I was watching TV last night, and some folks were discussing Obama’s planned “surge” in Afghanistan. Various people were discussing the issues at hand, such as the Taliban’s growing strength in the mountainous region between Afghanistan and Pakistan, the utter lack of any government infrastructure, corruption in the Afghan and Pakistan government, as well as geographic issues like the sheer size of Afghanistan compared to Iraq, and the fact that much of Afghanistan is separated, untamed, mountainous regions rather than a fairly interconnected urbanized nation like Iraq.
And then someone piped up and said something to the effect of “I think that what it really comes down to is we need to give the Obama administration a chance, to see if this Surge in Afghanistan will work.”
Give the surge a chance? Really? That is your take on it? Roll the dice and hope we get lucky in the Graveyard of Empires?
Sometimes I just get weirded out by the fact that humans have been waging war against humans throughout our entire history, and yet, war is still so thoroughly misunderstood by humans. How does war work? What is it that war can and cannot do? We’ve had thousands of years to study these questions and most people don’t know the answers.
Many have a “romantic” view of war. Good guys versus Bad guys. Bad guys start trouble. Good guys respond in such a way that only Bad guys are hurt. Bad guys surrender. Good guys live happily ever after. “They hate us for our freedom” is an indicator of a completely romanticized view of war. The enemy is so Bad that they hate us for simply being Free. And we are so GOOD that we had nothing to do with why they are at war with us.
Others may be aware of the fact that they don’t understand war enough to make a “go” or “no-go” decision, and yet in that space of not knowing, they fill the void with what they hope will happen. Six DAYS, six weeks, no more than six months, that’s how long Rumsfeld said we might be in Iraq before we leave. We will be welcomed as liberators. And so on.
Either you have a romantic view of war and cast your side as Good and assume that your side will follow the standard storybook arc of Good triumphing over evil, or you realize you don’t understand what will happen but in that empty void you create the results you want. However you do it, you end up at the same place.
Give War a Chance.
How about this instead?
Give pouring gasoline on a fire a chance.
You know exactly what happens when you pour gasoline on a fire, orders of magnitude of badness. Would anyone argue that we should give that a chance? No. And yet, in the “Give war a chance” mantra, the possibility exists that the result will be like pouring gasoline on a fire. Anyone who is arguing “Give war a chance” is either arguing from the fantasy point of view of war, or from ignorance.
Alexander the Great could not conquer his way through Afghanistan. He ended up bribing his way into the front door, and then with that bit of treachery, fought the rest of the way. The British Empire sent 16,000 troops through the Khyber Pass back in the day. 1 man came out alive. The Soviet Union failed to conquer Afghanistan during the 1980′s. Their nearly decades long war was part of the catalyst that brought about the end of the Soviet Union.
Afghanistan is called “The Graveyard of Empires” for a reason.
When you look at some military plan to go into Afghanistan and you don’t understand how it will work but you still argue that we should “give war a chance, you are gambling with human lives. And to make a bet using other people’s lives and money and even possibly putting the future of the entire United States of America, seems to indicate that people don’t quite get the seriousness of what they’re doing.
For Americans looking at sending more troops into Afghanistan because of the Taliban, do you even know your history? America had a part in the creation of the Taliban.
1979, Jimmy Carter approved 500 million dollars to purchase a revolt in Afghanistan against its Soviet occupiers. Carter did this, in part, because he hoped the Soviet Union would find Afghanistan to be its own Vietnam, and put a strain on teh Soviet military and drain Soviet money. Starting in 1980, Reagan funneled money and weapons and military advisers into Afghanistan to help the “Freedom Fighters” in Afghanistan defeat the Soviets. These freedom fighters included Mohammed Omar (who would start the Taliban in 1994) and Osama bin Laden (who would start al Queada around 1989). The Soviets finally give up and pull out of Afghanistan in 1989. (In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed.) Once the Soviets left Afghanistan, American support and interest in the region went to zero.
Carter had used money to buy a proxy war in Afghanistan against our enemy the Soviet Union. Reagan continued this proxy war for nearly a decade by which time about one million Afghans had been killed. After the war, we left our proxy high and dry, creating a power vacuum that was eventually filled by the Taliban. And the Taliban was what harbored Osama bin Laden and his al Queda training camps. It was these al Queda training camps that ended up creating the world trade center attack in 1993 and the attacks on September 11, 2001.
Knowing the history of our own short-sightedness in the 1980′s which enabled the Taliban and al Queda to take over Afghanistan in the power vacuum that we created, one should conclude that poorly executed military action can sometimes be worse than doing nothing. It should also banish anyone’s notion that we’re living in a Good versus Bad war fantasy. And yet some people are still saying we should give war a chance, not because they can explain how it would actually succeed, but rather because they either believe we’re operating in a Good versus Bad war fantasy or because they don’t know how it will work but insert their ideal solution into the unknown void.
So, here are some current underlying facts about Afghanistan that any American attempt to deal with the Taliban and al Queda in Afghanistan must acknowledge.
The current Afghanistan central government under Harmid Karzai is corrupt and weak. It is corrupt to the point that bribery is needed to do anything. It is weak to the point that it can’t really do anything other than take bribes. The central government is meant to unify Afghanistan’s many tribal warlords.
Afghanistan is a tribal land, with many individual tribes. During the 1980′s, these tribes had a common enemy in the Soviet invaders/occupiers. After the Soviets and Americans left, these tribes began fighting a civil war against each other for power. The result polarized the tribes into two factions: the Taliban controlled the south, including Kabul, and the Northern Alliance who controlled the north.
Why is Afghanistan Tribal? Why isn’t Afghanistan an urban nation? Economics and Geography. Geographically, the land is mountainous, and mountains separate people who might otherwise create larger social structures. Economically, Afghanistan is poor. Two-thirds of the people live on less than two dollars a day. Unemployment is around 40%. And the central government provides little benefits to the people in the mountains, in teh small villages, where the Taliban are gaining more popularity. There is little infrastructure outside the main cities of Afghanistan. No roads, no water, no electricity. One of the most valuable things in these undeveloped areas of goat herders turns out to be growing heroin, which then funds war lords.
The Taliban can recruit kids in these areas for a few dollars a day.
Speaking or recruitment, it turns out that US forces swept into Afghanistan right after 9/11 and fairly quickly “conquered” most of the resistance. But part of that “conquering” was actually in the form of large bags of money. Like Alexander the Great, we didn’t blast our way through the region. We bribed our way through. This isn’t to downplay the American troops who put their lives on the lines engaged in real firefights in 2002. But it does point to what might at least be a more historically accurate solution.
We may have to bribe our way to victory in Afghanistan. A lot of people who see this as Good versus Evil will not like the idea of Good people bribing Bad people to “be nice”. But the Good/Evil split is a false dichotomy. There are al Queda and Taliban types in Afghanistan who are pure evil. There are some Americans in Afghanistan who truly want to protect America from another 9/11 attack.
But in between this Good and Evil is the rural, tribal, poor of Afghanistan. The Taliban can currently recruit a fighter on 8 bucks a day and the cost of a kalashnikov. The US could probably recruit them to be on our side for 9 dollars a day, and maybe give them something to do so we know they’re not double dipping. Probably won’t be hiring them to lay fiberoptic lines across the mountains, but any kind of infrastructure project that would benefit the local tribe could use some help. even if its “bribed” help.
Some people who subscribe to the ”Good versus Evil” fantasy version of war won’t like this on the idea that they don’t want to win by bribing someone who might become our enemy. They want to win this in a military victory, like their Good Versus Evil fantasy tells them it should look like.
But what is our “victory condition” in Afghanistan anyway? If you want to “conquer” Afghanistan, you will be there until your money and bodies run out and you will never win. If you want to wipe out the Taliban and all their recruits no matter how devoted they are to the cause, again, you’ve got an infinite task. If you want to discourage a lawless land from become a haven for people who are capable and willing to launch a terrorist attack against America, and instead encourage a state-based solution, then you might have a realistic goal. Maybe.
Hm, did I miss anything?
Oh, the current Pakistani government under Asif Ali Zardari (known as “Mr 10%” and who was accused of threatening to kill a businessman with a remote-controlled bomb unless he withdrew money from a bank as pay-off) is also corrupt. Zardari is one of the 5 richest men in Pakistan, with a net worth of about 1.8 billion.
The area where the Taliban is most popular is the mountainous border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan. This area is largely populated by Pashtun people. The Pashtun people are not by default Taliban. But the Taliban seems to have found that the independent notions and tribal notions of the Pashtun combined with the abject poverty of the young Pashtun men growing up in this region, often creates someone willing to carry a Taliban rifle for eight dollars a day.
But the Pashtun are not by default the same as Taliban. When you hear about some American predator drone firing a missile in Afghanistan, and the Americans claim it attacked militants and some Afghans claim it was a house full of civilians, those civilians are usually Pashtun, and the missile strike is usually in this mountain region between Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The area known as “Swat” in Pakistan is mostly Pashtun and currently controlled by the Taliban. Pakistan’s government has agreed to restore sharia, or Islamic law, in the Swat Valley as part of a peace deal with local pro-Taliban fighters in Swat.
How about some population numbers:
Afghanistan total: 33 million
Afghanistan Pashtun population: 13 million.
Pakistan total: 170 million
Pakistan Pashtun population: 28 million
Iraq total: 29 million
Taliban: about 10 thousand
al queda: ???
Hm, anything else that might be important and relavant?
Pakistan has nuclear weapons.
Now, given all this information, all these facts, the first thing that seems obvious is that any military or diplomatic proposal must have clear goals. Are we fighting al Queda, and or the Taliban? If this turns into a battle of America versus the Pashtun population, things are going to get Ugly. If this turns into a battle of America versus Afghanistan and Pakistan, all bets are off.
If we don’t want this war to become America versus Pashtun, we’d probably do well to stop bombing Pashtun civilians simply because they’re in the mountains where Taliban are known to operate. 10,000 taliban hiding among a population of 13 million Pashtun, means a lot of Pashtun are not Taliban. But if predator drones keep killing innocent Pashtuns, the numbers will definitely change.
Meanwhile, some are upset at Pakistan’s deal with Taliban fighters in Swat giving them sharia, Islamic Law, in exchange for a peace deal. What must not be lost is that America cannot wage war against Islam. We are not waging war in Afghanistan to enforce a certain religious point of view. We are not waging a war to export christianity. And stopping sharia will not stop al Queda terrorists from launching another attack in the US.
America might do better to focus on the known corruption of the central government in Afghanistan. If you’re living in a tribe in rural Afghanistan, what incentive is there to become part of the central government if all you get is more poeple to bribe? Clean up the corruption to some degree, and then start showing rural people in Afghanistan real benefits that only the central government can provide, and maybe you can counter teh Taliban’s recruitment efforts.
As for Pakistan and their peace treaty with the Taliban, do we care whether Islamic Law is in place in the region? Does it matter? I don’t think so. Our goal is to prevent al queda type terrorist training camps, not impose freedom of religion on a foreign land.
But the “Surge”??? Obama’s big plan for Afghanistan is to send more troops? I do not see how it can work with all the larger problems still looming. It’s like fixing the propeller on a boat that has a gaping hole in its hull. Yeah, a propeller might help, but your boat is sinking, like, NOW!
I certainly haven’t seen anyone explain how the Surge can actually solve the problems in Afghanistan or get America any closer to keeping terrorist training camps out of the region. I’m certainly not going to say “Let’s give war a chance” simply because I have no other plan. That sort of short sightedness created the power vacuum in Afghanistan in 1989 and eventually brought the Taliban to power.
Sometimes just admitting that there is no easy solution is the best you can hope for. At the very least, it means that you push people out of the “Good versus Evil” mentality, which then means they have to start dealing with the realities of war.
And thats really what War Handwavium is all about. The realities versus the fantasies of war.