Afghanistan: ‘A Shocking Indictment’


In The NYRB Afghanistan: ‘A Shocking Indictment'
Rory Stewart reviewing
No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes
by Anand Gopal

Recently, as chair of the UK Parliament Defence Committee, I voted on air strikes in Iraq, and saw state-building’s enduring appeal. The prime minister opened the debate by saying that his strategy depended on “the creation of a new and genuinely inclusive government in Iraq [and] a new representative and accountable government in Damascus.” An ex–cabinet minister argued that the solution to ISIS was to “focus on local governance and accountability.” A shadow minister replied that “there needs to be a wider, encompassing political framework, with a plan for humanitarian aid and reconstruction, which will ultimately lead us to create a stronger and more accountable Iraqi government.”

This is the intellectual frame within which Britain and many others have now decided to mount air strikes against ISIS, supplemented by counterterrorist operations to kill and capture ISIS commanders. The new coalition will pay, arm, and reinforce Iraqis and Syrians to attack our enemies. And we will replace ISIS with a credible, legitimate, inclusive state in Iraq and Syria. Before perhaps turning to Yemen, or Somalia, or returning to Libya.

But Gopal shows us clearly how easy all this is to say, and almost impossible to do. Why should we be any better at targeting ISIS than we were at targeting the Taliban and al-Qaeda? We are now funding Syrian and Iraqi militia commanders and tribal leaders. In Afghanistan such commanders made themselves wealthy off international contracts, misrepresented their rivals as terrorists, and used their connections with us to terrorize and alienate the local population. How different will our new allies be from Afghan warlords such as Jan Muhammed or Abdul Rashid Dostum? We already tried counterinsurgency and state-building in the same area of Iraq in response to a very similar group—al-Qaeda in Iraq—in 2008. We invested $100 billion a year, deployed 130,000 international troops, and funded hundreds of thousands of Sunni Arab militiamen. And the problem has returned, six years later, larger and nastier.

This is not a reason to reject intervention entirely—Bosnia, for example, was a success. But we should not pretend that a global model for “nation building under fire” is the answer. “Governance,” “the rule of law,” and “security” have different meanings in different cultures and are shaped by very local structures of power. Insurgencies vary with what remote and often little known communities think of themselves, their leaders, their religion, their past, and the outside world. Building a state or tackling an insurgency therefore requires deep knowledge of the history and character of an individual country. And such activity demands that Western governments acknowledge how little they know and can do in most of these places and cultures. But the startling differences within the countries in which we intervene are only exceeded by the startling uniformity, overconfidence, and rigidity of the Western response.

The question we need to ask today is not “How do you create good governance, economic development, and security?” Instead, we should be asking “Who makes upISIS, and why are they getting tacit support from the Sunni population?” Are either the Iraqi state or army a credible alternative? What view have rural Sunnis developed of the West, of the “surge,” or extremism? Could the Kurds hold a new front line if ISIScontinued to occupy Mosul? How would you convince the Kurdish leadership to allow the peshmerga to become a professional force, when it remains the essential channel of patronage and power for the major political parties?

How do you bring Turkey to actively support the fight against ISIS? How do you convince people in the Gulf to cease financing it? How do you stop Iraq and Syria being simply pawns in a much bigger fight between Iran and its Sunni opponents? What support can you provide for the people living under ISIS, to allow them to slowly escape this circle of horror? And how do our—the interveners’—institutions, conceptual models, weapons, and dollars undermine and distort our relationships, corrode our programs, and defeat our own stated objectives?

These are the kinds of questions—rooted in politics, culture, and lived experience—that we should have been posing in Afghanistan, instead of refining universal models of “state-building.” Such are the questions that only studies such as Gopal’s can answer.
Mr Rory, he always gives good copy.

Review of a highly critical book on our Afghan episode from the point of view of the natives. We do not reflect on these things enough, perhaps a good place to start would be to look at how the locals view our efforts. To see oursels as ithers see us!

We'll only get better at this in increments and Afghanistan provides rather a lot of hard lessons. A just war not given the focus it deserved and muddled up with Balkan nation building. These are lessons the political and military establishment that commissioned the wars often prefers to stride away from them in much the same way as the US closed the book on Vietnam with a bad taste in its mouth. It's also very possible to get worse at this.

Raging against the native corruption of a democratically elected regime of our making while trying to pull the strings facilitating an alternative warlord based patronage structure wasn't really a great idea. Doing one small war well is perhaps more advisable than fighting many. Attempts at top down social engineering need to be treated both skeptically and as long, very serious commitments. We perhaps should leave as much of the nations we intervene in intact rather than rebuilding with utopian expectations.

Having strolled away from the still smoldering wreckage in Iraq hoping not ever to look back at the mess we basically are doing much the same on the cheap in a bigger theatre against a wider insurgency. And here we are fighting many small wars to such an extent that drone targeting capacity is not over IS but in FATA and Yemen and Somalia with AFRICOM eyeing other theaters. And what are we doing in the KRG but facilitating an alternative power structure with slightly more respectable warlords and party militias. And we still seem to think that getting rid of "that guy" who caused all the problems that we were rather complicit in solves everything. The buck stopping on someone else's big shiny desk perhaps should not be so prioritized by our leaders.

And what new lessons should we apply from Iraq in Afghanistan? Perhaps that an exit with clean hands is an illusion. That we need to be busily involved especially diplomatically.

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