This brilliant article from International Security, subtitled “Understanding the Pakistan-Afghanistan Frontier”, is one of the best things I have read about the ongoing war in Afghanistan, and astride the Afghan-Pakistan border.
The main point of the article is that our problems in the region boil down to one troublesome community:
The Taliban and the other Islamic extremist insurgent elements operating on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border are almost exclusively Pashtuns, with a sprinkling of radicals from nonborder ethnicities. The implications of this salient fact—that most of Pakistan’s and Afghanistan’s violent religious extremism, and with it much of the United States’ counterterrorism challenge, are centered within a single ethnolinguistic group—have not been fully grasped by a governmental policy community that has long downplayed cultural dynamics.
The British called these folks “Pathans”. The British were not notably successful in fighting them, though they did somewhat better recruiting them and bringing them into their employ.
One tribe within the larger Pashtun grouping are the Waziris.
Of all the Pashtun tribes, the Waziris of greater Waziristan … are reputed to be the most conservative and irascible. The Waziris pride themselves on never having paid taxes to any sovereign and never having their lands, which they consider veiled, or in purdah, conquered.
Waziristan was the setting for Kipling’s The Man Who Would be King. Waziristan is categorically the uttermost end of the earth.
In a way I suppose the Pashtuns should be libertarian heroes. The Pashtuns “constitute the largest ethnic group in the world without a nation-state.” And, unlike some other communities, they don’t want one. They govern themselves according to a code called Pashtunwalli, or “the way of the Pashtuns”. They prize their personal independence above all things. A key point of honor for this group is the provision of hospitality, even at the cost of risk or hardship. This means, for one thing, that there was no way they were going to give up Osama bin Laden, either prior to the US invasion of Afghanistan, or now.
Tragically, the informal and consensual form of governance the Pashtuns have long lived by has been put under tremendous strain by the ceaseless, large scale conflict that began with the Soviet invasion of 1979. Following that, the Pakistanis, funded by the Saudis, began a process of radicalization of the Pashtuns, supporting fundamentalist madrassas. When the Soviets withdrew, the Pakistani ISI continued the radicalization of the area, which they perceived to be in Pakistan’s interest. This caused further disintegration of the traditional order among the Pashtuns.
the monster created in this ill-conceived experiment is virtually out of control. Apart from short-term tactical military successes, the political momentum of radicalization in the north appears to have gone beyond the power of the Pakistani state to contain it, let alone suppress it, which suggests that the odds of the radical fundamentalist genie being put back into the bottle are slim.
Even worse, the authors assert that US policy in the area is counterproductive:
For the United States, the short-term solution for bringing the Pashtun lands back from the radical brink is to strengthen and rebuild the tribal structures from the inside while reducing the pressures on them from the outside, rather than the current policy of doing the opposite.
… rather than applying external pressure by seeking to extend the reach of the anathematic central government, an action that historically has fomented insurrection among the proto-insurgent Pashtun, the United States and the international community should be doing everything in their means to empower the tribal elders and restore the traditional balance to the system. One way to start in Afghanistan would be to amend the constitution to elect provincial governors and deputy governors directly, rather than the current method of having outsiders imposed upon the Pashtun provinces by ªat from Kabul.
This cuts against the idea that the USA should try to centralized authority on Afghanistan, a task no one has ever succeeded at. Rather, we should be making concrete improvements in the lives of the people there, so that they can reestablish their own way of life.
The next step is to bring rapid improvements in everyday people’s lives in the Pashtun belt, where in many places one child in three still dies before her fifth birthday. These improvements must begin to be felt quickly across a broad sweep of the Pashtun lands, before spreading Talibanization can further consolidate its position among the people and make their denial a self-fulfilling prophecy. The level of nonsecurity-related (i.e., police and army) aid actually reaching the Pashtun people in Afghanistan since the U.S. invasion has been shockingly low, less than $5 per Pashtun per year, an astonishingly miserly effort considering the critical strategic nature of the region. As suggested elsewhere, military tactics, too, such as the preeminence of intrusive sweep operations, the emphasis on the so-called kill/capture mission, and the indiscriminate use of airpower in inhabited areas have been extremely damaging to counterinsurgency efforts among a revenge-oriented people with a zero tolerance for insult and “collateral damage.”
In Thomas Barnett’s phrasing, we need more SysAdmin and less Leviathan, if we want long-term success in the region. We should be trying to restore order so that Pashtunwali can reassert itself. (It is interesting that this failure is precisely the same thing that was condemned at the end of the movie Charlie Wilson’s War.) It would be relatively cheap to provide some material help to these people, especially compared to the downstream cost of further failure in Afghanistan.
And the cost of failure in Afghanistan could be very high:
Most alarmingly, in late 2004 the Talibanization of the north began to assume aspects of a more global character. Tactics used widely by Iraqi insurgents and al-Qaida fighters in Iraq started to appear in the Pakistan-Afghanistan border area and have since spread widely. Intelligence analysts believe this is evidence of an al-Qaida-affiliated information network linking jihadist movements in multiple theaters of operation with loose operational coordination on a global scale and of a capability to move at least small numbers of personnel from one operational theater to another. … The entire border area has been wracked by a sharp increase in suicide attacks, roadside bombings with the use of improved and more deadly IEDs, and the executions of “spies.”61 In 2006 Afghanistan suffered an algebraic increase in violence, including 139 suicide attacks—a fourfold increase over 2005—and approximately 1,600 incidents of IEDs—triple the numbers for 2005.62 The year 2007 continued the steady, unbroken upward trend of insurgent violence in Afghanistan since 2002.
More significant than the novelty of some of these technologies and tactics is the fact that they are foreign to traditional Afghan mores and contradict Pashtun tribal and religious values. This worrisome development suggests a growing linkage between elements of the global jihad and the emergence of a transnational jihadi culture. An analysis of Taliban shabnamah (night letters), which forms a major tactical component of the Taliban’s information and psychological operations campaigns, suggests that “the Afghan insurgency might very well be morphing into a campaign with more transnational concerns.”
Yet, these authors suggest that there is little grasp of the Pashtun culture on the part of the US and NATO militaries operating in Afghanistan, and from time to time across the border in Pakistan.
This country spends hundreds of millions of dollars on one fighter plane. Yet, the authors can still say, after we have been in Afghanistan for more than five years: “Most U.S. soldiers deploying to Afghanistan still receive little or no cultural or language training.” How many F-35s would we have to give up to pay for adequate linguistic and cultural training for troops who are fighting a counter-insurgency that is ultimately political in nature?
The priorities in the Military-Industrial Iron Triangle remain wildly out of line with reality. Our spending priorities are not focused on the actual requirements of the conflicts we are actually engaged in. This costs American lives, today, now. And it risks worse problems in the future.
I strongly recommend you read the entire article.
Also, it would be good to hear from anyone with knowledge of the subject who disagrees in whole or in part with this article, or can confirm it in whole or in part. Particularly, it would be good to hear from anyone has been in Afghanistan who may have some response to the article.