There’s a reason why Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires.
From the time of Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan to the British, Soviets and now the US and NATO, Afghanistan’s poppy fields, barren plains and rugged mountains are filled with the ghosts and treasuries of would-be conquerors. Sooner or later, America, Canada and NATO will meet the same dismal fate as everyone who went before them.
George Bush invaded Afghanistan in 2001 to rid it of al Qaeda and its Taliban protectors, taking away a “safe haven” for plotters of the 9/11 attacks. Since this was accomplished in a matter of weeks with relatively few American deaths, Bush’s neo-con puppet masters then made two disastrous mistakes: First, they sent troops off to fight a stupid, illegal and totally unnecessary war in Iraq, a country which posed as much threat to the US as Bermuda. Second, Washington installed a pretend government in Kabul to create a democracy by forcing a strong, central government on the nation – something that is an anathema to the very soul, nature and character of dozens of centuries of Afghan history.
To keep voters from becoming as questioning as they are now, once the Taliban was gone we marketed the Afghan War by claiming it is about democracy, women’s rights, education and nation building. President Obama still says the US is in Afghanistan to fight al Qaeda. But al Qaeda barely exists; its handful of members long ago decamped to Pakistan’s unruly and ungoverned tribal regions.
In fact, this war has become all about oil pipeline routes and Western domination of the energy-rich Caspian Basin. And, of course, there is pressure on Obama from the right that the US cannot afford to “lose” a second war under his command. So he seems to feel that his only option is charging full-tilt over a cliff. Unless he ends this daft misadventure, his granddaughters may see American soldiers still fighting in the badlands of Afghanistan.
Put bluntly, Afghanistan is a bloody mess and America, Canada and NATO add to the problem every day we're there. It’s way past time for us to go home.
Before any stability can be returned to the country, the Taliban and other insurgents in the south have to be cut off from their cash flow: Opium smuggling.
Since drug dealers, traffickers and customers are protected by corrupt officials in Kabul and provincial capitals, the only realistic answer is for America and NATO to become poppy farmer’s highest paying customer. It’s a tactic that was wildly successful in Turkey and it can work in Afghanistan, as well.
Some small part of the crop can be resold to pharmaceutical companies which use opium as an ingredient in many legal drugs; the rest can be burned. It’s far cheaper than the current cost of the war. Moreover, within a year, the West will bankrupt the Taliban by deriving it of the estimated $300-million the illegal drugs trade produces and which it uses to buy weapons, food, pay bribes – and buy next year’s poppy crop.
On an ongoing basis, America and, hopefully, the EU can subsidise Afghan farmers to grow other crops, using our vast knowledge of agriculture to teach people who still live in the third century how to feed themselves and, eventually, their nation. Again, it’s a far less-expensive venture than fighting a hopeless, unending war even though this may become a semi-permanent part of America’s foreign policy.
As crucial, buying up the poppy crop for a few years will make it incredibly difficult for the Taliban to re-supply, re-equip and re-emerge as a potent force in the region. If destitute farmers and unemployed teens can’t find piece work burying IEDs or launching RGPs for the Taliban, much of its amateur infantry who get paid $5 a day to kill foreign troops will disappear.
Once the opium supply is controlled and eradicated, the US should put on hold the fruitless task of building up the central government and even most provincial governments, turning its attention instead to bolstering Afghanistan’s traditional source of political power: Tribal leaders.
Like most of its foreign policy, the Bush Administration was wrong-headed about handling Afghanistan once the Taliban were routed. Afghanistan’s Pashtun tribes, who make up 55% of the population, were excluded from power as Washington deceived itself into believing that a strong, central government could be created where one never existed.
The neo-con’s never grasped that Afghanistan is a three-legged ethnic stool and, by removing the Pashtun leg, stability became impossible.
There will be neither peace nor stability until the Pashtun majority is enfranchised. This means dealing directly with Taliban, which is largely Pashtun. The West cannot run Afghanistan by using the minority Tajik’s, Uzbek’s and Shia Hazara.
The solution to this no-longer-necessary war is not more phoney elections but a comprehensive peace agreement between ethnic factions that largely restores status quo before the 1979 Soviet invasion. This means a weak central government in Kabul – for which Hamud Karzai is ideal – and a high degree of autonomy for self-governing regions.
Instead of pretending that Kabul governs any of the country beyond its suburbs, the government should reinstate the loya jirga, or regular, tribal sit-downs. Decisions are made by consensus, often after lengthy haggling. This is the tradition of Afghans and many Islamic societies. Afghanistan worked pretty well for several thousand years under this traditional, informal and easy-going system.
There’ll have to be a quid pro quo with the tribes, beyond buying the opium crop, teaching farmers how to grow other vegetables and short-circuiting the Karzai government:
- Integrate the Pashtun back into civil society. At the moment, the Taliban are the ethnic group’s only voice.
- Stop all drone attacks on insurgent targets where civilians always end up bearing the brunt of the bombings.
- Make it clear to tribal leaders that the US doesn’t care about their disputes with other tribes, and won’t interfere as long as it doesn’t spill over into killing American and NATO forces.
- Recognise that cash goes a long way to buy loyalty in Afghanistan. It always has and always will. Just as the US did in Iraq with Sunni militias, put the tribal leaders on Washington’s payroll – with the understanding that killing of Americans will stop immediately. It worked in Anbar and other Sunni provinces and it will work in Afghanistan.
- Pay tribal leaders – and members – if they provide actionable intelligence about Taliban activities in their area.
- Use US and NATO ground forces to secure areas where needed but rely on the tribes to police themselves.
- At a loya jirga – rather than in Karzai’s presidential palace – ask Afghan elders to draw up a list of benchmarks that establish when and under what circumstances Western forces will leave. It may take months to achieve a final agreement but, in the meantime, it’s likely that violence will decline slowly and, at the end, a close-to-peace and stability situation will endure.
We won’t solve Afghanistan’s social or political problems by continuing to wage a cruel and apparently endless war. Our soldiers will never be able to change Afghanistan’s social behavior or end tribal customs that go back thousands of years. They are too busy defending their own bases from angry Afghans and it’s time to leave them alone.