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”)