The carnage in Syria has put the Afghan war on the backburner for a while. But, as the debate intensifies on what the Obama administration might do about Syria, it is well to recall the obstacles in Afghanistan.
On June 4, 2013, the Defense Department’s causality page recorded 2,226 Americans killed and 18,610 wounded in action inside Afghanistan or operations involving that country since 2001. Costofwar.com says the Afghan war has cost over $632 million to the US so far. Other estimates suggest that the US, United Nations and the international community have provided a further $100 billion in development aid to Afghanistan.
Despite the commitment of so much money, persons and resources since 2001, the world’s most sophisticated military has not succeeded in building an Afghan national army capable of ensuring security after American and NATO forces leave in 2014. The international development aid has also failed to lay the foundations of a national economy capable of providing better alternatives for poor villagers than paid soldiering for the Taliban and other militias.
The debate about President Hamid Karzai’s corrupt and capricious administration as well as shortcomings of American methods may continue inconclusively forever. But it is the wrong debate.
Afghanistan remains a poisoned chalice because standing up Karzai’s army and police to take over from the coalition is not the main challenge. There is a different war at the core of Afghanistan. That is the war being waged by a tiny radical belief structure hiding within the larger 1.3 billion-strong Islamic ecosystem (and set to rise to 2.2 billion by 2030, according to the Pew Forum).
This ecosystem contains several segments at loggerheads with one another. One of those segments symbolized by tiny al Qaeda, and materially supported by the huge and wealthy Salafi and Wahhabi establishments of Saudi Arabia, is at war with the West and with Shia Islam centered in Iran and Iraq.
There is no middle ground for these warriors. The differences are irreconcilable because they want to establish their radical Sunni version of Sharia law in every country by overthrowing secular beliefs and violently punishing opponents.
Yet, more disturbing are the new wars already underway in Syria and Iraq between Sunnis and Shias, acting as proxies of Saudi Arabia and Iran. They will cause seas of blood, if they spread with modern weapons, and could cripple all of Islam. Further potentially violent political tensions are growing between the moderate and radical wings within both Sunni Islam and Shia Islam.
Those in the West and elsewhere who dislike Islam may welcome the sight of Sunni and Shia destroying each another and look forward to picking up the pieces afterwards. Such a long view of history has precedents.
In Christianity, the original Eastern Orthodox Church and the Western Roman Catholics, fought at low boil for centuries until their formal split in 1054. It took nearly 1000 years for Bartholomew I, the Istanbul-based Patriarch of Constantinople, to attend an inaugural mass for the new Pope Francis in March 2013.
Catholics and Protestants fought for almost a century from the mid-1500s to the mid-1600s, causing some 16 million deaths if we count those who succumbed to hunger and disease stemming from the instability caused by the wars. Christians disdained the Jews for 2000 years. It took centuries for those hatchets to be sheathed.
Now, there is a growing view that Afghanistan will degenerate into a conglomerate of terrorist havens after the Americans leave because Karzai does not have enough popular support among all fragments of Afghanistan’s multi ethnic people to unite the country. He is also unlikely to provide good governance and end corruption. So, he may be assassinated and it remains possible that by 2020, a range of new extremist Islamist threats will emerge because of chronic attrition in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan also has dangerous neighbors. Pakistan is a safe haven for tens of radical al Qaeda affiliates with little interest in allowing the creation of a secular, democratic and stable Afghanistan (or Pakistan). And Iran is already engaged in a low profile war with the US and Europe, which could lead to heavy American bombs soon if it refuses to dismantle the nuclear programs.
Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran are potential theaters of prolonged turmoil in addition to a lengthy proxy war in Syria between the Saudis, backed by America, and Iran to secure ascendancy of Sunni Islam over Shia Islam. So, Washington might profit from a longer view of the region’s Islamic history as it tries to disengage from Afghanistan.
marine in afghanistan photo via shutterstock.com