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Posted by on Mar 29, 2007 in At TMV | 12 comments

On the Imbroglio in Afghanistan

The likelihood is growing of a stalemate in Afghanistan between the Hamid Karzai administration backed by NATO military power and the Taliban, other Jihadi and al Qaeda forces operating mainly out of safe havens in Pakistan. 

The effect of such a stalemate would be a de facto defeat for NATO in its first operation so far outside its traditional European territories. Creating and perpetuating a stalemate requires simply that the Taliban and its supporters prevent Karzai from establishing physical security and proper governance over very large swathes of Afghan territory. 

Karzai’s writ has not reached outside the city of Kabul for over four years and is further weakened currently by Taliban led violence in almost all regions except the North. The Northern region used to be the stronghold of the Alliance, which fought the Taliban when they ruled Kabul and later joined the US in destroying that regime after 9/11/2001. 

The problem now is that NATO and American forces are fighting with methods unsuited to Afghan culture and history. They are bombing from the sky and using intensely violent forays by heavily protected ground troops to cause damage to the Taliban and its allies. In this, they have recently scored some successes. 

However, their tactics are alienating rural folk especially in the South, East and West. Worse still, those angry people are being pushed into the Taliban fold. The few who try to remain neutral or are fed up of Taliban aggression face severe punishment from Taliban raiders who capture, torture and kill “collaborators� ruthlessly. 

These are the types of scenarios described by Europeans and Asians familiar with Afghanistan and participating in humanitarian aid and public works reconstruction projects in that country. 

It is worth remembering that the Taliban conquered and effectively controlled all Afghan territory except the extreme North without using a single warplane and helicopter gunship or rows of tanks and heavy rocket launchers. They did so on foot, village by village. From Kandahar, they moved North, South, East and West wearing sandals made of discarded truck tires and carrying light weapons. Throughout their march to conquest, they took time off to pray five times a day because of their authentic piety and austerity. 

They are fighting the current war in exactly the same way. In riposte, NATO and American bombs are destroying entire villages, including precious infrastructure and causing significant “collateral damage� to children, women and elderly men. Each side is fighting separate wars in which they cross paths occasionally. 

Neither side is winning hearts and minds or advancing reconstruction or rehabilitation. Nor is either side winning the war. The Taliban and its friends have the advantage because they need only to stymie all good works by Karzai and his international friends. Making the country ungovernable and preventing peace and human security is victory enough for them. 

Obviously, the Taliban think that NATO and America will tire at some point and withdraw leaving the country open to another Taliban occupation bolstered by al Qaeda strategists and training camps. Al Qaeda are mainly Arabs and Pakistanis but they are no longer foreign for the Taliban Pashtuns because they live together day and night. 

The West’s fundamental mistake is to see Afghanistan as a nation state endangered by a totalitarian enemy. Afghanistan never was a nation state at any time in history. It has always been a patchwork of Pashtun, Baluchis, Turkmen, Tajik, Uzbek, Persians and the frontier tribes of modern Pakistan. It has never had a strong central government whose writ ran firmly throughout the territory. It borders are lines drawn at various times by foreigners, including the British. 

The West, nurtured on nation state politics and the values of the Enlightenment, is trying to create a democracy led by an Afghan, Karzai, who is a Westernized citizen of the world rather than a rough and tumble Afghan tribal warlord. The West’s mighty guns and billions of dollars are useless in such a morass, which has no national identity or historical memory of greatness as a civilization. 

Afghanistan is a kind of Switzerland. It is a mosaic, through which various invaders and traders crisscrossed to go about their conquests and commerce. Each left a few of its ethic stock in that land. Their descendants now populate most of the country. 

Switzerland had the good luck to be surrounded by more or less orderly kingdoms and, later, nation states. When those tribes of the continent of Europe had their massive Civil Wars in the 20th century, Switzerland was preserved as a neutral space by agreement among all antagonists. 

Additionally, the Swiss had the good sense to be some thing to everybody. Thus, they avoided making fierce enemies or sinking into internal civil wars among their German, French, Italian and Romansh tribes. They focused on peace and money instead of uncompromising nationalism. 

Regrettably, modern Afghans do not seem to have the common sense of the Swiss. And by a quirk of fate, NATO the world’s mightiest ever military conglomerate might yet find itself defeated by Afghanistan’s numerous unruly tribes. 

That is a real possibility if NATO does not more closely study Afghan tribal culture and history to find a new approach more in harmony with those it is trying to help.