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Losing “The Great Game": The Failure of US Policy in Afghanistan


  • Caine Rose

The war has been a disaster; the occupation continues to be a great disaster.
It hasn’t generated anything but more violence and hate. What simply cannot
be is that after it became so clear how badly it was handled there
(would) be no consequences.

—Spanish Prime Minister-elect Jose Zapatero

These words, spoken right after the Spanish elections in March, refer to the war in Iraq and its blowback in the Madrid train bombings, but they also perfectly sum up the war in Afghanistan. More than two years after the much heralded us-Afghan triumph over the Taliban and its al-Qaeda allies in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the country has been allowed to slip back into anarchy. A vastly inadequate reconstruction effort and military operations that have alienated much of the local population have set the stage for a resurgence of the ostensibly defeated anti-coalition forces.

“The reconstruction effort has been very slow and unfocused,” Kathy Gannon, the longtime Associated Press correspondent in Central Asia, told the New Yorker in March. “Many ordinary Afghans haven’t seen the positive effects of removing the Taliban. You have a war still being waged while you are trying to rebuild. And the price America pays for it is, to a great extent, a disillusionment among the people.”

Widely regarded as a necessary and justified military action, the initial regime change in Afghanistan was achieved within a matter of months. Yet wars must be prosecuted to a definitive resolution before they can be said to be won, or even over.

The greatest distortion of the facts put forward by the Bush administration, and perpetuated by the media, has been that Afghanistan has been in a postwar, reconstructive phase since Hamid Karzai’s government took power in late 2001. The fact is that the principal villains—al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, Taliban leader Mullah Omar, and renegade warlord Gulbaddin Hekmatyar—are alive and at large in the frontier mountains, and in command of considerable support. The war has merely entered a low-intensity phase. The reconstruction effort has entered the same phase, regrettably, and it was on the successful reconstruction that the success of the venture to ensure that Afghanistan can never again serve as a haven for terrorists entirely depended.

A Proud Nation
Proud and tenaciously vigilant of their liberty, the peoples of Afghanistan accepted the US intervention in the hope that it would bring about a radical change in the desperate physical conditions to which they had been reduced by a quarter century of savage war. For the Pashtun ethnic group—the founding and traditionally ruling people of the Afghanistan and from whom the Taliban drew its main support—opposition to the fundamentalist militia was decidedly a secondary concern. By the time of its fall, the Taliban had succeeded in imposing an iron discipline over the pivotal Pashtun south and east of the county. This area had been especially ravished during the anti-Soviet war and the subsequent warlord and criminal anarchy it had produced. Also, by ousting the Tajik-dominated mujahideen government, which ruled Kabul from 1992 to 1996, in a series of lightning military campaigns, the Taliban had restored a sense of nang to the Pashtun, the all-important honor around which Afghan life revolves. If the Taliban’s excesses went far beyond even the most conservative dictates of Pashtunwali, the southern tribal code, the trade-off was considered more than acceptable.

Confronted with the universal world outcry that followed 9/11, and presented with the reality of the us military victory and the substantial role that anti-Taliban Pashtun leaders had played in it, the Pashtun acquiesced to the new internationally backed regime. With a respected southern tribal leader, Hamid Karzai, as head of the new government and the blessings of the returned ex-king, Zahir Shah, who symbolized a golden age of Afghan tradition, the Pashtun waited for the Marshall Plan–style transformations of infrastructure rebuilding and economic revival that President Bush promised them when speaking at the Virginia Military Institute in the spring of 2002.

“We know that true peace will only be achieved when we give the Afghan people the means to achieve their own aspirations,” the President said. “By helping to build an Afghanistan that is free from this evil [terrorism] and is a better place in which to live, we are working in the best traditions of George Marshall.”

Reconstruction Aid Bait & Switch
Two years later, those hopes have been utterly betrayed. Afghanistan, a country of more than 25 million people whose agricultural and industrial infrastructure had been utterly ravaged by decades of war, needed tens of billions of dollars in reconstructive aid. Instead only $4.5 billion was pledged at the Tokyo donors’ conference, held in January 2002, much of which was not effectively spent and, most importantly, not spent in the right place—the countryside, where most Afghans live. Excessive amounts were used in non-governmental-organization startups and salaries, symbolized by the expenditure on guesthouses and vehicles in the radically Kabul-centric relief effort.

“At the beginning of 2003, the UN ordered 400 new Land Cruisers,” says Col. Akbar Sherzai, a former mujahideen who served under the legendary commander Abdul Haq and now heads farda [Foundation for Awareness, Rehabilitation, and Development of Afghanistan], a development agency. “Why does the UN need so many cars? The reconstruction effort is, to begin with, inefficient, particularly the salaries, which are enormous for people involved in humanitarian work. Corruption in the Afghan government is another big problem; it is usually necessary to give a bribe before a project can proceed. Unless these things are fixed, the money which comes into this country will not be sufficient, and will not impact the people it is intended to help.”

Only $2.2 billion is being provided to Afghanistan by the US this year. With most of its attention focused on the continuing war in Iraq, the US has spent $150 billion on its efforts there. While visiting Kabul for a grand total of seven hours in mid-March, US Secretary of State Colin Powell made a great show of pledging “another billion dollars on top of the 1.2 billion dollars we have already committed” at the new Berlin donors conference, held later that month. Yet when pressed by reporters he conceded that he was referring to sums that were already being spent, and that there would be no new contributions this year. US aid will drop to $1.2 billion in 2005, most of which is earmarked for the nascent and troubled Afghan army and police force. After two years of “reconstruction”, the development agency care estimates that only one percent of Afghanistan’s needs have been met.

Arguments over how much is pledged and how well it is spent become irrelevant before the dominating fact that the money is not being spent in the most crucial area—the Pashtun south. Here the vicious-circle argument that “there is a lack of aid because there is a lack of security” is constantly invoked. But this ignores the fact that with the Taliban in total retreat, the south was wide open for a massive aid effort by the spring of 2002, when Bush made his grand promises. Such an effort would have required not only a substantial commitment of resources, but an extension of the international peacekeeping presence of the International Stabilization Assistance Force (ISAF), which is based in Kabul. After two years of resistance and concessions “in principle” by international organizations such as the UN and NATO, the ISAF expansion remains on the boards.

“ISAF has created something we haven’t had in Kabul for more than 20 years—a sense of security,” says Col. Sherzai. “But it was a great mistake not to build on that momentum. Unless ISAF moves to other provinces also, things will deteriorate.”

Feudalism and Fundamentalists
“Things” are deteriorating at breakneck pace. The return to local power of most of the same feuding warlord and criminal elements, which had dominated the south before the rise of the Taliban, combined with the lack of promised us support has given the fundamentalist militia the opening it needed to attempt a return to power. Each week newspapers across the US report news of surprise attacks on military convoys, isolated Afghan army outposts, government officials, reconstruction or relief workers, and us Army bases.

From its refuge in the Pashtun tribal lands of neighboring Pakistan, the fundamentalist militia has been able over the last year to mount a serious insurgency whose dramatic acts of violence are complemented by a propaganda motif directed at the southern tribesmen: “We told you so.” The image of an America concerned only with its myopic fixation on fighting al-Qaeda, while being totally unconcerned with the very Afghan needs that allowed the terrorist group to take up residence in those parts in the first place, is one that finds resonance with Pashtun on both sides of the border.

The actual manner in which the us is conducting the war is exacerbating matters. A general heavy-handed tone, characterized by roughness in dealing with civilians and insensitivity to local customs, has been punctuated by frequent incidents in which civilians, many of them children, have been killed.

“Contrary to our culture and traditions, the troops search our houses in villages and even occupy them for as long as 15 to 20 days and arrest and terrify the innocent locals on wrong intelligence reports,” Gul Rahman, a member of a tribal delegation, told the Chinese news agency Xinhua recently. The simmering resentment bred by such actions becomes open rage when they are punctuated by such incidents as that which occurred in the remote village of Hutala in Ghazni province in December. Nine children and a local man were killed in an airstrike aimed at a Taliban member who by all accounts had left the area some time before.

As much a distortion of reality as the idea of a “postwar” Afghanistan is the constant characterization of the Taliban, in both official pronouncements and media accounts, as “remnants”. The Taliban freely operates in a third of the country, launching attacks from Nimroz province in the west to Khost in the east. The characterization reveals a profound ignorance of enduring Afghan realities. In the nation’s past, rebel groups with significant popular support maintained comparatively low-level operations while biding their time in preparation for a general uprising. The widespread prevalence of guns in Afghanistan, which is a legacy of a quarter century of outside powers such as the United States, the Soviet Union, Pakistan, Iran, and China pouring in weapons to back up their proxy fighters, means that tens of thousands of civilian sympathizers can become enemy fighters at a moment’s notice.

It is hard to see how such a state of affairs can add up to victory for the United States. Afghan expert Mark Sedra laments “a destructive cycle by which Pashtuns, disillusioned by the failure of the Karzai government to fulfill its promises of greater security and economic opportunity, are driven to support extremists” in the March 10 issue of Foreign Policy in Focus. And this failure is entirely due to the wholly inadequate military and economic resources placed at its disposal by the United States and the international community. Incidents such as the intramural fighting between federal and local forces in Herat this March only serves to highlight the fundamental tenuousness of the “free” Afghanistan that George Bush touts as one of his great accomplishments.

“We have the military aspect pretty well stabilized,” Senator Wayne Allard (R-CO) recently told CNN after returning from a fact-finding mission to Afghanistan. As he spoke, one could almost hear the ghost of Sir William MacNaughton, the British envoy during the First Anglo-Afghan War in 1841, who declared, “The country is perfectly quiet, from Dan to Beersheba” just a few months before he and the entire Kabul garrison were wiped out in a general uprising of exhausted, totally alienated Afghans.

Vanni Cappelli is a Poughkeepsie-based freelance journalist who has covered wars in the Horn of Africa, the Balkans, and Central Asia for over a dozen years. He is a co-founder and the current secretary of the Afghanistan Foreign Press Association.

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