Another perspective on Afghanistan, a reply to George Friedman

The following note by Joshua Foust was lifted from the comments section of yesterday’s note about an article by George Friedman of Stratfor, due to its length and value.  Foust is an expert in Central Asian affairs, frequently posting at (“Central Asia News – All Central Asia, All The Time“).

Regarding Stratfor, as a long-time subscriber I believe it to be a window into the thinking of America’s business and government elites.  Like all good service vendors, they stay in close harmony with the views of the customers. The almost dreamlike nature of some Stratfor analysis in recent years (unlike the solid work which build their fine reputation) reflects, in my opinion, the similarly disordered thinking of US elites about economic and geopolitical affairs. Our national OODA loop is broken in these matters.

This can be read by itself, or in counter-point with Friedman’s article.  The war in Afghanistan is important for America; it is even more important as an example of the flawed decision-making process by which America conducts its affairs.

The key question raised by Foust, beyond the scope of this note:  if Afghanistan is important to America, what should we do?  Is waging war, as part of a War on Terror, the correct policy?


Note by Joshua Foust, 27 February 2008

It is a smart bet to consider everything written in STRATFOR to be questionable unless verified by other sources. At least with regard to Central Asia, they’ve declared that, after Sapurmurat Niyazov’s death, Iran was the country most likely to invade (neglecting to mention the U.S, China, or Europe). They also declared that Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan were inches away from falling into a violent ethnic conflict on an Iraq scale, all while assuming that in the aftermath Kazakhstan would military occupy all three countries for their mineral wealth.

Here, I don’t see much change. Friedman writes that the U.S. was never interested in the Taliban, when the public speeches of both George W. Bush and even Bill Clinton before him would offer reams of contradictory evidence. Similarly, his comparison of the Soviet and NATO campaigns is shallow and inadequate: there is no one major power funneling weapons and billions of dollars of cash to a semi-organized mujahideen movement today — the sources of Taliban funding are far less transparent (deriving mostly from opium trafficking and private donations, with logistical support from elements within the ISI), the movement much more scattered, and their followers number hundreds of thousands fewer. The Soviets probably could have conquered the country if the U.S. and Saudi Arabia hadn’t flooded the countryside with billions of dollars in cash and sophisticated weaponry.

Mixed in with this, he misses the critical point: the problem with all foreigners in Afghanistan is they want the cities, when real power is derived from the countryside — and the countryside is exactly what gets neglected in a “light footprint” model.

Where is he getting the idea that the goal from the start was to score a jumping off point for covert operations into Pakistan? No one — not a single policymaker, save the long-ignored analysts of the region — thought the frontier regions would be a major problem. Is Friedman now trying to sell us on some hyper-brilliant, long-term strategy for systematically undermining Pakistan’s tribal areas five years after we realized we might want to shore up the border?

Calling Afghanistan a war without exit or victory is stupid as well. It flies in the face of history, both in Afghanistan and in vaguely similar situations like Iraq. The issue Friedman does not address, and I suppose you don’t, either, Fabius, is that the Taliban willingly cooperated with Osama Bin Laden (I discount Mullah Omar’s claims of ignorance after September 11, considering the close contact the two had during Bin Laden’s stay in Kandahar).

Similarly, saying the U.S. has no interests in Afghanistan beyond decimating (or crippling) al-Qaeda is laughably shortsighted. If nothing else, an unstable Afghanistan means there is an unstable Pakistan, and Pakistan has nuclear weapons. Furthermore, the assumption throughout the 90s was that Afghanistan was a backwater and did not matter, despite its role in insurgencies in Uzbekistan, Iran, Pakistan, and even Russia (that is, if the claims of Chechen Taliban can be believed, and there is little evidence beyond multiple, and unsourced, citings in the popular press).

The truth is quite more stark: Afghanistan is at the center of a number of nasty global issues, from oil pipelines to Islamic militancy to opium trafficking. Afghanistan in chaos puts Iran at risk, not to a democratic uprising but to yet another wave of nasty fundamentalists. Keeping Pakistan spinning wildly out of control is a bad idea for American interests in the region as well. Giving the opium lords safe haven for flooding the planet with a $35 billion a year crime syndicate is bad news for America as well. And so on. The argument that Afghanistan does not really have any long-term significance in American policies or interest is, I’m sorry to say, an ignorant one.

The complaints about sloppy intel, sloppy planning, poor strategy, and so on, are absolutely fair game — and mirrors my own critique of American policy there. But that frustrates me so much because Afghanistan is so very important, not (just) because it is also so very wasteful.

Then there is Adrian, who makes a good point as well. We made significant promises to the people of Afghanistan. If we leave now, it will be a bloodbath and there will be another massive famine in the Hazarajat and Panjshir regions.

Baduin: It is important to make a distinction between the Taliban and the Pashtuns. Though most Taliban are Pashtun, well over 99.99% of all Pashtuns are not Taliban, and in fact hate them as foreign invaders. Taliban ideology is disconnected from Pashtun history and culture, since it was mostly birthed in the Soviet-ravaged suburbs of Kandahar and the toxic refugee camps of Pakistan. Most Taliban leaders, and almost all of their fighters, are barely-literate rednecks with almost zero comprehension of the Five Pillars, Pashtun history, values, or even families (far too many are war orphans who grew up in madrassas).

You can see this distinction at play in the Swat valleyof Pakistan: peaceful, tourist-friendly Pashtuns have been overrun by crazy zealots from a well-funded madrassa in Waziristan: now they live in fear (they pleaded with Islamabad for months before they sent in a botched military raiding party), their cultural heritage in the form of ancient buddha statues has been destroyed, and their entire tenuous educational and economic infrastructure is being systematically wrecked by Maulana Fazlullah.

Mikyo has it right: Friedman is {wrong}, and does not appear to be speaking from a position well grounded in understanding the country.

Update: articles with more information on these topics

STRATFOR’s limited understanding of Central Asia:

The many ways the international community is systematically failing Afghanistan:

The unique, ahistorical origins of the Taliban:

How misguided covert ops are into Pakistan, and how misguided our support of Musharraf is:

12 thoughts on “Another perspective on Afghanistan, a reply to George Friedman”

  1. Other than the writings of Juan Cole at Informed Comment, this is the first sound strategic view of the Afghanistan situation I have ever read. The proper moves for the US after 9-11 were two: get bin Laden and the Taliban and fully fix Afghanistan somehow; pour whatever money and force were needed into the Israeli-Palestinian situation. The nonsense in Iraq and the saber-rattling with Iran are not only distractions that waste resources and make things worse, but they also allow the enemies of democracy to have an available ‘high road’ that should have been cut off long ago.

    ‘Showplace Afghanistan’ could have been a situation where economic development and democracy, along with comprehensive elimination of wild and violent fundamentalist factions, led to a nation that would be the model, the envy of the Muslim world. This may have had to involve some redrawing of the border with Pakistan, given that the line was originally set there as part of a divide/conquer algorithm allowing the bloody British to protect the Indian jewel in their crown. Throughout the Mideast and South Asia, the world incessantly suffers from the legacies of the Ottoman and British Empires and their cynical actions. Some of these corpses need to be dragged off and buried before there can be a healthy atmosphere.

    Similarly, the trillion or more dollars squandered on W. and Dick’s Excellent Adventure in Mesopotamia could have been deployed, generally, as follows: a third of it to the Israelis to pull back and shore up their defenses. A third of it to the Palestinians to give up right of return and get some sort of an economy going. A third of it to regional neighbors to provide additional land to create a viable Palestine and embrace that new country economically and militarily; for example, by joining with UN and NATO forces to separate the Israelis and Palestinians so they literally could not get at one another for awhile. Something tells me that many of the highly principled and militant positions taken on all sides would undergo serious revision in the presence of approximately $333 BILLION.

    The above was the only way to go on 9-12-2001, and is the only way to go now; however it is probably way too late, and powerful, monied political forces that have a vested interest in the current, repetitive, meaningless conflicts and debate that are ongoing are most likely in a position to prevent it now and for the foreseeable future. More’s the pity.

  2. Wow. Why not wish for a pony, too?

    I agree that all the things discussed above: a “showplace Afghanistan”, a changed Pakistan, accomplishing the sorts of things we promised the Afghans back in 2002, would be terrific. But I question the assumption that somehow enough force and enough money are going to “transform” the tribal nature of Afghanistan. They didn’t for the Macedonians, they haven’t for the portions of the place that the Russians carved off in the 19th Century. I hear this stuff and my thought is always: how do you manage to stay around long enough (given the way the locals feel about foreign occupiers) to do all this stuff, and why assume that the locals want to do it even if you can?

    ISTM that this agument fails the same test that the Bush/Cheney plans fail: it assumes that because something is important to U.S. foreign policy that it is somehow amenable to U.S. power. We can certainly rule the place in a Roman fashion: make a wasteland and call it peace – it’s correct that without the level of support the muj received against the Soviets we can eventually kill or chase off the Taliban fighters assuming we put enough troops and money into it. Or we can attempt something of the sort that foreign powers have tried over the past, bribing a local faction (as we have tried with the Tajiks and Hazaras of the Northern Alliance) to proxy our interests. What I don’t understand is the idea that, having done this one way or the other, the resulting Afghanistan turns into a calm, ethnically-harmonious, literate, middle-class western economy. Is there any example of this happening in any of the other post-colonial Muslim states? Why would you assume that just because it’s that important to lavish lawyers, guns and money on Afghanistan that the subsequent changes will happen, or happen the way we want them too?

  3. I agree with FD Chief. Smashing Bin Laden’s Afghanistan base after 9/11 and demonstrating that state support for al Qaeda had unpleasant consequences were reasonable and achievable goals. That this makes us obligated or entitled to rule Iraq or Afghanistan (explicitly or through a puppet regime) is delusional, athwart the tide of history since WWII.

    For both Iraq and Afghanistan a more valid model would have been, imo:
    1. Smash the regime, as an example to others of what happens when you cross the global hegemon.
    2. Set up a new regime. (“You! Congratulations, Mr. President.”)
    3. Leave. (“Here is a check, some $ to help you get started. Write and tell us how things are going. If you are good, we will send more money.”)

  4. Fabius –

    Thank you for the compliment of reposting my comment. Your idea sounds wonderful, however it doesn’t address any of the interests I think should be prime in American strategic calculus, all of which relate to the problem of chaos. Leaving right away would not address opium, favorable pipelines from Central Asia, or, most importantly, the stability of Pakistan. A rapid U.S. exit would have been detrimental to all three.
    Fabius Maximus replies: Agree. Until you mentioned them, I had given these little thought. Although I strongly suspect armed intervention is detrimental to all three, esp. the last. None of these look like “war”, which is what our military does. Using the Army for “stability” operations is almost an oxymoron (It is possible, but requires extraordinary forethought and care).

  5. “…demonstrating that state support for al Qaeda had unpleasant consequences”

    I find it instructive to imagine what the world looks like from the other side of the desk from time-to-time. If one sees the US as the largest and most active terrorist organization in the world today, as many around the world do, what does the above logic say about the states that support the US efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq? Are Saudi Arabia, Britain, Jordan, France, etc., legitimate targets to be “smashed?”

    If not, how should such quarrels at the international level be played out? Seems that we’re back to the options proposed by Martin van Creveld: smash them quickly and totally (we failed, and it’s now too late) or follow the example of the British in Northern Ireland (a model we’ve been unwilling or unable to follow thus far).

    Short of a concerted shift to the second Creveld option, Friedman is probably correct. There is no light at the end of the tunnel.
    Fabius Maximus replies: a sobering comment. My ex post opinion on Afghanistan was to follow the van Creveld mode: smash and run, leaving behind cash and wishes for their good fortune.

  6. Great responses to my response, all… it would seem that on the one hand a sane effort would avoid overreaching and utopianism, yet on the other hand provide sufficient engagement on economic issues such that early-exit problems would be avoided. Probably some approach along the lines of Barnett’s ‘sysadmin’ theory, where it is all about a combination of insfrastructure and workable models, rather than just fighting, or imposing parliamentary democracy. In other words, we take a triursine (three-bearish, Goldilocks) approach of mostly getting out and leaving behind a check, but along with that some locally adapted rules and systems and methods that lead to a more ethical and prosperous yet indigenous ‘operating system’ than would happen if we did nothing, or imposed everything.

    There’s clearly a lot to be done, learned, and experimented with in this area, to the effect that there must be soft ways of doing a form of social engineering that is stable yet adaptable. Our departmentalized government, and the way Westerns always impose similar structures on other parts of the world for reasons of bureaucratic compatibility and ego-stroking, does not match up with how things need to work. For example, rather than making let’s say Iraq or Afghanistan artificially and prematurely attempt to create agencies where the structure and gravitas of functionaries match ours, we should instead devise assistance-infrastructures that reflect local, tribal, religious etc. paradigms, but encourage them to evolve, merge, adapt etc.

  7. Greg — I strongly agree with your first sentance, and disagree on everything thereafter. IMO Barnett’s “system administrator” concept is flattering to us (we strike the world like Gods, lifting up the primitives) but bizarre on multiple levels. We do not have the necessary wealth. We lack the required expertise in social engineering to be intrusively and intensely tinkering with other cultures (can we start with Watts and Harlem, first?). In most cases the locals will reject our neo-colonial presumptions.

    “to the effect that there must be soft ways of doing a form of social engineering that is stable yet adaptable.”

    Perhaps. But we appear to be in the early stages of developing this. Lab work, gathering data and constructing simple theories. If there was a government Agency regulating this, they would declare that we were not ready for human trials.

    We can exort and give aid. Note however that the great development successes of the past century were, in general, those who ignored both our advice (e.g., most of SE Asia).

  8. You may be right, I may be crazy… but I do think that there is something to be learned and attempted in this realm… perhaps domestic trials are the place to begin, and perhaps what Barnett is ‘missing’ is some Deming… who defined success as being at least 85% about successful interface to existing emergent systems, and only 15% at most about what one does independently thereof. The ‘experiment’ in places like Afghanistan, or Iraq for that matter, would be to tailor our aid efforts in all realms to the existing social and economic structures of the locality… sort of exactly the opposite of what we, the UN, and everyone else who has essentially followed the British model has done. That is, the great ‘we’ has always insisted that the locals configure a bureaucracy we can understand, with officials who are worthy of meeting with ours as peers, and so on. Of course they do that, and it always fails, because (like the current Karzai and al-Maliki governments), they have no real interface to the local systems. Another issue is how we for some insane reason tend to favor weak-executive, non-federal parliamentary democracies, so the top man (vulnerable to easy votes of no confidence rather than difficult impeachments) can do little, and diverse constituencies have far less room for local experimentation than in our system. So you have the oddity that we are spreading a form of ‘democracy’ minus two of our own flavor’s best strengths.

    And who’s the pessimist now;-?

  9. It is not pessimism to be careful with experimentation on humans, but simple ethics. I doubt the people of Iraq or Afghanistan appreciate our use of them as lab rats to test the theories of Barnett and the neocons, nor are they impressed with our self-confidence.
    As I can many others have said: if we are so good at manipulating social systems, let’s fix the inner cities of the America. Comparing Harlem today vs 1960 gives us little to boast about. If we cannot do it here, where we know the language-culture-history, how can we do it in foreign lands?

  10. Cereal Offender

    “Regarding Stratfor, as a long-time subscriber I believe it to be a window into the thinking of America’s business and government elites.”

    Excellent point. I heard a talk with Friedman where he said that we should expect the rise of Mexico and Turkey in the future. He said that we “shouldn’t piss off the Mexicans” and that “there is no immigration debate.” It was obvious to me that the point of “warning” us about Turkey and Mexico was to encourage open borders. Its no secret that the business and government elite want open borders so his “don’t piss off Mexico” comment was intended make us give in to what ever the Mexicans want. The elite in Europe want more Turkish and N. African immigrants too.

    I also heard an interview with Friedman where he implied that the Iraq war was the reason that America had not been hit since 9-11. He does have relatives that served in Iraq so I understand him wanting to keep a positive attitude regarding the war but I was shocked to hear such a Hannity-like comment from a normally well thought out person.

    While I do like to read the free stuff that Stratfor offers, I can’t justify a subscription for the very reason you pointed out. I’m pretty sure that big business accounts for much of Stratfor’s revenue, so putting out the “we need to be scared of the Turks and Mexicans because in 50 years they’re going to get us” idea seems to reflect the wishes of the Transnational corporations.

  11. Simply put, the Taliban will win. Odious they may be but they will fix the opium problem (as they did before) and can probably be trusted to stick to a deal on pipelines. At least Joshua is honest about them as a factor, though Russian moves have probably killed this one.

    Hand the keys to them, give them a load of cash. Let the Pakistanis and Iranians keep them under reasonable control, as they did before. Leave alone for a generation or so and they will soften into something a bit more reasonable, as did the Iranians (who seem to be more into shopping malls than fundementalism now). Another plus, Pakistan will re-stabalise.

    Oh, for the record, it’s our ‘allies’ there (Northern faction and all that) that re-started opium production and have gone from nothing to Number 1 producer in the world in only 7 years

    So, in very blunt terms, why should US and NATO forces be used to prop up drug growers and oil pipelines that only are being proposed to cut Russia out of the loop?

    Not so much the “Great Game’, more the ‘Great Farce’.

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