In October 2001 I was in Bonn, Germany as the German Bundestag debated whether or not to send German troops to Afghanistan to aid the American effort against the Taliban. The debate was declared moot by some German commentators. The war was almost over, the Taliban was falling and the Northern alliance taking control. Soon Bad Godesberg, a suburb of Bonn, would host a conference whereby states from all around would pledge assistance for the new Afghanistan. On German TV those skeptical of involvement admitted that the Taliban had been an evil regime, and who wouldn’t be thrilled by images of Afghans finally able to listen to music, or women regaining their rights. Stories of terror and slaughter at the hands of the Taliban emerged. Now, the Afghans had their freedom, and President Hamid Karzai appeared set to move the country forward.
The United States and President Bush also had a message for Afghanistan. Unlike the post-Cold War era, when the US and Russia abandoned this former proxy war zone, this time we’d stay and finish the job and create a secure future for the Afghan people. Now, eight years later, Afghanistan appears to be descending into a spiral of renewed violence and war. What happened?
Afghanistan is an example of a state that had been relatively successful until Cold War rivalry sent into a spiral of violence. Yet even that story is ambiguous. The Soviets didn’t want to invade Afghanistan, and in fact did so because a Communist leader, Hafizullah Amin, was moving too quickly to install his kind of communism, inspiring a rebellion in the countryside. This allowed the growth of Islamic extremist, something the Soviets feared. The Soviets tried to slow down Amin’s communist reforms, and even plotted to overthrow him. Finally, as the country was being torn apart by a growing civil war, the Soviets overthrew Amin and replaced him with the more moderate Babrak Karmal. Karmal was to repair relations with the Muslim conservatives and stabilize Afghanistan. However, the Russian presence made matters worse, and soon the US started intervening to arm the Mujahadeen, or “soldiers of God” to fight the Soviets. Muslims from all over, including a young Osama Bin Laden, headed to Afghanistan to join the anti-Communist fight, receiving billions of dollars worth of US arms each year. Afghanistan descended into years of civil war and destruction.
Averages Afghans suffered most. The Soviets became ever more brutal trying to control this large, wild, countryside, and couldn’t cope with the influx of American weapons. When the Cold War ended and the Soviets withdrew, a group later called the “Northern Alliance” ruled for a short time, but ineffectively. Ethnic violence raged, and Kabul was an anarchy, with rape and murder so common place that even women welcomed the Taliban’s rise to power since at the very least, they restored order.
The Taliban had been installed by the Pakistan ISI or secret police. Paksitan was fearful that Iran or some other power would benefit from an unstable Afghanistan, and felt that the radical Islamicist Taliban would be dependent on Pakistan and easier to control. The Taliban quickly became a pariah state for its radical anti-female policies and repression, though it remained closely allied with Pakistan. Then came 9-11 and the al qaeda attacks on the United States. This led the US to go to war to overthrow the Taliban, seducing Pakistan to shift allegiances and join the American side. When the Taliban fell it appeared that Afghanistan was finally going to return to the relatively peace it had before Amin came to power in 1978.
So what went wrong? It would be easy to simply blame Iraq. American effort, military power and money went into the massive effort to stabilize Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam. In retrospect, that war was a huge mistake. The benefits gained were minimal, while the cost in life, money, and American power and prestige was immense. One cost of the Iraq war was that Afghanistan was left pretty much on its own with a minimal NATO force. Moreover, most NATO members did not want to have their troops in the most dangerous regions, leaving it to the UK and the US to handle the rising Taliban.
Yet while the Iraq war may have destroyed the chance we had to support a functioning Afghan democracy, those chances may have been small in any event. The country is too diverse, large and divided to expect a stable government to emerge, and the Taliban was easily able to survive and rebuild, positioning itself in remote tribal regions, and often getting continued help from the Pakistani government. The difficulties in Afghanistan should come as no surprise. The British failed to extend rule here three separate times, and the Soviets saw their empire collapse in part because of Afghanistan.
If President Obama decides to try to “win” Afghanistan, he’ll be setting himself up for failure. The idea we have the capacity to “nation build” in places like Iraq or Afghanistan has been disproven, the goal to spread democracy and markets through military force has backfired. However, it was good that the Taliban was removed from power, and a return to the repressive extremism of the late 90s would be an absolute failure and needs to be avoided. But with the Taliban resurgent, how can this be done without getting caught up in yet another quagmire?
The only way would to be to try to alter the nature of the Taliban, and cut the link between the Taliban and the (apparently) Pakistani based remnants of al qaeda. Both may be achievable, at least in some form. Delinking al qaeda from the Taliban may be the easiest to achieve. The Taliban knows al qaeda was the cause of its downfall in 2001, and there are reports of power struggles between the two. Al qaeda would always be a target, and certainly couldn’t operate as openly now as it did in the 90s. If foregoing a partnership with al qaeda helps the Taliban recover at least some power, they may be willing to do so.
Changing the nature of Taliban rule will be far more difficult. The Afghan people detested Taliban control, and in regions where the Taliban has regained popularity they have resisted engaging in the same level of repression as before. So long as there is a relative ‘balance of power’ depriving the Taliban from total control, they could be part of a government unwilling to engage in repression of the sort seen before 2001. Two other things have to happen — foreign troops have to be removed (they help the Taliban gain support) and Pakistan has to refuse to help the Taliban gain full power.
Still, the Taliban is an Islamic extremist group, and historically those groups have been most resistant to change. Containing their power and authority rather than eliminating them may be the only feasible option.
The bottom line is that we’ve learned that we can’t impose our notions of human rights and democracy on others, even if we are convinced the general population wants them. It’s too easy for radicals to inspire anger against “imperialists,” and any military action taken will have civilian casualties that will enhance anti-American reactions. A “surge” in Afghanistan might make it Obama’s Vietnam. Bush lost his Presidency (and the Republican majority) due to Iraq; Obama must make sure he doesn’t make a similar mistake. At best we can de-link al qaeda and the Taliban and try to leave with an Afghanistan where Taliban power is limited. Success has to be defined down to simply preventing Afghanistan from being a source of terrorism against the West. Especially with the economy in free fall, the US cannot afford another foreign policy fiasco.