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Afghanistan: A War Won and Lost

5 October 2007

Afghanistan: A War Won and Lost

By Gwynne Dyer

This week is the sixth anniversary of the start of US air strikes against al-Qaeda and its Taliban hosts in Afghanistan. It was a very clever politico-military operation, and by December of 2001 all of Afghanistan was under the control of the United States and its local allies for a total cost of twelve American dead. Then, for no good reason, it fell apart, and now the war is lost.

In the days just after 9/11 George Tenet, the Central Intelligence Agency’s chief, came up with a bold proposal. Why invade Afghanistan with a large American army, deploying massive firepower that kills large numbers of locals and alienates the population? Why give Osama bin Laden the long anti-American guerilla war that he was undoubtedly counting on?

Instead, Tenet proposed sending teams of CIA agents and special forces into the country to win the support of the various militias, loosely linked as the Northern Alliance, that still dominated the northern regions of the country. Although the Taliban had controlled most of the country since 1996, they had never decisively won the civil war. So why not intervene in that war, shower their opponents with money and weapons, and tip the balance against the Taliban?

It worked like a charm. Pakistan, whose intelligence services had originally created the Taliban, withdrew its support, the regime fled Kabul, and most of the Taliban troops melted back into their villages. The government of a country of 27 million people was taken down for a death toll that probably did not exceed 4,000 on all sides.

By mid-December 2001 the United States effectively controlled Afghanistan through its local allies, all drawn from the northern minority groups: Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazara. There had not been the mass killing of innocent bystanders that would inevitably have accompanied a conventional US invasion, so there was no guerilla war. The traditional ruling group and biggest minority, the Pashtun, who had put their money on the Taliban and lost, would have to be brought back into the game somehow, but the usual Afghan deal-making would suffice.

Washington had the wit to make Mahmoud Karzai, a Pashtun from a clan that never had much to do with the Taliban, its puppet president in Kabut, but it didn’t carry through. It froze out all the prominent Pashtun political and religious leaders who had had dealings with the Taliban — which was, of course, almost all of them.

The Taliban had been the government of Afghanistan for almost five years, and were at the time the political vehicle of the Pashtun ascendancy in the country. If you were a traditional Pashtun leader, how could you not have had dealings with them? An amnesty that turned a blind eye to the past, plus pressure by the United States on its recent allies to grant the Pashtuns a fair share of the national pie, would have created a regime in Kabul to which Pashtuns could give their loyalty, even if they were less dominant at the centre than usual. But that never happened.

The United States had so closely identified the Taliban with al-Qaeda (although bin Laden probably never told the Taliban leadership what he was planning) that it would not talk to Pashtun leaders who had been linked to the Taliban. Six years after the invasion that wasn’t, the Pashtuns are still largely frozen out. That is why the Taliban are coming back.

Afghanistan has usually been run by regional and tribal warlords with little central control: nothing new there. But now it is also a country where the biggest minority has been largely excluded from power by foreign invaders who sided with the smaller minorities, and then blocked the process of accommodation by which the various Afghan ethnic groups normally make power-sharing deals.

The Taliban are still the main political vehicle of the Pashtuns, because there has been no time to build another. It doesn’t mean that all Pashtuns are fanatics or terrorists. Indeed, not all the Taliban are fanatics (though many of them are), and hardly any of them nurse the desire to carry out terrorist acts in other countries. That was the specialty of their (rather ungrateful) Arab guests, who fled across the border into the tribal areas of Pakistan almost six years ago.

The current fighting in the south, the Pashtun heartland, which is causing a steady dribble of American, British and Canadian casualties, will continue until the Western countries pull out. (Most other NATO members sent their troops to various parts of northern Afghanistan, where non-Pashtun warlords rule non-Pashtun populations and nobody dares attack the foreigners.) Then, after the foreigners are gone, the Afghans will make the traditional inter-ethnic deals and something like peace will return.

Will Karzai still be the president after that? Yes, if he can convince the Pashtuns that he is open to such a deal once the foreigners leave.

Will the Taliban come back to power? No, only to a share of power, and only to the extent that they can still command the loyalty of the Pashtuns once it is no longer a question of resistance to foreigners.

Will Osama bin Laden return and recreate a “nest of terrorists” in Afghanistan. Very unlikely. The Afghans paid too high a price for their hospitality the first time round.


To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4, 8 and 10. “It worked…sides”;”The United…back”; and “The Taliban…ago”

Afghanistan: Same War, Different Players

10 July 2006

Afghanistan: Same War, Different Players

By Gwynne Dyer

1839, 1878, 1979, 2001: Four foreign invasions of Afghanistan in less than 200 years. The first two were British, and unashamedly imperialist. The third was Soviet, and the invaders said they were there to defend socialism and help Afghanistan become a modern, prosperous state. The last was American, and the invaders said they were there to bring democracy and help Afghanistan become a modern, prosperous state. But all four invasions were doomed to fail (although the last still has some time to run).

When Britain deployed 3,300 troops to Helmand province early last month, then Defence Secretary John Reid said: “We hope we will leave Afghanistan without firing a single shot.” But six British soldiers have been killed in combat since then, and the new Defence Minister, Des Browne, announced on Monday that the British force is being increased by another 900 soldiers to cope with “unexpected” resistance.

The story is the same across southern Afghanistan. The Canadian army has lost six soldiers killed in action in Kandahar province since late April, and may soon face the same choice between reinforcing its troops or pulling them back, because the American combat troops in the vicinity are leaving at the end of this month. The US forces are pulling out just in time.

A country that has been invaded four times in less than two centuries is bound to know a couple of things about dealing with foreign conquerors. The first thing Afghans have learned is never to trust them, no matter how pure they say their intentions are. There are probably no more xenophobic people in the world than the Afghans, and they have earned the right to be so. If there was ever a window of opportunity for the current crop of invaders to convince Afghans that this time is different, it closed some time ago.

The other thing Afghans know is how to deal with invaders. They will always be richer and better armed, so let them occupy the country. Don’t try to hold the cities; fade back into the mountains. Take a couple of years to regroup and set up your supply lies (mostly across the border from Pakistan, this time), and then start the guerilla war in earnest. Ambush, harass and bleed the foreigners for as long as it takes. Eventually they will cut their losses and go home.

It has worked every time, and it is going to work again. Des Browne remarked plaintively last week that “the very act of (British) deployment into the south has energised opposition.” But the reality is that the rural areas of Helmand province, like most of the Pashto-speaking provinces of the south and south-east, have been under the effective control of the resistance for several years. The arrival of foreign troops in these areas simply gives the insurgents targets to attack.

The end-game is beginning even in Kabul. Hamid Karzai, the West’s chosen leader for Afghanistan, is now starting to make deals with the forces that will hold his life in their hands once the foreigners leave: the warlords and drug barons. In April, he dropped many candidates who had been approved by the “coalition” powers from a list of new provincial police chiefs, and substituted the names of known gangsters and criminals who work for the local warlords. He will also have to talk to the Taleban before long.

The “Taleban” that Western troops are now fighting in Afghanistan is more inclusive than the narrow band of fanatics who imposed order on the country in 1996 after seven years of civil war. The current Afghan resistance movement includes farmers trying to protect their poppy-fields, nationalists furious at the foreign presence, young men who just want to show that they are as brave as previous generations of Afghans — the usual grab-bag of motives that fuels any national resistance movement.

Nor is the regime that will eventually emerge in Kabul after the foreigners have gone home likely to resemble the old Taleban, a Pakistani-backed and almost entirely Pashto-speaking organisation. The foreign invasion overthrew the long domination of the Pashto-speakers in Afghanistan (about 40 percent of the population), and it is most unlikely that Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, and Turkmen will simply accept that domination again. Their own warlords will have to have a share of the power, too, and even Karzai might find a role.

Post-occupation Afghanistan would certainly live under strict Islamic law, but there is no reason to believe it would export Islamist revolution of the al-Qaeda brand. Even the old Taleban regime never did that; it gave hospitality to Osama bin Laden and his gang, but it almost certainly had no knowledge of his plans for 9/11, and on other issues it was often open to Western pressure. In 2001, for example, it shut down the whole heroin industry in Afghanistan, simply by shooting enough poppy-farmers to frighten the rest into obedience.

Afghanistan will not be left to its own devices until after the people who ordered the invasion leave office: presumably next year for Tony Blair, and January, 2009 for George W. Bush. There is time for lots of killing yet. But Afghanistan stands a reasonable chance of sorting itself out once the Western armies leave.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 10. (“It has….attack”; and “Post-occupation…obedience”)

Afghanistan: Two Years On

26 December 2003

Afghanistan: Two Years On

By Gwynne Dyer

Two years after American troops arrived in Kabul, how is the Bush administration’s project for a democratic and prosperous Afghanistan coming along? Well, the opium crop is booming: 3,600 tonnes this year, almost back up to the peak production of 4,600 tonnes that was reached before the Taliban banned the crop in 1999. Virtually none of the revenue finds its way into the hands of Hamid Karzai’s interim government in Kabul, however: the provincial warlords who control almost everything outside the capital keep it for themselves.

The rest of Afghanistan’s cash income comes almost entirely from foreign aid, but much of it is channelled through the same local warlords, strengthening their grip on the population. Small wonder that the new Afghan national army, supposed to be 70,000 strong, only managed to train 4,000 troops last year, and that the proportion of girls at school, never more than half, is dropping again due to widespread intimidation in rural areas.

Karzai is a legitimate and respected political leader, but he is only a Pashtun-speaking figurehead in an interim government whose dominant figures are mostly drawn from the non-Pashtun minorities of the north. That was inevitable at the start, because the United States subcontracted the actual job of overthrowing Taliban rule on the ground to the Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara and Turkmen militias of the Northern Alliance, but little has been done to adjust the balance since. So the southern, Pashtun-speaking provinces that were once the Taliban’s heartland are falling back into the hands of the resurgent fundamentalists.

Most of Zabul and Oruzgan provinces and half of the Kandahar region are once again Taliban-controlled by night, and US troops and those of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) have come under fire more often in the past three months than in all of the previous fifteen. Over two dozen American and ISAF troops have been killed this year, a loss rate worse than Iraq given the far smaller number of foreign troops in Afghanistan.

US officials claim to be inflicting vastly greater casualties on their opponents (more than 400 Taliban fighters killed in September alone), but the fact that most of these casualties are caused either by American air strikes or by local militias leaves much room for doubt. The militias have a habit of furthering their private interests by labelling their opponents ‘Taliban’, and the air strikes are often inaccurate because the intelligence is so bad: two US attacks in south-eastern Afghanistan killed fifteen children in the same week in early December.

After fifteen aid workers were killed in Taliban attacks in recent months, the United Nations has pulled its foreign staff back to Kabul and forbidden them even to walk in the streets. Senior UN officials have publicly doubted whether the elections scheduled for next June will happen at all. “There is a palpable risk that Afghanistan will again turn into a failed state, this time in the hands of drug cartels and narco-terrorists,” warns Antonio Maria Costa, director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. But why has it gone so badly wrong? Simple arithmetic provides the answer.

Afghanistan’s population is only slightly smaller than that of Iraq: around 20 million versus 25 million. The occupation force in Iraq numbers at least 150,000 American and allied troops, but there are only one-tenth as many in Afghanistan: 10,000 US regular and special forces soldiers spread around the country plus 5,000 ISAF troops who are largely confined to the capital. Orthodox military experts reckon even the US-led force in Iraq is too small for such a large and populous country. By the same token, the number of foreign troops in Afghanistan is hopelessly inadequate for the job.

Why is it so small? Because US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was determined to keep most US troops free for the planned attack on Iraq. This meant that his only option for controlling rural Afghanistan was to make alliances with local warlords and try to rule through them. Until recently, these local US-warlord alliances did prevent a Taliban comeback — but now that containment policy is failing in Pashtun areas, and of course it meant that the project for a democratic Afghanistan was doomed from the start.

It was probably never taken seriously at the Pentagon, which has always backed its warlord allies against the Karzai government’s attempts to assert the authority of the centre. (When Karzai tried to fire four or five ‘governors’ who were running their provinces as personal fiefdoms last May, US officials overruled him.) Until recently the US also blocked every attempt to expand ISAF’s role beyond Kabul, because international peacekeeping troops would not tolerate the informal American-warlord alliances that are the norm in rural Afghanistan.

Now the roof is slowly falling in, and US policy is slowly starting to change. More aid money and new Provincial Reconstruction Teams are being sent to Afghanistan, and ISAF is at last being asked to deploy its troops outside of Kabul. But there is little enthusiasm among NATO countries for playing second fiddle to the US special forces in provincial Afghanistan, and there is still no sign that the US is ready to break with its warlord allies.

Three predictions. There will be no internationally recognised free elections in Afghanistan in 2004 (though some sort of charade may be arranged). US forces will pull out within three years. The Taliban will be back in power within five.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 2 and 5. (“The rest…areas”; and “US officials…December”)

Gods of the Little Things

February 03, 2001

Afghanistan and the Gods of the Little Things

By Gwynne Dyer

God’s preferences on dietary matters are well-known: no pork for Jews or Muslims, no beef for Hindus, and no saturated fats or refined sugar for the Western upper-middle class. But this is the first time he has taken such a strong line on haircuts.

True, it is the sort of haircut that would offend any deity of taste: a Leonardo DiCaprio-style haircut, with the gorgeous locks flopping boyishly over the forehead. It’s called a “Titanic” in Kabul, and over the past week the Taliban government of Afghanistan has arrested 22 barbers for giving it to their clients.

It’s hard enough to earn a crust of bread in Kabul nowadays anyway, what with 20 years of war and no modern economy apart from the drug trade. The barbers were already being tempted into crime by customers sneaking in asking to have their beards trimmed, even though the trimming of beards is also banned by the Taliban. And now comes the Leonardo DiCaprio haircut.

This really annoys the Taliban because it means the proud owners of the haircuts must have seen a video of “Titanic” to get the idea. (The Taliban regime has banned all films, television and even music as contrary to their particularly rigorous interpretation of religion, and has even hanged a couple of TVs in symbolic public executions.) So the guilty barbers are in deep trouble, and so are their clients.

The Taliban government (the name means “students,” and especially students of religion) truly does believe that God dislikes the DiCaprio haircut. He must be pretty busy looking after 100 billion galaxies with an average of 100 billion stars each, and only he knows how many intelligent species with immortal souls of one sort or another — but he still has time to worry about men’s hair styles in Kabul.

No need to flog it to death: There are some very petty-minded people in charge of Afghanistan at the moment. The indignities that they inflict on barbers and their customers are nothing compared to what they have done to their female fellow-citizens, who have been driven from almost all employment outside the home, denied any chance of a higher education and subjected to even more minute regulation of every aspect of their dress and behavior. But why is the Taliban so concerned about petty things?

It’s not because they are Afghans, or because they are Muslims either. Every country and every religion has some people who get permanently lost in their obsession with rituals and minor details of dress, appearance and etiquette. It’s just that in Afghanistan, they happen to be running the place.

In every major religion, there is a kind of schizophrenia between the Big Ideas and the Little Things. The big philosophical ideas like reverence for life are not identical from one religion to another, but they do bear a strong family resemblance. Whereas the Little Things are very specific and local, and they almost always came first.

Depending on your own religious beliefs or lack of them, you may see the similarities among the philosophies as evidence of the divine will at work in the world, or as evidence for the similarity of all human beings. But there is almost always a revelation involved, a moment in history when these universal ideas and values were communicated to the believers. Whereas the Little Things hail back to the long tribal past. The pagan past, if you want to be pejorative.

Christmas is not a Christian feast; it is the old pagan mid-winter festival redefined. The veiling of women, now seen by many Muslims as an Islamic tradition, was commonplace among the upper classes of ancient Greece, Rome and Byzantium, though rare among the Arabs until they conquered the Byzantines. Circumcision and other forms of ritual physical mutilation are even older.

Fasting, offering up sacrifices, saying special formulas, making special gestures, and scarring yourself in special ways — all these Little Things come from the time before the revelations. From a time, in fact, when religion was humanity’s only plausible means of influencing how the world worked. If we get all the rituals just right, then the gods will make the sun come back, or make it rain, or whatever it is we need right now.

The Little Things are tolerated even after the big revelations because ordinary people get comfort from them. In general, the less educated the person, the bigger the part that the Little Things play in his practice of religion. Being desperate can push you in that direction too. And there are few places more ignorant or more desperate than rural Afghanistan.

This is a country where millions have died in 20 years of war, where two-thirds of Kabul has been destroyed and famine stalks the countryside, where nothing makes sense any more. In the face of such a senseless disaster, the Taliban is a village-based phenomenon whose militants are trying to win back God’s favor by imposing a mixture of conservative Islamic values and Pathan tribal customs on the country.

One of the slogans written up outside the Ministry for the Prevention of Vice and the Promotion of Virtue in Kabul reads: “Throw reason to the dogs. It stinks of corruption.” The Taliban is trying to rescue the country by magic, and there’s no point in arguing with them about haircuts or women’s rights or anything else. Everyone will just have to wait until things calm down.

Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist and historian whose articles are published in 45 countries.