Wednesday, April 01, 2009

The Taliban for Dummies: Learning from the USSR's mistakes (again)

(Photos are of a main street in Kabul in 1975 and again in 1996, after a terrible civil war destroyed much of Afghanistan)

Back in 2003, I checked out my name on Google for the first time -- just to see what, if anything, would come up. Tentatively I typed in "Jane Stillwater" and OMG! There I was! And to my even further surprise I had actually been cited on! Me? And not only that, but the Freepers were quoting a letter that I had written to the editors of Time magazine. AND the reason that the Freepers were quoting it was because apparently a copy of my letter had somehow shown up in Lee Boyd Malvo's jail cell! How Twilight Zone is that?

Here's the quote: "Is it possible that Iraq will be to America what Afghanistan was to the U.S.S.R.? The similarities are chilling."

Recently I've been thinking a lot about Afghanistan -- but who hasn't? -- and it suddenly occurred to me that there might be other cautionary tales that we could learn from the USSR's experiences there -- perhaps some small hints, bits or pieces that might keep the U.S. from making the same mistakes in Afghanistan that the Soviets had made back in the day when they were in the same position that we are in now. Specifically, I would like to know if there is something that we could learn from studying what happened in Afghanistan when the USSR was forced by economic pressures at home to pull out their troops and leave a highly volatile power vacuum behind them. Were there any mistakes made by the Soviets at that point that we could possibly study, learn from and avoid making ourselves when we too are forced to pull out?

"What mistakes were those, Jane?" you might ask. The mistakes that led up to the take-over of Afghanistan by the Taliban.

How good is your knowledge of the history and politics of Afghanistan? Mine sucks eggs -- and I've actually even been there. But, as Dan Rather says, "The more time you spend in Afghanistan, the more you realize how little you actually know about the place." So I decided to farm this question out to someone who knew more on the subject than I did. Dan Rather wasn't available -- and neither was Hamid Karzai, Charlie Wilson or Osama bin Ladin -- so I e-mailed my friend Pietro Calogero. He knows a lot about Afghanistan and so I asked him.

"Jane, here's some background on what happened in Afghanistan after the USSR left. I hope it will help. After the Soviets initially invaded Afghanistan, they installed Babrak Karmal. He was one of the Afghan Communist leaders who had been sidelined after his group had overthrown a military dictator (Daoud) in 1978. The Afghan Communists -- acting apparently without Soviet approval -- then managed to botch a top-down revolution so badly that the Soviets came in at the end of 1979 to clean up the mess and prevent a total disaster."

1979. The Soviets arrive in Kabul to save Karmal's arse. Got it.

"Karmal turned out to be an ineffective leader, so they replaced him with Dr. Najib in 1986. Dr. Najib had been head of the Afghan secret services (KhAD) and was greatly feared; but he turned out to be an effective leader and bargainer as well. So when the Soviets pulled out in 1989, contrary to Western expectations, Najib's regime turned out to be very resilient. The Mujahideen were badly beaten in an offensive at Jalalabad that year."

So. Najib was a bad guy who turned out to be a good guy. Then the Soviets left. Got that.

"Then Najib began striking deals with various factions, which was part of the reason why there were multiple betrayals and side-switchings by Afghan commanders at this time -- plus multiple betrayals and side-switching due to pressures from the US. When I was in Kabul last year, I interviewed a physics professor who had been the Minister of Higher Education under Najib, and he told me how the US really disliked Najib because he remained so consistently critical of American policies in Afghanistan."

Got it. Everything was under control under Dr. Najib, even if he was still tap-dancing like crazy in order to stay on top.

"State housing construction continued under Najib until the USSR collapsed and all foreign aid from them was cut off. Meanwhile the US broke its word to Gorbachev and continued our aid to the mujahideen, so eventually Najib had to surrender to them, but he did so peacefully. But within a month of taking power, the mujahideen started fighting for power with each other."

So. The US interfered yet again and yet again screwed up all hopes of stability in Afghanistan. Check.

"America's favorite -- Gulbuddin Hekmatyar -- started shelling positions held by Ahmad Shah Massoud within Kabul. If you want to know more about the US relationship with Hekmatyar, read 'Charlie Wilson's War'. Hekmatyar was ostensibly the Prime Minister in the same government where Massoud was Minister of Defense -- and yet they started using artillery against each other within the city."

Allies turn against each other. Kabul gets shelled. Julia Roberts hovers around in the background. Check.

"There are only fragmentary accounts of the civil war in Kabul at that time -- and, yes, I meant that pun. Cheryl Benard talks about it in 'Veiled Courage,' Human Rights Watch sketches it out in 'Blood-Stained Hands' and Khaled Hosseini gives a vivid and only slightly fictional account of it in 'A Thousand Splendid Suns'. We will never be sure of the real numbers, but here are some important estimates: 50,000 civilians were killed within Kabul, with 12,000 incidences of abduction and rape each year between 1992 and 1996. 500,000 fled as refugees from Kabul. Factional fighting became increasingly ethnicized, as Massoud and Rabbani were associated with Tajiks generally, and Panjshiris specifically over time. Mazari's Hezb-i Wahdat became associated with Hazaras and Shi'ites; Dostum's forces with Uzbeks and northerners. I think Hekmatyar was not associated with Pashtuns generally, but perhaps with the eastern Pashtuns of Jalalabad and the northern Tribal Agencies within the FATA in Pakistan.

Tribal warfare. Blood in the streets. No Tom Hanks. Got that too. Hey, I'm actually starting to understand this stuff.

"Suffice it to say that it was all a very bloody mess at this time -- one that we later brought back into play when we hastily cobbled together a government during the Bonn negotiations in the fall of 2001. I think Steven Coll's 'Ghost Wars' covers some of this, and Johnson and Leslie's 'Afghanistan: the Mirage of Peace' (2004) is also an excellent, very well-informed account."

Now I'm confused again. Did all this bloodshed take place before or after 9-11? And where does the Taliban fit in? "There's a lot of historical detail here, Jane, but what happened next is easy to describe. In short, after interfering with Afghan politics for many years and causing so many civil wars and blood baths in an effort to stop the Soviet Union that Afghanistan became tired and bleeding and vulnerable to a take-over by the Taliban in 1996, America then decided that Afghanistan no longer had any geopolitical interest for us, and so we tossed aside our most courageous allies in the Cold-War endgame as if they were awkward kids on the playground and we were too cool to play with them anymore. Afghans have often said 'Do not forget us again' and I think that is both a desperate plea and a very dire warning, simultaneously."

Pietro also gave me a whole bunch of insights into the Taliban in Afghanistan today and I thought I'd pass those along to you too -- sort of as a "Taliban for Dummies". Perhaps Robert Gates should seriously consider buying a copy of this book if our Pietro ever has time to sit down and write it (hint hint).

"To get back to your original question about the similarities between the USSR and the US in Afghanistan," Pietro continued, "off the top of my head I can think of several obvious parallels between 2009 in Kabul under American troops and 1986 in Kabul under Soviet troops (and 1970 in Saigon under US troops as well), but it is the differences as much as the parallels that are interesting. In 1986, the USSR was in serious economic trouble because its revived arms race with Reagan was pushing it to devote 50% of its GDP to military spending." Yeah, that's a parallel. The United States is now spending approximately 60% of our GDP on the military too.

"Also the overall Soviet GDP was stagnating -- for various reasons." Our GDP is now stagnating too. "Plus the USSR's opponents in Afghanistan were willing to give their lives to defend their turf, and were being coordinated by Pakistan's ISI, armed by the US, and funded by the Saudis."

Pakistan, the US and the Saudis worked together to arm Afghanistan's various insurgents back in the 1990s . Got it.

"But today, the whatever-you-might-call-them borderland insurgents are carving out a new geopolitical space on the borderland between Afghanistan and Pakistan. But the difference is that the current insurgents are doing it with substantially less outside political support than the old Taliban had. And the Pakistani government is now recognizing that its ISI had created a monster -- as the insurgents who used to fight against the USSR (in Afghanistan) and India (in Kashmir) are now attacking the Pakistani state and civil society." Sounds like the same old swamp that the one everyone was slogging through back between 1989 and 1996 -- only different.

"Okay. For simplicity's sake, let's still call the current borderland insurgents 'The Taliban' also (as they call themselves -- or occasionally by other names such as Lashkar-e Taiba). These fighters are composed of different sub-groups, but their political coherence is enough to call them one movement. I am not sure that they have a totalizing ideology such as some Marxist movements have had, but there is enough commonality -- centered around Islam, anti-corruption and a vague anti-Westernness -- for them to hold together."

Taliban. Not Taliban. Main movements. Sub-groups. Got it.

"For example," continued my friend, "banning girls' schools is not really as much about promoting Islam as it is a litmus test -- because it pisses off Westerners so much. So if a village or town agrees to close girls' schools, it is a marker of loyalty; I doubt that any of the leadership think of that as fulfilling a 'true' Islamic value on the ground. Meanwhile, Americans continue to back governments that are opaque, corrupt and illegitimate -- even in the eyes of many Westerners -- so Taliban can just translate our own observations regarding local corruption into Pashto to find nuanced arguments against America's current 'project'."

Corruption. Girls' schools. Pissing westerners off. Check. "And speaking of projects," said Pietro, "I am now wondering about who the backers of the current Taliban really are and what exactly they hope to achieve. David Harvey, in his 2003 book 'The New Imperialism,' argued that there is no such thing as a 'state' that simply just exists; governments must actively pursue 'projects' in order to convince their subjects to keep committing resources to the cause. Think of Ireland in the 1970s: was there any realistic belief that the UK would let the Four Counties become part of the Irish Republic and leave hundreds of thousands of Protestants unprotected? Or look at Sri Lanka: what did the Tamil Tigers realistically hope to gain? In both cases, warring factions profited from warring -- for decades. Do the Taliban realistically think that the Hazara and other northern/western Afghans would accept their rule again? Not likely; but fighting the Coalition infidels in southern Afghanistan is a noble cause that could go on indefinitely."

So. If what Harvey says is right, then Barack Obama, Robert Gates and the rest of us Dummies could be in Afghanistan forever.

"I think we forget that some wars are brief and have decisive outcomes; some wars have been going on for at least a half-century. So unless some underlying rules and structures are substantially changed, Afghanistan runs the risk of becoming one of those chronic wars. Ho Chi Minh had an achievable, specific objective: national sovereignty for all of Vietnam. That was achieved. I am not sure that the Taliban have a realistic, achievable positive 'project' -- and I am pretty convinced that neither the US nor Pakistan have a realistic project for dismantling the Taliban movement either."

So. What is the main point we have learned about the Taliban?

"I don't think the Taliban could take over Afghanistan again. I don't think the Heratis, the Mazaris, nor Iran would allow that." Iran seems to have a large stake in what goes on in Afghanistan these days, not only because Iranians and Afghans speak the same language and have several cross-cultural ties, but also because there are now hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees now living in Iran and perhaps Iran wants Afghanistan to finally become safe enough for them all to go home. But I digress.

"However," Pietro continued, "I don't know any Afghan who wants to see the country partitioned; so if they fight to a 'line of control' as Pakistan and India and Turkey and the Cypriots did, then we may see a country that aspires to be one, but will remain split for decades -- especially if that serves outside interests."

So. Apparently at this point in time the so-called Taliban is too weak to take over the whole country like they did in 1996. Whew. But don't count them totally out either. America could still make the same mistake the Soviets did when they suddenly withdrew their financial and infrastructural aid to Afghanistan. And America could also make the same mistakes now that Charlie Wilson et al. made back in the day -- by continuing to fund unstable warlords and mujahideen and thus leaving Afghanistan vulnerable to civil war once again. And if this happens, the Taliban might actually have a shot at taking all of Afghanistan over again.

"The similarities are chilling."

PS: Pietro just e-mailed me even more information on the Taliban. You wanna know more about Afghanistan? Here's your chance!

"Pakistan's ISI had been instrumental in preventing the mujahideen from uniting during the anti-Soviet insurgency but by 1993, it was pretty clear that these actions had produced a failed state. Ahmed Rashid's book, Taliban (2000), is the best-known source on what happened next: Pious Afghans were disgusted with the rapes and general brigandage and so when a vigilante group out of the Kandahar area looked like it would take on the mujahideen commanders, the ISI helped get the Taliban going and many, many Afghans supported the movement."

The ISI helped to form the Taliban. Check.

"A lot of the rank-and-file members of the Taliban movement had grown up in refugee camps and gone to school at private madrasas (Pakistan spends too much on its military to support universal public education, so pious foundations stepped in). These young men were known as 'students'--or, in Arabic, as 'Taliban.'

"The Taliban's first test was to force a local commander to stop levying percentages (extortion) on truck-caravans on the Quetta-Kandahar highway. The newly-formed Taliban drove off the thugs who had stopped one caravan and found that task so easy that they immediately proceeded to Kandahar and drove out the local commander -- with minimal resistance."

So. The Taliban originally started in order to help establish the rule of law.

"Between 1994 and 1996 the Taliban re-imagined themselves several times; initially they did not imagine taking over Afghanistan and governing it. But by mid-1996 that seemed possible, especially with the capture of Kabul. Their opponents, the commanders, were their own worst enemies: once they had been mujahideen (roughly translated as those [mu-] who pursue the struggle [jihad] against the infidel). But once the mujahideen started fighting each other (i.e. other Muslims), they became just 'commanders' and resorted to banditry and narcotics to support themselves."

The mujahideen got corrupted. Check and double-check.

"The Taliban therefore had a simple platform: honesty/anti-corruption, piety, and imposition of security and God's law (as they interpreted it). The formula worked; and as much as contemporary Kabulis may have varying opinions of the Taliban ranging from hope to dread, there is an extraordinary level of agreement that the Taliban did not cheat or steal.

"The Taliban -- ruling what they called the Emriate of Afghanistan after 1996 -- also had funding problems, and were very unhappy about their own reliance on narcotics revenue. So they sought other sources of revenue, but were blocked by a general refusal by the rest of the world to recognize them as a legitimate government. I think this is why bin Laden was able to 'buy' them, in a sense: with his funding, they could afford the principled position of banning poppy culture in 2000, which also improved their relations with Iran."

So bin Ladin was able to buy the Taliban at bargain-basement prices because no one else would pay retail? Okay.

"Only after 2004 did the Taliban leadership recognize that they had struck a bad bargain. They did not believe the US allegation that al Qaeda had committed the 9-11 attacks, not until bin Laden began to take credit for it in his tapes. We attacked the Taliban in October 2001 because we thought they were knowingly harboring our attackers. We know now that they did not believe that al Qaeda was responsible, so here we are, eight years later, still fighting 'the Taliban' when we know that our original rationale for attacking them was invalid.

The Taliban didn't really like Osama bin Ladin all that much? Check.

"If, instead, we had taken the time to make the case for this whodunit, their ethical obligation to protect bin Laden as their guest would have been invalidated. They could have honorably turned him over to the US for betraying his word to them (he had promised not to pursue trans-national jihad to the Taliban leadership). Instead, we've had eight years of intractable war against an organization that should never have been framed as our enemy in the first place."

Bush screwed up. Again. Check that one off.

"Not to say that the Taliban are all warm-and-fuzzy sweethearts. They have political, religious, and social views that I disagree with. I won't apologize for them, but I don't think we have the imperialist right to decide that another government should match our values. In the practical politics of a place that we have barged into due to our own impatience for revenge, the central ethical question is to figure out how to enable Afghans to choose how to govern themselves."

America originally thought that bin Ladin and Saddam Hussein were saints too -- and then they both suddenly became devils. And both Iraq and Afghanistan suffered when America interfered either way. Is Pietro's point that we should stop interfering with other people's governments? I'm not sure. Maybe he means that the next time Washington feels the need to interfer in the sovereignty of other nations, we should at least pause long enough to flip a coin first.

"Unfortunately what we did in December 2001 was bring back the 'commanders,' whom most Afghan people regarded as worse than the Taliban. At Bonn, the Americans looked through their old rolodexes and invited their old contacts -- the former mujahideen who had become the fratricidal commanders in the early 1990s."

Geez Louise. Does anyone in Washington or the CIA ever even do any research? Apparently not. Got that one too.

"Unfortunately our presence, and support of a corrupting regime has been the Taliban's greatest recruitment campaign. And now, as a result, they are strong enough to fight a war on two fronts: against the Coalition forces in southern Afghanistan and the Pakistani state."

America is currently strengthening the Taliban? Check?