x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

'Afghanistan is neither Vietnam nor Iraq - it is Afghanistan'

The lessons of history suggest that the only accurate analogy through which the present conditions in this war-torn country can be understood is by looking at Afghanistan's own tumultuous past. The latest poll says most Americans oppose the war in Afghanistan, oppose sending more troops and don't believe the country will ever have a stable democratic government.

According to the latest CNN poll, most Americans oppose the war in Afghanistan, they oppose sending more troops and they do not believe the country will ever have a stable democratic government. Even so, President Barack Obama is expected to soon approve sending as many as 30-40,000 additional American troops. Deepa Narayan from The World Bank, challenges several of the myths that she says obscure the American understanding of Afghanistan, first among these myths: "Afghans are uninterested in real democracy. Listen to the language with which the West discusses Afghanistan: that 'ungovernable' land, 'tribal,' 'fractious,' 'violent,' 'feudal' and full of 'feuds'. "But our study found that, contrary to this portrait, even the poor and illiterate in Afghanistan believe in the language of democracy more than the language of the gun, and have demonstrated this enthusiasm in ways that most Westerners have yet to notice. "In discussions with our research team, young and old Afghans were eager to talk about freedom and democracy. In a village in Herat Province, Nezammuddin, a 37-year-old butcher, offered a definition of democracy that would win smiles from many American civics teachers: 'Government of the people, by the people, through the people,' he said. Others spoke of 'equality of men and women before the law,' and freedom of expression, which one of them defined as the right 'to say one's thoughts and the ability to protest without fear.' "And, despite the massive fraud suspected in the recent presidential elections and the legitimacy questions dogging the central government, a parallel experiment in representative democracy is under way in Afghanistan, with drastically better results. "Twenty-two thousand villages have been enlisted in a project to elect local councils, and they have done so peacefully, without massive fraud allegations. Afghans told us overwhelmingly in interviews that they trusted these new councils more than the old religious ones." Nader Mousavizadeh, a special assistant to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan from 1997 to 2003, suggests that the current efforts to prop up the Afghan government should be abandoned and calls for the formation of a new Loya Jirga, or tribal council, which could redraft the constitution, allowing for a decentralised structure of governance. "Two conclusions are inescapable from the fiasco of Afghanistan's presidential elections and the McChrystal assessment: There is no electoral solution to Afghan government's crisis of legitimacy, and there is no military solution to the challenge of the Taliban. And when observing the current Afghan conflict not from the perspective of America's post-9/11 intervention, but from Afghanistan's own quarter-century of warfare, a third conclusion becomes still more apparent: What we confront is not, in fact, an insurgency but rather a civil war - one whose resolution can only be found in a new decentralised Afghan politics based on the enduring, if ugly, realities of power there, and not through another decade of Western military intervention. "If there is one lesson to be drawn from the withdrawal of Hamid Karzai's main rival from the second round of the elections - and his own subsequent appointment as president for another term - it is that the ability of outsiders to influence the existing politics of Afghanistan is now near zero, even when the object of our entreaties is a politician whose very existence has long depended entirely on Western support and funding. Like a patient rising from a hospital bed after a near-death experience only to rob his doctor blind on the way out the door, Karzai has conclusively demonstrated that his utility to Western interests - as well as to the Afghan people whom he's grossly robbed of a chance for representative government - is over. "This leaves the West with a stark dilemma. We can proceed to invest a government we ourselves have called fraudulent with an authority that few Afghans are willing to grant it, hoping it will eventually eschew the corrupt behavior that has sustained its power to date. Or we can make the unquestionably more difficult decision and insist, as a condition of our continued support, that a new political compact be put in place." William Tobey, who served on the National Security Council staff under three US presidents suggests that while Mr Obama contemplates his strategy for Afghanistan he should give less attention to the far removed analogies that are so frequently cited - Iraq and Vietnam - and consider one that involves the very same region, many decades ago. "Driven by radical Islam, Pashtun nationalism, and armed opportunism, some of the clans in Waziristan - a pair of currently militant-ridden tribal regions in Pakistan and the site of the recent anti-Taliban Pakistani military offensive - rose against British rule in 1936. The rebels improvised roadside bombs, ambushed convoys, and launched hit and run attacks on isolated outposts to drive out alien forces. They kidnapped and beheaded British soldiers and civilians. In unprotected villages, they massacred civilians who did not support them. When troops chased the rebels, they crossed the border with Afghanistan to seek refuge. (Much of this is happening today on either side of Waziristan's border with Afghanistan.) "Chasing down rebels, patrolling roads, and keeping supply lines open was - and remains - hazardous duty. Soldiers in Waziristan learned to vary their activities or paid with their lives. D S Richards in The Savage Frontier quotes a British soldier on 'the cardinal Frontier principle of never doing the same thing in the same way twice running,' because '[s]omeone was always watching - someone with an inborn tactical sense, someone who missed nothing.' "In response to the uprising, Great Britain sent 40,000 British and Indian troops to Waziristan - almost ten soldiers per square mile (the same ratio of troops to territory for even a quarter of Afghanistan would require over 600,000 soldiers, both Western and Afghan, although today's military is both more mobile and capable)... "Historical analogy can be useful in weighing public policy options, but only if it is apt, and the analysis is honest. Starting with a conclusion and selecting the analogy that best supports it is persuasion, not analysis. The 1936 revolt in Waziristan is a relevant, but imperfect, analog to the conflict we face today in the Af-Pak theater, and we can learn from British successes and setbacks. The lessons from Waziristan do not neatly prescribe an obvious course of action, but they will help us to make better judgments about the costs, benefits, and means of success, and they deserve to be considered carefully. Most of all, they will remind us that Afghanistan is neither Vietnam nor Iraq - it is Afghanistan."

pwoodward@thenational.ae