Afghanistan Just Wants to be Left Alone

On September 18, 2017, U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis announced that over 3,000 more troops will deploy to Afghanistan. This takes the number of U.S. soldiers currently serving in Afghanistan to around 8,000, a figure that, the U.S. hopes, will finally end the Afghan War once and for all. These must be exciting times for Washington. The Afghan War has been a long one--the lengthiest, in fact, in U.S. history. In addition to time, it has cost the U.S 1.07 trillion dollars and around 2,500 American lives. Surely it is about time that the war ended, and on U.S. terms at that.

The reality on the ground, though, does not reflect America’s optimism. The Taliban is currently stronger than they have ever been since 2001. The group currently controls around 4 percent of Afghanistan and contests another 66 percent of it. Apparently, Barack Obama’s 2009 decision to send 30,000 troops to Afghanistan did nothing to turn the tide in the U.S’s favor. It is therefore hard to imagine that Trump’s 3,000 will make a dent in the Afghan insurgency.

Nothing the U.S. does seems to reduce the Taliban’s resolve. Sixteen years have passed since the beginning of the Afghan War, and all the U.S. has to show for its efforts is a civilian death toll of 31,000, a government in Kabul whose members are more interested in protecting their own fiefs than governing Afghanistan, and an insurgency that will not quit until the invaders leave their land. Yet, the policymakers in Washington still think they can end this conflict  through military might. It appears that they will not stop escalating the war until their stubborn –– some may say arrogant –– desire to have their way is fulfilled.

The U.S need only read the Wikipedia page on Afghanistan to learn that other great powers have tried and failed to master the country. Britain tried to conquer the country in the 1800s, as did the Soviet Union in the 1980s. They probably doubted that a backwater in the Hindu Kush would put up much opposition to their schemes. History shows that they were sorely mistaken. Afghans fiercely resisted both invasions, managing to keep hold of their country and drive out the invaders. Their reaction to the U.S. has been no different. For Afghans, the new invaders are but another empire in the graveyard.

Britain, the Soviet Union and the U.S. made the mistake of invading Afghanistan without understanding its people. Had they done some research, they would have known that in Afghanistan, legitimate authority has long been highly localized, a product of consensus rather than brute force, and firmly anchored in tribal, clan, and kinship structures. Afghanistan only developed the barest bones of a centralized state in the twentieth century and, even today, Kabul’s control of the country’s peripheral territory is tenuous at best, as evidenced by the Taliban’s success in storming through the countryside. Afghanistan is a country that has avoided globalization simply by the will of its people. Many of them do not wish to be a part of the transmission of ideas, meanings, and values around the world, choosing instead to live by the norms they have followed for millennia. These attributes make Afghanistan a difficult country for foreign military planners to occupy. No political system or ideology imposed by an outsider is likely to survive there, and any attempt to coax political change from within must be grounded in a deep knowledge of local customs and culture. 

Pashtuns form the largest individual ethnic group in Afghanistan as well as the bulk of the Taliban. In the country and in the city, they live by a code of life they call the “Pashtunwali,” or the way of the Pashtuns. As Kwame Anthony Appiah writes in The Honor Code, the Pashtunwali, like many such tribal codes, lays great stress on maintaining one’s honor through loyalty to one’s kin, bravery in battle, hospitality to guests, retaliation for insults, and revenge for injury, whether against oneself or against members of one’s family or tribe. The presence of foreigners – both soldiers and civilians – apparently intent on reshaping the life of the region has produced an entirely predictable nationalist response. There is a great deal of insistence on the threat to the Pashtunwali posed by foreign pressure, a fear that has in part manifested in the form of violent opposition to the U.S., a country seen by some Afghans as hell-bent on changing Afghanistan’s ways.

Pashtuns are not the only ethnic group in Afghanistan opposed to forced cultural changes. In 1979, resistance to the Soviet invasion was initially taken up by Ahmed Shah Massoud and Burhanuddin Rabbani. Both men belonged to Afghanistan’s second-largest ethnic group, the Tajiks. Like most rural Afghans, Massoud and Rabbani were devout Muslims who would not stand for a foreigner enforcing a godless political system upon them. Many rural Afghans supported the resistance. Resultantly, the Soviet-Afghan War from 1979 to 1988 was fought exclusively in the countryside while the cities remained intact. The Soviets did not understand the lengths to which the Afghan resistance would go, a mistake that cost them dearly. The Afghans continued to fight the Soviets for their freedom regardless of the fact that they did not possess a fraction of the firepower the invaders had. The Soviets, faced with an Afghan onslaught, failed in holding on to Afghan territory, and decided to cut their losses and retreat in 1988. As Olivier Roy shows in Islam and Resistance in Afghanistan, the Soviets could not impose their will on an unwilling populace, a lesson the U.S. would do well to learn sooner than later. 

The U.S. cannot win this war by brute force, nor will it be able to enact an outcome agreeable to it. It appears that Afghans will continue to fight the invading forces so long as foreigners try to impose their own political solution on the country. The Taliban itself states that one of its main aims is to provide a resistance to the foreign occupation of their country

The only way to bring peace to the country is through a political settlement that gives the Taliban a say in the governance of Afghanistan. For the U.S., this raises some obvious concerns. The Taliban had an appalling human rights record when they governed Afghanistan from 1996 till 2001 and provided safe haven to Al Qaeda, both of which are unacceptable to the U.S. However, the Taliban of today is not the Taliban of 2001. It appears to understand how unpopular it was when in power and has sought to broaden its appeal by projecting a more benign image and claiming to recognize some international norms. Mullah Omar, a former Taliban chief, ruled in 2006 that local commanders should use discretion on whether to impose the proscriptions that characterized past Taliban rule. For instance, TV, music, and female education and employment could be permitted, and fighters may facilitate polio vaccinations. That same year, the Taliban’s leadership issued a code of conduct as it grew concerned that insurgents’ brutality and corruption was undermining the movement’s argument that it alone could bring Afghanistan security and justice.  In recent times, journalists venturing to Taliban-held territories in Afghanistan saw a changed group that is less harsh that it was in the past.

The Taliban in recent years implicitly distanced itself from al-Qaeda in public statement and disavowed terrorism beyond its borders. It has also condemned and combated the Islamic State in Afghanistan, suggesting that it is not allied to the global jihadi groups that currently pose a threat to U.S. foreign policy interests

For many, the proposed solution of a settlement that includes the Taliban will be totally unpalatable. How can an organization like the Taliban, notorious for past brutalities, have any say in running a country? Unfortunately, the inconvenient truth is that there exist people in the world who do not value ideas like democracy and human rights to the extent we do, and would rather live in a world outlined for them by the Taliban. Despite the U.S.’s best, though misguided, efforts, it cannot change the mindset of Afghanistan simply by beating them into submission. Afghans do not allow their ways to be changed by outsiders. It has never been done. Any real political and cultural change in Afghanistan can only come from within.