After thirteen long years, the Afghan War – or at least America’s part in it – seems to be coming to a close. Whatever forces are left will not be in it to change Afghanistan from one of the world’s most undeveloped nations to a shining beacon of democracy and liberty. It’s been a hard lesson for Americans, but they seem to have learned it.
But don’t take that to mean America has totally failed there. Two roads are ahead, well traveled by other world conquerors, that let us know just what the odds are of Hamad Karzai getting strung up in Kabul and stabbed a few times.
Afghan geography makes it super hard to control the whole area
Afghanistan is divided by high mountains, sweltering deserts, frigid wintry landscapes, and, worst of all, lack much in natural resources to make it appealing as a place to set up shop. (Only recently have massive mineral discoveries been found that could change that calculation). It’s miserable to move from point A to point B in most parts of the country and this has created cultural, linguistic, and religious divisions. And because there’s not much of value there, Afghanistan has historically been a part of some far-flung empire but never central to it, all of whom have left behind cultures, languages, or whatever else was the flavor of their day.
Afghanistan does ok when it’s left alone, but really churns up the region when upset
Afghanistan is that backwards, uncouth neighbor in your hometown that, if left alone, is mostly harmless. Interactions with it, however, are neither pleasant nor productive. Afghanistan is rarely the seat of imperial ambitions (and the one time it was, Kabul served as a staging post rather than as the center of power).
In the 18th century, the Durrani Empire came about as one Afghan warlord managed to overcome the rest of the region. By that time, Iran and India had formed into their more or less modern borders and powers centered in Tehran and Delhi saw no purpose in attempting to annex or control Afghanistan. Remember that governments make security decisions based on trade offs – is bombing or attacking this area going to get the locals there to shut the hell up? The answer with Afghanistan was and is no.
Afghanistan keeps trying to pull itself out of tribalism, but keeps getting shoved back into it
Tribalism is awful. I just don’t feel like I can say that enough. But it does provide basic security in places where no other security exists. From 1747 until 1979, Afghanistan was unified by central governments based out of Kabul. “Unified” was still a loose term – a variety of tribes and regions did not listen to Kabul when they felt like it. Over time, Afghan leaders, when left alone, marshaled enough resources to slowly but surely put together the basics of a kingdom. It was during periods of foreign intervention when the fragile and difficult process of state building was disrupted, setting Afghanistan back to zero.
Much like creating a sandcastle on the beach, you don’t finish grand things when some asshole kids who are bigger than you come by and keep kicking down your work. Afghanistan is not all that far off; its status as regional victim has kept its sand castles firmly at beginning stages.
Afghanistan was getting so, so close to a modern-nation state – until the Soviets came
From the 1880s until 1979, Afghanistan was a relatively peaceful, left-alone place, especially after the Anglo-Afghan War of 1919 ended with the British realizing it was better to say “Fuck that” to controlling it. From 1919 until 1979, the Afghan kings built the great ring road – the first attempt in Afghan history to unify the country by motorway – and set up dams, power plants, modern schools and universities, and other stuff that made the king feel like he was a swell guy. Because Afghanistan was and is so poor, such projects happened at a snail’s pace and mostly because the Cold War brought cash in from the U.S. or Soviets who were jockeying for influence. Even then, however, Afghanistan was no Egypt, and certainly not a West Germany, and so the funds, while helpful, didn’t jump-start Afghanistan into the 20th century.
Then the Soviets did what they did best and decided to invade. The geopolitical reasons were plenty – in 1979, the Soviet Union thought it was winning the Cold War and sought to press home the advantage in the Middle East, grabbing a country that directly threatened America’s ally in Pakistan and could put pressure on Iran, which, in 1979, seemed like it could be up for grabs after its own revolution. Afghanistan could serve as a staging point for further influence in Pakistan and India.
Alas, it was a terrible idea. Outside of Kabul and a couple of other urban centers, Afghan society was not ready for state atheism or Marx’s little red book. The Soviets tried to shoot their way to peace, but without mass colonization by Soviet citizens, were doomed to defeat. With its shattered geography, Afghan tribes could and did hide from superior Soviet arms while simply grinding the Red Army down.
From then on, modernization slipped into memory
Virtually all of Afghanistan’s development projects were either destroyed or came to a halt during this period. When the Soviets left in 1989, they had shattered the fragile king’s peace and replaced it with the pre-Durrani empire state of affairs – a tribal mosaic of strict traditions and rules that weren’t going to go quietly into the night. Their client-president was just a tribal warlord who was better armed than his rivals. When the Soviet Union collapsed and he ran out of Scud missiles, it wasn’t long before he lost power and was murdered.
The Taliban were one of the many answers to the problem of Afghan disunity. The Soviets had tried socialism and atheism in an attempt to rapidly wipe out tribal identities. (“You’re all equally worthless, comrades, whether you speak Pushtu, Farsi, etc.”) The Taliban sought the same thing – a modern-nation state free of tribalism. So they did something that made a whole lot more sense given Afghanistan’s identity – universal Sunni Islam. (“You’re all equally worthless, Brother Muslims, whether you speak Pushtu, Farsi, etc.”)
The Taliban did not seek a modern national economy or liberal society, but they did seek a modern nation-state that could run Afghanistan as they chose. They nearly got there. Their ideology worked in most places, and its harsh but relatively predictable justice system started to even out cultural identities by forcing people into what approached national uniforms. (See: The How-To of Decolonization)
America’s invasion of 2001 made the same mistakes as the Soviets
Remember when Ellen made all those Taliban jokes? Not only were Americans busy mocking the Taliban’s ideology, they believed that Afghan society was ripe for modernization, failing to understand that tribal mores don’t just go away. Few tribes ever will themselves out of existence. But the U.S. thought, with enough money and guns, they too could change Afghanistan into at least a tolerably decent place.
Failing full-on colonization, that was never going to happen.
Today the posturing for the post-American Afghanistan takes all kinds of seemingly dumb angles
Karzai has said again and again how much he doesn’t like what the U.S. and NATO do in his country – despite the fact that they’re paying him. A lot of this has to do with how Karzai as a leader thinks – less national and more tribal, more honor based and less justice based, more concerned with his own survival and less worried about the survival of his state, the antithesis of a modern leader. Karzai got into his position because he was the least bad option among many bad options. Afghanistan’s lethal brand of politics has long since weeded out any potential George Washingtons.
Without U.S. forces in the country, it’s likely Afghanistan will go back to its post-1989 situation, with rival factions controlling rival bits of territories. So long as the U.S. keeps arming the government in Kabul, it will be able to hold the line for some years, as demonstrated by the post-Soviet government that defeated rebel forces at the battle of Jalalabad in 1989. But should Karzai upset enough key American leaders, he will fall victim to the cycle of violence that will ensue without an outsider proving balance to the country’s political situation.
It’s not a great idea, but he seems bent on it
His best case scenario might be fleeing the country. But those left behind can’t be counted on forgiving him.