The war that never left Afghanistan

Afghanistan has been notoriously easy to seize but difficult to hold. John Duncan explains why the country’s lack of centralized government has kept effective and ongoing occupation out of reach for one great power after another.

By: /
July 26, 2016
Light emanates from the inside of a CH-47 Chinook helicopter as it waits for passengers at FOB Joyce in Afghanistan's Kunar Province July 5, 2012. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Director, Ethics, Society, and Law program, Trinity College, University of Toronto

In February, near the end of his term as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, General John F. Campbell reported: “2016 is at risk of being no better, and possibly worse, than 2015.” 

This was not good news. 

According to the April report of the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, the 2015 fighting season brought new highs of 3,500 Afghan civilians killed (with 7,500 wounded), and 6,637 Afghan National Defense and Security Forces killed (with 12,471 wounded).

Most recently, according to the UN Secretary-General’s June report on Afghanistan, for the period between March 7 and June 10 of this year, the “security situation was characterized by continued and intense armed clashes, which were at their highest number recorded since 2001.” 

Cherry-picked metrics such as rapid population growth in Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, are touted in some reports to suggest that the “unity government” there is winning against the nearly countrywide insurgency, but that is far from true. In reality, such metrics are little more than shrouds spun over an increasing number of victims of violence in a country that has been occupied by U.S./NATO-led Coalition forces since late 2001. Although boots on the ground have fallen to about 10 percent of the 140,000 troop high a couple of years before the end of the combat mission, in the post-2014 environment it is still the Coalition mission that is keeping the estimated 350,000 Afghan National Defense and Security Forces in the fight, and there is no end in sight.

The mission includes both annual funding approaching US$5 billion and a train, advise and assist force on the ground, not to mention crucial support for diplomatic and other initiatives. The annual summer fighting season, not yet at the halfway mark this year, already includes both the highest number of continued and intense armed clashes since 2001, and casualty rates predicted to meet or exceed 2015’s record high levels.    

Holding the centre 

In Chapter IV of his notorious book The Prince, the renaissance Italian historian and political philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli succinctly differentiated between two kinds of states that a prince might attempt to conquer and hold.

On the one hand, because it is not easily divided, a state with an effective centralized government is not easily conquered, whereas because it is relatively easy to divide, a state within which effective power is dispersed locally is easier to conquer. On the other hand, once conquered, the apparatus of a centralized government, if maintained, makes ongoing occupation easier, whereas dispersed sites of power and allegiance make the challenges of ongoing occupation great. The one is difficult to seize but easier to hold, the other difficult to hold but easier to seize.

Machiavelli gave the examples of centralized Turkey and decentralized France in his day. Today, Iraq and Afghanistan are better examples. Modern Afghanistan has never had a centralized government with much reach beyond the federal (and the odd provincial) capital. It was effectively invaded and occupied in one month in late 2001. However, within a couple of years, widespread and mobile sites of local resistance constituted a serious challenge to the occupation, and in the end, after a decade and a half of expending buckets of blood and treasure, a stable hold on Afghanistan still eludes everyone, including the Coalition. 

Foreign powers have had little success in Afghanistan, largely because holding the country would require holding too many of the nearly uncountable villages, each enclosed in one of the many tribal valleys scattered across the county. The capital can be taken, but effectively managing any aspect of the dispersed bucolic population is extremely difficult. 

On the other hand, within the iron grip of Saddam Hussein, largely-urban Iraq presented relatively formidable and undivided defences (despite decades of war and sanctions). However, once Iraq was taken in the 2003 U.S.-led invasion it could perhaps have been held if the U.S. occupation authority had not purged the country’s administration and military. In gutting Iraq of its experienced administrative and military personnel, the U.S. all but destroyed the country’s governing capacity (devastating its ability to win the hearts and minds of Iraqis by providing them with governance and services) and generated a cadre of unemployed and experienced personnel with fervent reasons to resist the occupation. To a large degree, the capacity contained in Iraq’s centralized government was handed over to the resistance, making ongoing occupation virtually impossible. Today, Iraq no longer exists. It is irreparably split into three distressed quasi-states, one of which is ruled by the so-called Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL).

The centre dissolves

Many have said that the Afghanistan mission began to fail when the U.S. turned its attention to Iraq in 2003, leading to neglect on the Southwest Asian front. However, there were blunders in Afghanistan from the very beginning—some rooted in the inability to grasp challenges unique to the country despite the availability of relevant concrete experience. We are not yet past all these problems.  

"There were blunders in Afghanistan from the very beginning—some rooted in the inability to grasp challenges unique to the country despite the availability of relevant concrete experience."

During the Cold War, the U.S. poured at least US$80 million (worth perhaps half a billion dollars today) into the construction of huge irrigation projects in the Helmand and Arghandab River valleys in southern Afghanistan, vying with the Soviet Union and its own developmental projects in the north. A 1983 U.S. Agency for International Development evaluation report noted that the massive development project was rooted in the “goal of protecting U.S. prestige” in order to “counterbalance the significant and growing presence of the Soviet Union” in Afghanistan. 

Short and medium-term results were mixed at best, including excessive irrigation leading to water reserve depletion, soil salinization and desertification, excessive cultivation leading to declining soil fertility, and unpreparedness with respect to major efficiency losses due to inevitable and continuous siltation in the reservoirs and canals, to name only some of the problems. Engineers had flagged the likelihood of many of the negative results up front, but, as Indiana University professor Nick Cullather has argued so well, the “project was primarily about…prestige, and only secondarily about the social benefits of increasing agricultural productivity.” With respect to the primary goal of prestige, it is difficult to overlook the fact that the project was driven forward despite its recurring failures until Afghanistan fell under Soviet influence in early 1978.   

Despite decades of significant involvement resulting in disappointing outcomes, each of the two superpowers would blunder into Afghanistan to conduct a lengthy occupation that ultimately failed. In the end, a small underdeveloped nation repelled both the USSR (1979-1989) and the U.S./NATO-led Coalition (2001-2014, and counting), not to mention the British Empire during the height of its power in the nineteenth century. The fact that no centralized power pulls together the tribal villages throughout the country nudges effective and ongoing occupation out of reach. As was the case in the classical Greek city-states, each divided from the others by mountain or sea, in Afghanistan each village, valley and tribe are divided from the others by difficult terrain. However, compounding the dispersion in Afghanistan is a lack of social and political integration, indicated consistently by very low scores in the UN Human Development Index. Afghanistan currently ranks 171st overall, still near the bottom of the world (despite having improved 0.131 points from 2000 to 0.465 in 2014). We are deeply unfamiliar with a nation of villages between which social and political activity is insufficient to transcend the rudimentary independence of each village.   

Repeated mistakes

However, not only did the centre dissolve in the first instance of invasion back in 2001, leaving the policies of occupation without effective national purchase, but soon enough mistakes, collateral damage, broken promises, and insurgent spin drove members of the rural population to glimpse what it was for an Afghan as such to be threatened by the occupation. Paradoxically, although the concrete independence shared by the classical Greek city-state and the Afghan village of today is largely indifferent with respect to the national centre, that same independence may nevertheless coalesce with the rudimentary commonalities of land and custom to develop into a national sensibility of surprising breadth. Thus, once invaded, a common project of harassing and fighting off occupiers becomes widely acceptable, as does the return to the local—land, custom and independence—after the invaders are thrown off.  

Our great gift in the war for Afghan hearts and minds was development, but too many Afghans did not open the gates of their compounds to admit the gift. Development is inconsistent with lives defined by land, custom and independence, and it has been hurried to and beyond the very limits of corruption-free and successful integration and implementation. In effect, a weapon of war against traditional ways of being, development in Afghanistan has been a fiction greater than the famous Trojan Horse. Despite the major failures of the Cold War interventions and the Soviet occupation, each of which offered up the gift of development, we let the fiction captivate us again. That we did so, despite the evidence of the Cold War failures especially, is indicative of persistent ideological shortcomings on our part.

"Our great gift in the war for Afghan hearts and minds was development, but too many Afghans did not open the gates of their compounds to admit the gift."

Indeed, during the last decade, Coalition forces returned to the Helmand and Arghandab River valleys in southern Afghanistan in order to refurbish the very same dams, reservoirs and canals built during the previous century. Canada spent $50 million on the Arghandab Irrigation Rehabilitation Project, and at least five Canadians were killed—Troopers Good, Diab, Hayes, Bouthillier and Blais—and 14 wounded while working in the greater dam area in the few months leading up to Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s surprise visit to the site in 2009. The rehabilitation project was one of Canada’s major “signature” development projects, meant to win the hearts and minds of regular Afghans so they would not defend the insurgents in their midst. However, only about half the work required to make the irrigation system function adequately was completed, relegating farmers to less-thirsty but illicit poppy cultivation, and a great deal of the money was wasted. At great financial and human cost, we inadequately refurbished an irrigation system plagued with problems well-known for half a century, winning few, if any, hearts and minds beyond those of the warlords, etc., invested in the illegal opium trade that continues to plague Afghanistan.

Familiarity vs. the foreigner

For at least a decade and a half “things have been falling apart” in Afghanistan because “the centre has no hold” on them, and “anarchy has been loosed upon” the country, to borrow freely from the poem Yeats wrote in 1919, just after World War I.   

The Taliban were able to hold Afghanistan reasonably well until the Coalition invasion, and they continue to exhibit significant resilience despite massive international efforts to destroy them for 15 years. This is not only because of external support and severe rule, but also because many of them arose from the border-bisected homeland of the ancient Pashtun nation, an Afghan-Pakistan liminal zone that effectively spawned a movement not so much of foreigners as of similarly local regional hardliners. 

Although what they have brought to the village-bound and deeply traditional population of Afghanistan has been often—though not always—disagreeable, it is also often familiar. We blunder every time we measure the hardliners against our own aspirations for Afghans instead of against Afghanistan’s deeply traditional mores. By assuming that most Afghans want to be like us, we fail to see that when push comes to shove—that is, when development comes to military force—many Afghans see at least as much kinship in the hardliners as they do in our troops. A very similar process occurred when previous national leaders tried (and failed) to modernize or Westernize the country from the top down. Having very little to lose, the population of Afghanistan holds on all the more tightly to what it has.

To make better sense of this, we may compare underdeveloped Afghan villages with the undeveloped village life political philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (1755), argued was the natural zenith of human existence: in such villages humans attained the highest stage of development that did not ensnare them in the coercive social structures of economy, government and legality. Although there are important differences between Rousseau and Afghanistan, by turning to comparable instances in traditions more familiar to us we may glimpse the fact that land, custom and independence are a great deal to lose after all—not something to take lightly when armed foreigners come knocking, regardless of the gifts they bear.

Because we have trouble seeing any kinship in the insurgents, we radically underestimate the kinship Afghans see in them, and so we have failed to grasp the degree to which the call to throw off the foreigners resonates throughout Afghanistan. And because we continue to have trouble measuring success against Afghan standards, we cite the expansion of Kabul—from a city of less than half a million in 2001 to one of over 3.5 million today—as evidence of “tremendous improvements made since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001.” But the sources of the Afghan-insurgent resonance, mingled with the tactics deployed by the insurgents, may incline many Afghans to continue to tolerate the insurgents rather than turn against them in favour of clearly foreign-backed regimes that are at home nowhere in Afghanistan but Kabul.

It is unhinging to reflect on the massive British Empire, Soviet superpower and the U.S./NATO hegemon—three of the greatest powers of all time—each getting chased out of one of the least developed little countries on earth. Our war there began less than one month after 9/11, was largely concluded two months after 9/11, and transitioned to a local government with a bright Western-backed future three months after 9/11. But a decade and a half later we are backing out of a conflict we cannot win, and the insurgency rages on. 

Indeed, each time Afghans chase out a great power, they come to understand themselves with greater martial pride, becoming better able to mobilize themselves against successive occupations. Because they know their homeland is “extremely difficult to hold,” despite being relatively “easy to seize,” in the terms of Machiavelli, they really do have the time while occupiers have only the watches. They will continually take back their villages and valleys from foreign or foreign-backed control—activity that itself will continue to attract jihadists from home and away, now including, in the words of U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency Director, Lieutenant General Vincent R. Stewart, “ISIL’s emergent regional affiliate.” In his March report to the Armed Services Committee, General Stewart went on to say: “The Taliban and…ISIL are focused on countering the international presence” as much as “expanding territorial footholds in Afghanistan.”

Hubris and the Coalition 

"Although Afghanistan is easy enough to seize, there may not be enough troops in the Western world to hold it."

Occupation in Afghanistan, even with the gift of development, is a mug’s game. The immense hubris of the Coalition continues to cost stakeholders dearly. If we ask where all this is going, we could do worse than to recall the experience of the British in the nineteenth century. Failure dogged the British in Afghanistan, even at the height of their imperial powers and with base-support in British-India immediately to the south. Hoping to hold and develop Afghanistan as a buffer between their spectacular possessions in British-India—the “jewel of the British crown”—and the threatening Russians to the north, the British marched into Afghanistan in 1839 to begin a succession of campaigns. They were bloodied especially badly twice, each time leading to the end of a major campaign.

In January of 1842, nearly 175 years ago, all but one of some 4,500 soldiers and 12,000 camp followers were cut down or frozen to death in the merciless Afghan defiles as they retreated from Kabul to Jalalabad, leading to the end of the first Anglo-Afghan War later that year. In July of 1880, toward the end of the second Anglo-Afghan War (1878-1880) the British suffered another major defeat at the Battle of Maiwand in the same Helmand and Arghandab basin to which the West has returned, again and again, losing 971 soldiers and 331 camp followers.

Afghan folklore has it that a woman named Malalai, at the cost of her own life, rallied the Afghan troops, turning them from defeat to victory at Maiwand, a battle about which every Afghan learns with pride. Malalai is remembered as the country’s greatest heroine—Afghanistan’s own Joan of Arc. Her name is given to hospitals, schools and women throughout the country, as it was in the case of parliamentarian Malalai Joya. Joya has been one of the most outspoken critics of the U.S./NATO-backed occupation. No traditionalist, but rather an ardent proponent of secularism, democracy and women’s rights, even she has repeatedly urged the Coalition to leave Afghanistan, as she did most recently in a June interview: “Our history and the history of…many other countries prove that no nation can donate liberation to another nation. Liberation should be achieved in a country by the people themselves.” She argues that Afghanistan continues to be an unfortunate victim at the heart of a great geopolitical game, not unlike when it stood between the Russian Bear and the British Lion during the nineteenth century.

What arose from the two nineteenth century Anglo-Afghan Wars, and lasted until the third Anglo-Afghan war in 1919, was a standoff that both held intermittently, and is best represented in the 1879 treaty of Gandamak, in which the British agreed to withdraw from Afghanistan, to protect it from other foreign powers, and to pay the Amir “an annual subsidy of six lakhs of Rupees” (roughly 15 million in today’s USD), all in exchange for the British right to oversee Afghan foreign relations. Although the British were unable to occupy and hold Afghanistan to create a stable, British-ruled buffer between India and Russia, with a much lighter footprint, and largely from a distance, they were able to manage a less robust but acceptable buffer. 

By invading Afghanistan in 2001, the U.S./NATO-led Coalition created the war on terror, both in Afghanistan and elsewhere around the globe. Until the end of 2014, the Coalition was spending roughly US$7 billion per month and spilling a great deal of blood in its attempt to occupy and hold Afghanistan. Subsequently, it scaled back to about US$5 billion annually and a much lighter footprint, and it seems to have learned—as the British Empire did sometime between 1842 and 1879—that although Afghanistan is easy enough to seize, there may not be enough troops in the Western world to hold it. 

The British were able to manage the buffer they thought they needed from about 1879 to 1919 (not without intermittent setbacks). The Coalition will manage the war on terror it thinks it needs in Afghanistan into the foreseeable future. Bordered by the rogue Gulf state of Iran, the two nuclear powers of China and Pakistan, and a cluster of former Soviet republics, and with India and Russia (both emerging economic powerhouses and nuclear states) in the region, not to mention the Middle East (which includes 40 percent of the world's best oil) and the Caspian basin (rich with natural gas), Afghanistan is the safest location in Southwest Asia—a buffer state—for a proxy war on terror. 

Not good news for Afghans. They are again caught in a ruthless geopolitical game. 

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