IN THE GRAVEYARD OF EMPIRES
America's War in Afghanistan
SETH G. JONES
W. W. NORTON & COMPANY
New York London
Back to the Future
The Tragedy of Afghanistan
The U.S. experience in Afghanistan, like that of the great powers that came before it, will not soon be forgotten. Before launching the 2001 campaign, few Americans had an appreciation for the country's history and subtle complexities, despite the U.S. involvement in the Soviet Union's disastrous defeat in the 1980s. U.S. policymakers had to relearn that building a government in a fractured, xenophobic country is almost infinitely more challenging than overthrowing one. The rise of the insurgency in the wake of the U.S. victory over the Taliban was deeply unfortunate. But it was not inevitable. Indeed, the irony of the U.S. experience is that some of America's most seasoned diplomats and military commanders in Afghanistan did understand the country, but they could not get through to their leaders, who were initially uninterested in nation-building and distracted by Iraq. Zalmay Khalilzad, who had grown up in Afghanistan, and Ronald Neumann, whose first expedition to Afghanistan was in 1967, had a keen appreciation for the historic challenges they faced in Afghanistan. But despite their calls for greater resources and attention, and those of several of their colleagues, such support never came. In order to restore peace in Afghanistan, we must first understand the causes of war. Afghanistan's insurgency was caused by a supply of disgruntled villagers unhappy with their government, and a demand for recruits by ideologically motivated leaders. Too little outside support for the Afghan government and too much support for insurgents further undermined governance.This combination proved deadly for the onset—and continuation—of the insurgency. The existence of a weak and ineffective government was a critical precondition to the rise of violence in Afghanistan. In the past, insurgencies have been likely to develop and acquire local support where state control has declined or collapsed. Afghan leaders at all levels failed to provide good governance. National and local officials were unable to manage resources effectively and implement sound policies. In rural areas of the country, such as the southern provinces of
IN THE GRAVEYARD OF EMPIRES
Kandahar and Helmand, there was virtually no improvement in the provision of key services, such as electricity and water, from the Taliban period to the Karzai era. "Reconstruction efforts" in Afghanistan's violent south, one Provincial Reconstruction Team commander told me, "have largely been relegated to urban areas because security conditions are so dangerous."2 This created grievances among the local population, who turned to the Taliban and other groups for order and justice. Institutions such as the Afghan National Police were unable to contain a monopoly of violence because of corruption and incompetence, as well as the power of local warlords. Police checkpoints were sometimes used to shake down local Afghans, and they regularly took bribes to allow licit and illicit goods to pass along routes they controlled. Outside support to the Afghan government was strikingly insufficient as U.S. policymakers began their sojourn into Afghanistan. "I recommended reassuring the Pashtuns that 'nation-building is not our key strategic goal,'" acknowledged Under Secretary of Defense Douglas Feith. "Rumsfeld was determined not to do 'nation-building' as the United States typically did it in the 1990s." 3 Indeed, the United States adopted a "light footprint" approach. But they ultimately would be forced to engage in nation-building to save a country that lacked the basic government institutions necessary to prevent a return of the Taliban, al Qa'ida, and other militant groups. But they did it on the cheap. The number of international troops per capita in Afghanistan was significantly less than virtually every nation-building operation since World War II. By 2003, U.S. financial resources that could have been devoted to Afghanistan were going to Iraq, squandering a momentous opportunity. In addition, insurgents were also able to gain significant assistance from the international jihadi network and neighboring states, such as Pakistan and Iran. In one of his final reports before leaving Afghanistan in 2008 as the European Union's special representative, Francesc Vendrell reflected on his decade in Afghanistan and remarked that "we blinded ourselves to growing evidence that Pakistan, contrary to
Back to the Future
assurances, was condoning the presence of, and probably providing assistance to, the Taliban in keeping with its old policy of supporting extreme Islamist groups as the best means of installing a pliable government in Kabul." Ironically, Pakistan was not immune to the spreading militancy. "The monster that elements in the ISI . . . intended to send to Afghanistan has turned against Pakistan itself."4 Like Babur's gardens, peace in Afghanistan has been cyclical. Despite several decades of war beginning with the Soviet invasion, the reign of Zahir Shah, which lasted from 1933 to 1973, included the longest period of peace and prosperity in Afghanistan's recent history. During that period, the king found a balance between the central government in Kabul and the local tribal officials who mistrusted national leaders. French social scientist Olivier Roy reminds us that the "history of Afghanistan is one of revolts against the central power and of resistance to the penetration of the countryside by state bureaucracy." 5 Based on these challenges and the country's history, the United States should follow several critical steps to achieve security: It must confront corruption, partner with local (not just national) entities, and undermine the sanctuary in Pakistan. The goal of an effective strategy should be to improve the competence and legitimacy of national and local Afghan institutions to provide security and services to the local population. Success in any counterinsurgency hinges on the support of the local population.
The first step must be to address the massive corruption at the national and local levels, which has steadily alienated the local population and fueled support for insurgent groups. While corruption is endemic in many societies, several forms of corruption appear to have specifically contributed to the Afghan insurgency: drug trafficking, bribery among senior officials, and pervasive extortion among Afghan police and judges. While the central government in Afghanistan has historically
IN THE GRAVEYARD OF EMPIRES
been weak, especially in rural areas, it needs to be viewed as legitimate by Afghans. At a bare minimum, Afghans should respect the central government enough that they don't want to overthrow it. Ironically, corruption was a major undermining factor for Zahir Shah's regime. In a private conversation with Zahir Shah in 1971, U.S. Ambassador Robert Neumann pleaded with the king to fix the "widespread corruption" that was angering the local population. "In my four and one-half years here," Neumann acknowledged, asking forgiveness for his blunt tone, "I had never heard so many expressions at all levels of society about a feeling of hopelessness that [the] new government could accomplish anything." While there are no universally applicable anticorruption strategies, there are a number of insightful lessons from successful cases in Singapore, Liberia, Botswana, and Estonia. Effective efforts have generally included the immediate firing of corrupt officials, bolstering of the justice system, professionalizarion of new staff, and incentive and performance assessment programs. Even then, broader reforms have frequently played an important role. In Uganda, for example, Yoweri Museveni's government, which came to power in 1986, implemented a strategy that involved passing economic reforms and deregulation, reforming the civil service, strengthening the auditor general's office, empowering a reputable inspector general to investigate and prosecute corruption, and implementing an anticorruption public-information campaign. Corrupt Afghan government officials, including those involved in the drug trade, need to be prosecuted and removed from office. Ambassador Thomas Schweich, who served as U.S. coordinator for counternarcotics and justice reform in Afghanistan, revealed that "a lot of intelligence . . . indicated that senior Afghan officials were deeply involved in the narcotics trade. Narco-traffickers were buying off hundreds of police chiefs, judges and other officials. Narco-corruption went to the top of the Afghan government." 7 The United States and other NATO countries also have intelligence on who many of these officials are, though a substantial amount of information is kept at the classified level. Senior officials within the Afghan government have
Back to the Future
thus far been unwilling to target government officials involved in corruption, partly because they do not want to alienate powerful political figures in the midst of an insurgency. President Karzai's efforts to establish a High Office of Oversight and Anti-Corruption and create special anticorruption units in the Office of the Attorney General and in the Judiciary were largely window dressing. The United States and others in the international community should encourage Afghan leaders to draft sweeping anticorruption legislation, arrest and prosecute corrupt officials at the national and local levels, create inspector general offices in key ministries, provide support to the justice system (including protecting judges, prosecutors, and witnesses involved in corruption trials), and conduct a robust public-information campaign. Undermining high-level corruption in Afghanistan is just as much about finding the political will to implement effective anticorruption programs as it is about developing them. And the strategic goal should be a sense of legitimacy among local Afghans.
A second step is for the United States and other countries to find a better balance between top-down efforts to build a viable central government and bottom-up efforts to support local actors. Both are critical for establishing security and providing public services. Governance in Afghanistan has never been just about the central government. During the reign of Zahir Shah, security was established using a combination of Afghan national forces—police, intelligence, and military—and local entities. Much has changed since then. But the historical weakness of the Afghan state, the local nature of politics, and a population deeply intolerant of outside forces require that strong local governance complement national-level efforts. The United States and its allies have thus far focused almost exclusively on top-down nation-building efforts to establish a viable central government. There must be a balance between the central and the local to
IN THE GRAVEYARD OF EMPIRES
build a government that can deliver services to its population and protect them with national security forces. Such a task is too much to expect of a weak central government in a tribal society. O n e of the most serious problems has been the inability of international and Afghan forces to "hold" territory once it was cleared of insurgent groups. British forces operating in the southern province of Helmand complained that they were simply "mowing the lawn." With insufficient numbers of troops to clear and hold territory, the insurgency seemed to grow back, forcing British soldiers to clear the same territory repeatedly. And they weren't alone. All across Afghanistan, U.S. and other NATO forces repeatedly had to "mow" areas that had been reinfiltrated by insurgents. Part of the answer is to increase the number of international forces, Afghan soldiers, and Afghan police to help clear and hold territory—and to get closer to the ratio of twenty soldiers per thousand inhabitants that has often been considered a minimum troop density for effective counterinsurgency. 8 Yet tribes, subtribes, and clans have historically played an important role in establishing order in Afghanistan, especially in rural areas where the government's reach is minimal or nonexistent. Unfortunately, there has never been a well-coordinated tribal engagement strategy. Pashtun tribes have historically resolved most disputes through shuras and jirgas. The rules of dispute resolution, called narkh, are unwritten and based on precedent. Bottom-up strategies require supporting and empowering legitimate tribal leaders and providing them with security and aid, since they are bound to be targets of insurgents and criminal networks. International and Afghan national forces can help locals by providing a rapid-reaction force in case tribes come under attack by insurgents. Tribes have also needed assistance in providing services in their areas. In practical terms, this means gaining the support of tribes that have not always supported the government, such as the Alikozai in the south or the Achakzai in the west. The U.S. reliance on militias to hunt down al Qa'ida terrorists after the overthrow of the Taliban, as well as the effort to build the Afghan National Auxiliary Police, suggest several problems to avoid.
Back to the Future
The focus of bottom-up efforts should be on tribal leaders and their shuras andjirgas, not individuals. The rise of warlords and their private militias has alienated Afghans, since many of these warlords have subsequently terrorized the local population and become involved in criminal activity. A 2008 opinion poll by the Asia Foundation indicated that most Afghans did not trust warlords, and only 4 percent said they would turn to a local warlord to deal with a crime. 1 0 In addition, assistance should avoid strengthening some tribes over others and thus unnecessarily reigniting tribal rivalries. In general, security in rural areas must come from local Afghan institutions, especially tribal ones, since foreign armies have never succeeded in establishing law and order in Afghanistan. There is little reason to believe the United States will be able to reverse this trend.
Eliminating the Safe Haven
A third step is addressing the sanctuary in Pakistan, which has been fundamental to the success of every successful insurgency and counterinsurgency in Afghanistan's recent history. Mohammad Yousaf, the head of ISI's Afghan Bureau during much of the Soviet war, noted that "a safe haven—a secret base area to which the guerrilla could withdraw to refit and rest without fear of attack" was necessary for winning the insurgency in Afghanistan, and "Pakistan provided the Mujahideen with such a sanctuary." 11 Afghanistan, by reason of its poverty and geography, has always been a weak state at the mercy of its more powerful neighbors, including Pakistan. Unlike during previous periods, however, Pakistan has suffered considerable blowback from its support of proxy organizations like the Taliban after the 2001 U.S. invasion, as the country became infected by an insurgency that spread into its border regions and urban areas. By spring 2009, Deobandi militants successfully pushed into the Swat District of Pakistan, forcing the Pakistan government to negotiate. Stabilizing Pakistan requires tackling the structural gap that exists in the country's border regions, including the Federally Administered
IN THE GRAVEYARD OF EMPIRES
Tribal Areas. Government institutions in the tribal areas are weak, and social and economic conditions are among the bleakest in the world. Security options will be limited unless the Pakistan government provides tangible benefits to disaffected local communities. Political steps may also be important, including rethinking the Political Parties Act, which regulates the activities of Pakistan's political parties and their members. Under its strictures, the major parties are not authorized to campaign or hold rallies or meetings in the tribal areas. Religious parties thus are at a distinct advantage, since they don't need to conduct "party" gatherings—they have ready access to religious institutions from which they can run their political campaigns and associated political outreach. Though it would require an enormous lobbying effort, it may also be worth integrating the Federally Administered Tribal Areas—which are only nominally controlled by Islamabad—more fully into Pakistan. While confronting these social, political, and economic challenges is important, any impact will be limited unless there is a focus on Pakistan's strategic interests, which support the use of proxy organizations to help execute its foreign policy in neighboring countries. Pakistan and India follow the political truism outlined by George Kennan, the father of America's containment strategy against the Soviet Union, and academics such as Hans Morgenthau of the University of Chicago. In simple terms, states balance against more powerful ones. As the German-born Morgenthau wrote, the balance of power is a "natural and inevitable outgrowth of the struggle for power" that is "as old as political history itself."12 Security competition between India and Pakistan, which has triggered several wars and countless skirmishes, creates the impetus for each to check the power of the other. And Afghanistan has served as a key battleground state, much as Poland did for European powers in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries—a country that historian Norman Davies referred to as "God's playground." 13 After September 11, 2001, senior U.S. policymakers—such as Secretary of State Colin Powell, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armit-
Back to the Future
age, and U.S. Ambassador to Pakistan Wendy Chamberlin—presented then-President Pervez Musharraf with a stark choice: Support the United States or militant groups. There was no middle ground. This choice put Musharraf in a difficult position, since it meant overthrowing the very Taliban government that Pakistan had painstakingly supported for nearly a decade. But the combination of blunt threats and promises of economic assistance altered Musharraf's cost-benefit calculation. By 2002, however, the United States quickly lost interest in the Taliban, who fled to Pakistan, deferring to Islamabad. Instead, the United States fixated first on al Qa'ida in Pakistan and then on prosecuting the war in Iraq. Ironically, the United States continued to give substantial amounts of assistance to Pakistan, even as individuals in the ISI, the Frontier Corps, and other organizations provided support to militant groups such as the Taliban and the Haqqani network, who were attacking U.S. forces in Afghanistan. Pakistan has historically used militant groups operating in Kashmir, India, and Afghanistan to pursue its interests. It has legitimate security interests in its region, and its key neighbors—India and Afghanistan—have frequently shown resolute disinterest in accommodating Pakistan's security concerns. Until the appointment of U.S. regional envoy Richard Holbrooke in 2009, the United States demonstrated little inclination to promote regional solutions that would help resolve Pakistan's territorial tensions with its neighbors. This was unfortunate, since Musharraf had agreed to cooperate with the United States because he believed America would help protect its regional interests. After joining hands with Washington, most of Pakistan's key security challenges worsened rather than improved, long after Musharraf left office. Pakistan's security interests, however, do not justify the use of militant proxies. It is imperative that the United States persuade Pakistani military and civilian leaders to conduct a sustained campaign against militants mounting attacks in Afghanistan and the region (including India), plotting attacks in the United States and European capitals, and, most important, threatening the foundation of the
IN THE GRAVEYARD OF EMPIRES
nuclear-armed Pakistani state. This requires that Washington identify pressure points that raise the costs of stalling. Perhaps the most significant is tying current assistance to cooperation. Since the United States annually gives Pakistan more than $ i billion in military and economic assistance, it could link assistance to achieving specific benchmarks in targeting key groups such as Mullah Omar's Taliban, the Haqqani network, and al Qa'ida. In addition, Washington needs to make a concerted effort to engage both Pakistan and India, which have competing interests in Afghanistan. Transforming regional security perceptions among the Afghans, Pakistanis, and Indians has always been a monumental challenge, especially in light of such events as the November 2008 terrorist attacks in India's financial hub, Mumbai, which were perpetrated by militants operating from Pakistani soil and tied to the Pakistani group Lashkar-e-Taiba. But regional cooperation constitutes the only way to stabilize and secure Afghanistan so that it does not again become a terrorist sanctuary. Otherwise, the Afghan population will continue to pay a heavy price for the conflict between New Delhi and Islamabad, on the one hand, and Kabul and Islamabad, on the other.
Paradise on Earth?
In Babur's gardens, the inscription on his tomb serves as a source of inspiration for those who pay tribute: "If there is a paradise on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this!" Afghanistan can be deceptive. It has a beautiful, dramatic landscape with villages and district centers that look much as they did hundreds of years ago, untouched by modern technology. But the country has also been a quagmire for invading armies, which have torn the country apart even as they wasted themselves in the high mountain sands. On the outskirts of Kabul, in an area called Asmai Heights, lies the Kabre Ghora graveyard, which was established by British forces during the second Anglo-Afghan War. The name is taken from the term used by Afghans to describe British soldiers (ghora), and the cemetery
Back to the Future
is believed to contain the graves of 1^8 British soldiers, diplomats, and their families who died in the city during the occupations of 1839—1842 and 1879—1880. The original British gravestones have mostly disappeared, leaving only the remnants often grave markers, now relocated against the southern wall of the cemetery. But a new memorial has been erected and new names have been added, honoring soldiers from the United States, Canada, and Europe who have died here from 2001 to the present day. Perhaps the most extraordinary thing about Afghanistan is its continuity. The NATO memorial may be brand new, but soon it will feel as ancient and totemic as the British graveyard, another artifact from empires past. Like the gardens of Babur, Afghans have shown an uncanny ability to regenerate. Time has a rather curious way of slowing down here. "You have the watches," one Taliban detainee told his American interrogators, "but we have the time." 14 Most Afghans have never asked for much. They have longed for security and hope, and perhaps something to make their difficult lives more bearable. After decades of constant war, they deserve it.