can win battles. They have also proved (time and again) that they cannot hold territory or win over and keep the loyalty of the population. They need to provide security, create economic opportunity, minimize Taliban influence and battle the fear of what the Taliban will do to 'collaborators' were they to come back in order to start 'holding on' to what their guns can win them. Then and only then will 'reconstruction' make sense.

This is not rocket science.
We know this. We've known it for five years. We've been talking about it for five years. They have been talking about it for five years. So they have either been lying about their intention to really do it all this time or we need to face the simple fact that they just can't do it. Maybe it just can't be done. Not this way. Not by these people. Not right now.

Michael Clarke, director of the Royal United Services Institute, begs to differ. 'This is a very specific example of fighting for democracy' he told the Guardian. Really?
Whose democracy? Your democracy ain't there and Afghanistan doesn't have a democracy. And that's not the way to get one either. Democracy requires stable institutions and basic freedoms, it can therefore not exist in wartime. It also necessitates grass roots participation and public engagement so it cannot be offered as a gift by an external party. Especially if said external party is wearing camouflage gear.

We occupy land so people can register for the election in August, say the marines. We protect the civilians, even if it means avoiding confrontation with the Taliban.
In other words we fight the war by not fighting the battles. And we play at citizenship, when the country is dormant.

Don't get me wrong. I'd love for the war to stop right now. For all wars to stop right now for good. But what I love and what I know are at odds on this one and what I know is this: you fight a war to win it. Day to day political activity is subjected to martial law and normal liberties are suspended. When you had those to start off with. If you never had them, introducing them during wartime is not stupid. It is hypocritical, a simple case of being seen to be doing something while everything is failing.

Obama has rightly noted that the military solution alone in Afghanistan is doomed to failure. But what he meant was that the military cannot solve the underlying problems the country had before and as a result of the war. He did not mean a non-military solution will solve the problem that is the war. What he didn't say is that the implication of this is that infrastructure development and social healing cannot take place in war time and cannot be carried out by soldiers. Particularly not foreign soldiers.

And herein lies yet another challenge: alongside the 4,000 marines hitting the ground last week there were only 500 Afghan soldiers – a token force if there ever was one. In this war, the Afghans are on the other side or simply on the sidelines, giving the question 'whose war is this' immense poignancy. And while we are focusing on Helmand, the war is raging in the entire country.
'Afghanistan' is still going on. Five years on.

What are the Americans after, what are they fighting for? Does anyone remember any more? The administration has changed, times have changed and what they set out to fight against, fight for has also changed. Yet the war continues and there's no changing the fact that this is the Americans' war. They need to figure out what it is they are fighting for if they are ever going to end it, let alone win it. Democracy and freedom are not theirs to give and they are not why they are there in the first place. Lofty ideals keep troop morale high but values and bayonets don't mix well together.

Afghanistan is a war and it's the Americans war. They should figure it out. They should end it. Then they should leave.
When the soldiers leave, when peace returns, when democracy and liberty become possible even if they remain elusive; when Afghanistan belongs to the Afghans, then it has a chance of being a country again.
Till then, Afghanistan is no country, it is a war and any talk of reconstruction, democratisation and institution-building is simply trying to mask the fact that the war is still going on and it is going rather badly. For all involved.


  1. "Democracy and freedom are not theirs to give" συμφωνώ απόλυτα.

    όπου ανακατεύτηκαν οι αμερικάνοι μόνο προβλήματα, θανάτους, χαμό άφησαν πίσω τους. ένα απλό παράδειγμα είναι το βιετναμ. κι όμως εξακολουθούν χρόνια μετά να ανακατεύονται παντού σαν διεθνείς καουμπόυς σε όλο το κόσμο. γιατί; γιατί όχι; δεν τους σταματά και κανείς και εννοείται ότι τα ψηφίσματα των Η.Ε. είναι απλώς λόγια σε χαρτί.

    το’χω ξαναπεί ο ομπάμα δεν έφερε την αλλαγή για τον απλό(;) λόγο ότι η εξωτερική πολιτική της αμερικής είναι η ίδια, σταθερή και υπαγορεύεται από τις βιομηχανίες όπλων.

  2. @ Dorothea - Βαριά η καλογερική...
    Θέλουμε κάποιος να σταματήσει τους κακούς από το να σκοτώνουν και να καταπιέζουν? Φυσικά. Αλλα ποιος, πως και ποτε? Και ποιος φυλάει τους φυλακες?

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. The sad thing is that everyone forgot what the war was about. Now it's just Afghanistan needing more troops. And Americans needing to justify their so-called political correctness.

    Uncle Sam wants you to join the US army. God bless their troops.r

  5. Once the ball is rolling people forget what the game was all about.
    Momentum replaces policy, expediency replaces responsibility and young boys keep dying in vain.
    God bless America.

  6. I got a bit confused by your post. What do you propose they do? Do you see another better way?

    Between the two ongoing US wars, Afghanistan was definitely the moral high ground for the Americans. Didn't the UN vote in support of the Afghanistan campaign? And in state-building terms, it's only at its beginning.

    Personally, I don't want to see the US leaving Afghanistan any time soon. The alternative is worse. State-building is not easy, especially so against the unstable political situation in bordering Pakistani provinces, and religious fundamentalism everywhere. I suspect it's going to take time on the order of a generation to see any strategy work. When the first people that don't remember the Taliban grow up and have their first kid, that's when this is going to end. Until then, "you break it--you buy it", i.e. the Americans (and the rest of the UN) should stay there and pay the price. I don't think these soldiers die in vain. The little girls that can now go to school are worth it.

    Iraq, now, that's a whole different story...

  7. Let me start by saying that I disagree with the war and agree with the reconstruction.
    But I don't believe soldiers can build peace. They are not trained for it, they lack the credibility and the right frame of mind. So I propose they let the soldiers finish what they started and when the killing and the breaking has stopped, then start implementing a peace and reconstruction plan. That entails civilians spending the time planning and preparing for peace rather than sitting on the ground reacting to the realities of war that are often mercurial, thus creating knee-jerk policies that don't amount to a sustainable strategy.
    Afghanistan did give the US the moral high ground, agreed. But to be fair, many UN member states acceded to the campaign only because finally something was going to be done against the Taliban whose reign of terror had been a known problem for decades. The rest felt that the US should do something post 9/11 and that was as good an action as any. Desperately seeking Osama. By the time Iraq came round the same audience was less sympathetic, partly because Afghanistan had not been a successful campaign and partly because condoning a second military campaign for the same set of half-hearted reasons had lost its appeal.
    I don't disagree that state-building is in its infancy. What I disagree with is the viability of building and destroying at the same time. Carrying out war and reconstruction at the same time and through the same agency is schizophrenic.
    I don't think the US can leave Afghanistan any time soon. But I do believe the distinction between military occupation and civilian supervision needs to be made with the time comes
    And although I totally agree that the people of Afghanistan deserve to be rescued from the oppression of the Taliban, I do not believe that this is what the US marines are there for. The rhetoric does not convince me. The US had their own agenda for going in and a liberation narrative went rather nicely with that. But liberation was not the reason they mobilised or they would have done it decades before.

  8. No, liberation wasn't the reason, I agree. I don't think it should have been, too (nor in Iraq). I think it was mainly a kick-back reflex to 9/11.

    The problem I see with drawing the line between military occupation and civilian policing, is the Taliban guerrilla warfare. It is not a matter of pushing the Taliban into surrendering, the Taliban can be civilians for a while, and guerrillas again when the soldiers leave.

    I don't claim to know what the right strategy is, I'm not even sure that the professed goal of democratization is achievable (or moral for that matter, it's difficult to judge ethics) through any strategy. But, if it is achievable, it seems to me that the use of force (military occupation, "joint police", whatever) is necessary, and for an extended period of time too. There needs to be a protected period, while Islamic fundamentalism subsides in the "Afghan zeitgeist", which as I said might take a generation. And force needs to be combined with some sort of "westernization". The current effort for rebuilding and creating wealth is itself a war strategy, is not simple democratization is what I'm saying. To win the military war (regardless of state-building), the Americans have to keep suppressing the Taliban, and at the same time basically give everyone a fridge, a washing machine and high-heels (OK, I'm exaggerating to stress my point). How did the occupation of Germany and Japan differ in the 50s? Suppress the defeated opponents, while giving the public "something to lose". Only the road is much longer here.

    The Taliban are right in claiming that the Americans are there against Islam. They have to be inherently anti-islamic to win, since fundamentalism is the main enemy here, and even if they kill all the current Taliban guerrillas today, there will be more next week.

    I don't want to sound pessimistic, but it might take 10 to 20 years for the Taliban movement to subside a bit, and even then it won't be a democracy, because state corruption (mostly opium and tribalism I suspect) will wreck the functioning of a healthy state after that. Kinda like Greece, only worse.

  9. @ Polyvios - I agree that the problem with guerilla warfare in general is that you are never totally sure it is over. The enemy may be crushed or laying low and you just don't know. And I totally agree with you that there is no responsible way the US can disengage from Afghanistan in the foreseeable future.

    I will also agree with the fact that young institutions are fragile and need protection. Therein, however, lies the problem.
    Democracy is a two-tier system. It needs institutions and it needs participation and it needs them simultaneously. The institutions need to be appropriate to the conditions on the ground – look at Sri Lanka: The Westminster model actually amplified divisions of the ground leading to a horrific and bloody civil war. If these institutions are designed and introduced by a bunch of soldiers – however highly placed and educated – they will most probably be a copy of what uncle Sam does. Tinned democracy has never worked though. Add to that the problem of participation and you have issues. Because soldiers don't get nuance. And that's as it should be, it's part of their training. They believe that if they stand guard with their big guns and ensure that people vote, the 'participation' box is ticked. But that is not how it works. Participation entails a sense of ownership of the system, civil society, public mobilisation. None of this is possible in war time. None of this is possible when an occupation army is still present.

    And that's I think the sticking point. I agree with you that peace will be long coming. But I also believe that while the army is there democracy is just words.
    And you are absolutely right that attempts to create wealth form part of a strategy of democratisation. The USA and IMF believe very strongly that democracy and affluence are linked. The problem is that we know affluence is linked to democratic stability – the evidence to back that up is overwhelming and consistent – but we don't know the first thing about democratisation. That's why most democratisation projects have failed miserably. Yet we keep approaching them the same way time and again. Even though the system didn't work last time roung. And the time before that. And the time before that.

    And I don't think you are exaggerating your point. Giving everyone a fridge and a washing machine – and the ready supply of electricity these need – means giving them a stake in the peace, a stake in the new US-sponsored stability. Co-optation is not a pretty word but it works better than any other method. That's how the Marxists lost the working class in Western Europe. The problem is that if you are selling opium you already have a fridge and washing machine. So why bother with the new guys?

  10. Good point. I didn't think of motivating participation as being a major part of the strategy. I thought it somehow immediately follows when the right "state structure" becomes sustainable, and at the same time there's wealth. As you said, there are examples to the contrary (thanks for pointing out Sri-Lanka history, I knew nothing about that).

    So, if I understand you correctly, the army cannot leave because it has to protect the fragile state from the guerrilla war and the (currently dominant) Islamic fundamentalism, but there can be no real democracy until the army leaves. This is a huge Catch-22, that is going to take an insane amount of resources and time, with a high probability of failure. It is the kind of legendary fuckup that can make a superpower look bad by leaving a civil war behind, seeding turmoil for decades, or stay and get bled to death. To add insult to injury, even the hypothetical scenario of not having invaded Afghanistan at all, wouldn't have been a clearly better option either.

  11. mia xara ta les! distixos exeis dikio...kali evdomada na exeis! filia! :)

  12. @ polyvios – I personally think that participation is one of the biggest challenges for democratisers.
    Will the people feel they have ownership of the institutions? Will they care to sustain and protect them? Will they assume that democracy can happen without them, leaving participation to others who care more? Or will the institutions be tainted by their association with the foreign army? It's a tough one. Democratic stability relies on participation which invariably is a long time coming even after the institutions are in place.
    So that is why I think there is, as you rightly call it, a massive Catch-22 whereby the army have pledged not to leave until democracy is stable but while they are there they are destabilising normalisation. Iraq is in many ways a similar situation with very different specifics. But having US soldiers trying to build democracy in a foreign land where there has been no prior experience of democracy is actually reminiscent of the old adage, if you will pardon my french, 'fighting for peace is like fucking for virginity'.

    @ Leviathan - Νά'σαι καλά, καλή εβδομάδα και σε σένα, και κανε κάνα μπάνιο και για μας τους ’Aγγλους που μας έχει φάει η βροχή...