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An Unexpected Light - Ten Years On, or
Plus ça Change...

Fas est et ab hoste doceri (It is right to learn, even from the enemy).

Ovid, Metamorphoses IV, 428.

In the summary of a recently declassified CIA report on nearly a decade of war in Afghanistan, a grim prognosis unfolds beneath the title: Afghan Quagmire: No End In Sight.

Despite a revision of strategy, it tells us, a re-structuring of military forces, and a refinement in the approach to counterinsurgency, the ongoing campaign has little to show for its efforts. Although the increased use of air power and of special forces in highly mobile groups has put uncomfortable pressure on the enemy, the insurgency as a whole has demonstrated resilience and unexpected tenacity; its presence has become more widespread and its tactics more sophisticated. The Afghan Army, by contrast, continues to suffer from longstanding problems of disloyalty, poor morale, desertion and inadequate training. Even greater efforts and resources will be needed, the report concludes, simply to sustain the current military stalemate. The timetable for a withdrawal has been proposed, but all will depend on the as-yet elusive goal of establishing a stable and effective government in Kabul, while the call to bring troops home grows ever louder.

Such a cheerless summation has a familiar ring these days, and would hardly be extraordinary had it not been written twenty-five years ago, at the height of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. It pays to glance at the history. In December 1979, with the goal of stabilizing a precarious and unpopular Marxist government in Kabul, and to counter a perceived fear of American interference in the country, a hundred thousand Soviet troops were hastily assembled on Afghan soil. The Afghan President was dispatched by a team of KGB-led assassins, and the capital expertly subdued. The initial intervention was declared a success. Afghans were reassured by their new guests that the reign of oppression had ended and things were looking up, although – just in case – their troops would stay a while.

We know, or should know, the rest. Drawn each year more irreversibly into the widening gyre of conflict, and exercised by an enemy both tenacious and elusive, the Soviet behemoth ground to a bloodied halt. The human cost was enormous on both sides, but the task of defeating the resistance – basmachi or bandits in Soviet terminology, mujaheddin to others – had remained beyond its reach. In early 1989, ten years later, a humiliated Red Army withdrew northwards, vowing never to return.

A top-secret memo, issued to Politburo members on the eve of withdrawal, strikes the era’s baleful note:

Our picture of the real social and economic situation in the country was insufficiently clear.  We do not want to say it, but we should: we completely disregarded the most important national and historical factors, and above all the fact that the appearance of armed foreigners in Afghanistan has always met with armed resistance from the population.  This is how it was in the past, and this is how it happened when our troops entered, even though they came there with honest and noble goals.

Much has changed since then, but the echoes of the Soviet experience ring ever more keenly today. Nothing could be more different than the motives and ambitions of the Soviets at the time, and those of the foreign forces now fighting in Afghanistan. Yet confronted with that stubborn matrix of land, people and culture that is Afghanistan, the challenges and execution of the conflict have proven paradoxically similar.

There are reasons for this. Afghanistan has always been a defiantly complex place, where overreaching strategies are apt to fail. Its inhabitants are the descendants of a patchwork of virtually autonomous kingdoms, coerced barely a century ago by a king who gave the name Yaghestan – Land of the Unruly – to his fledgling nation. Afghanistan, more specifically, was the name given to the confederation of Pashtun tribes living to the south of the country, and beyond it in the North West Frontier Province of British India.

Life in this harsh, mountainous but nonetheless beautiful terrain, still largely untouched by the machinery of the State, has always nurtured an inward-looking populace, fiercely protective of the local and fragile resources on which their livelihoods depend. Traditional life is forged in a close-knit structure of kinship and loyalties, unshakeable religious belief, and a passionate attachment to the land itself. In the Pashtun south, the bonds of clan and tribe are particularly strong. The natural distillation of these elements is an inviolable attachment to independence.

Historically, the Afghan reaction to outsiders who have attempted to penetrate by force into this distinctive culture has been twofold: in urban areas, a swift and pragmatic accommodation, and in the countryside, unyielding resistance. But the goal in both cases is the same – to be rid of interference and to return to doing things their own way. To this, sooner or later, Afghans have always returned.

Today, all news from Afghanistan is darkened by the veil of conflict. But beyond it still lies another Afghanistan of which almost nothing is known to anyone who has not encountered it at first hand; in encyclopedic volumes of policy, strategy and analysis, it is scarcely visible. This is a land rich in heritage and tradition, a long and intimately-felt history, and humane ideals. Its people are both honourable and hospitable and, while immensely proud of their independence, sincerely well-intentioned towards friendly outsiders. Their means and customs are different from our own, but they live, love and bleed like the rest of us.

I first encountered the country during the Soviet occupation, as the guest of a happy-go-lucky band of mujaheddin. Our home was a warren of shallow caves, scooped from the cliffs beneath a village not far from Kabul. Youth, and an indifferent view of politics, marvelously unimpeded by the bigger picture, allowed swift passage into a variety of companionships forged by shared adversity, which tempered even the dread thud of the enemy’s helicopters and the occasional howl of shells. My hosts were kind, cheerful and, despite hardships of every kind, entirely free of gloom. Much to their sequestered life as cave-bound guerrillas was bravado; few had any military training, and none sought glory on the battlefield. Expressions of religious fervour or xenophobia were never heard. All this brought a satisfying clarity and simplicity to daily life, and of the existential doubts that cloud the Westerner’s life, they seemed enviably free.

There was much innocence to this self-propelled romance, but the experience was unforgettable, impelling later and longer stays in the country, always circumscribed by conflict. These helped to fill in many of the rosier gaps in my vision of things and, as years passed, few of the mujaheddin groups I had seen remained untainted by excesses conferred by long and corrosive years of war. But away from the front lines, the impression of a proud and introverted people, always unexpectedly dignified in the face of prolonged trials, remained unchanged.

These travels – under five successive governments – always revealed a crucial characteristic of Afghan life: the intensely local character of social and political goals. Each portion of the country – each village, it sometimes feels – has its own customs, allegiances and ambitions, frequently hidden from its own neighbors, and wholly opaque to outsiders. Not long ago, well-meaning representatives of a European aid body were dispatched to southern Afghanistan to undertake projects in support of the local populace. Finding a village with no source of drinking water, they were disturbed to find that its women were obliged to walk long distances to gather the daily supply from a river. A well was built in the centre of the village, and the problem was solved. But returning after several months to monitor the success of the project, officials were horrified to learn that the well had been destroyed. The culprits were assumed to be the Taliban, but enquiries revealed that the destruction had been organized by the women themselves, whose only opportunity to socialize beyond the confines of the village had been denied by the project. The story is not apocryphal but, were it so, it would be no less valid as an expression of the difficulties with which outsiders endeavoring to help Afghanistan are daily faced.

Centuries of relative isolation have taught Afghans to solve local challenges – from building wells to the election of governors - locally; when help has come from outside, it has always been most successful when applied in judicious doses, and by those with the patience to adapt their good intentions to local norms. The land itself conspires against solutions conceived from afar; even a modest journey in the Afghan countryside is a reminder that conventional measures of distance – innocent enough on maps – fail utterly to convey the challenges of movement along fractured, ruined or non-existent roads. Against such tangible odds, the reach of government in rural areas has always been restrained, usually intended to take rather than to give and, not without reason, always viewed with suspicion. For this and other reasons, the state has tended to keep its distance.

Here the ghosts of the Soviet experience draw near.  The twin pillars on which western hopes for the country are poised – the empowerment a strong central government, and a powerful state army to support it – are the very entities viewed by most Afghans with the most distrust. Apart from the Soviet ambition towards similar goals, they have no historical precedent.

Both have proven antagonistic, particularly in the south of the country and the heartland of today’s insurgency, where broad feelings of suspicion at foreign interference in the motives of government and its ongoing failure to bring even rudimentary benefits to the countryside are stronger than ever.

Efforts to build an ethnically proportionate army – another logical, but nonetheless entirely foreign view of how things should be - overlook the profound antipathy in Pashtun culture to belonging to a state-run military force. The predominant ethnic group is thereby largely excluded by cultural default, and recruitment is correspondingly skewed. No clairvoyance is required to suppose that this distortion of the traditional configuration of ethnic roles will, like a spring under artificial tension, sooner or later seek to return to its original shape.

The buttressing of these cherished goals by money and troops from abroad is, as many have observed, unsustainable: both remedies have tended to aggravate rather than lessen the challenges they seek to remedy. Into one of the poorest countries of the world,  heroin-like injections of foreign cash have wrecked the traditional norms of a naturally thrifty society, and excited greed and corruption on a scale never before seen; hurled towards schemes for development, sums in the order of the entire treasuries of lesser countries reach their destinations in a predatorily-reduced trickle.

These sums nonetheless pale feebly against the incandescent costs of the foreign military presence. The rational for this presence is, again, logical enough, and the crowning supposition that greater numbers of troops will neutralize the insurgency is tantalizingly believable. But we are back to the Soviet confession: We do not want to say it, but we should. In a conflict where the enemy is not so much a measurable entity as the expression of widespread and growing grievance, armed troops are the single greatest inflammatory factor in the insurgency. Every casualty in the conflict deepens the animosity of the population; every enemy field commander culled by the deadly expertise of special forces promotes a younger and more dedicated candidate to the task.

There are reasons for this too. In late 2001, after much of the country had been shaken by the superhuman wrath of American bombs, the settling dust was perfumed with a scent of optimism. In southern Afghanistan, the Taliban regime, discredited and broken, had lost all stomach for a fight. Those of its leaders who had survived the recent onslaught had either fled to Pakistan or surrendered to the new government. Others, along with much of the local population, looked forward to the opportunity to restore prosperity to a region still recovering from the Soviet depredations of the previous decade. With the power, generosity and know-how of the Americans, anything seemed possible (these same feelings of promise could be felt in Kabul after the long-awaited fall of the Soviet supported government in the Spring of 1992. At this hope-filled juncture, many - if not most  - Afghans believed that, in recognition of their decade-long sacrifice to free the country from the scourge of communism, the hand of American largesse would quickly be extended in a grateful and reciprocating balm. Civil war followed).

What unfolded was not the hoped-for regeneration of farms and factories, or a desperately-needed process of reconciliation to absorb those former members of the regime willing to commit to peaceful regeneration. Efforts at reconciliation were shunned by the government, and new leaders appointed from Kabul proved vengeful and corrupt.

Across this volatile heartland, foreign forces seemed violently adrift, indifferent to the distinction between local leaders who were moderate and co-operative, and those who were notoriously fraudulent or brutal; night-time raids on homes, assassinations and the widespread incarceration of suspected insurgents soon fanned the embers of renewed resistance. Foreign bases and prisons the size of minor towns sprung up in regions where villages struggled for drinking water.

The point here is not to be blind to the deplorable campaign waged by the insurgency that has followed, or to the magnitude and heroism of foreign efforts to counter it. It is this: the insurgency in Afghanistan was not only far from inevitable, nor fuelled either by ideology or religious zeal. Its root lies in the bitter marginalization of the country’s largest ethnic group, and the sense of violation of its culture by outsiders. To search in its origins for ambitions of international terror is fantastically misdirected.

For all its complexity, much in Afghanistan is simple: perhaps nowhere is this more true than in matters of friendship and enmity. ‘As a friend,’ a Pashtun acquaintance once explained to me by way of a proverb, ‘an Afghan will walk with you even to Hell. As an enemy, you cannot force him into Heaven itself.’ Its compelling simplicity returns to me now. It suggests the crucial orientation of the twin poles of success and failure for foreigners in Afghanistan. In practice, it points urgently to a qualitative rather than quantitative renewal of policy, in which the military component plays a lesser rather than ever-greater role, and in which renewed efforts are made to understand the legitimacy of resistance: to learn, in short, from the enemy. Above all it should be a reminder of a simple truth: the way may even be paved with good intentions, but we cannot coerce Afghans into a Heaven of our own design.

                                September 2011