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Friday, July 6, 2012

The Coming Civil War in Afghanistan

If you haven't read it already, I would encourage you to read this piece by Dexter Filkins in the New Yorker. He predicts that Afghanistan will slide into a civil war after American troops withdraw. He writes:
Nasir [an educated, professional] celebrated the American invasion in 2001, and, in the decade that followed, he prospered, and fathered six children. But now, with the United States planning its withdrawal by the end of 2014, Nasir blames the Americans for a string of catastrophic errors. “The Americans have failed to build a single sustainable institution here,” he said. “All they have done is make a small group of people very rich. And now they are getting ready to go.”

These days, Nasir said, the nineties are very much on his mind. The announced departure of American and NATO combat troops has convinced him and his friends that the civil war, suspended but never settled, is on the verge of resuming. “Everyone is preparing,” he said. “It will be bloodier and longer than before, street to street. This time, everyone has more guns, more to lose. It will be the same groups, the same commanders.” Hezb-e-Wahdat and Jamiat-e-Islami and Hezb-e-Islami and Junbish—all now political parties—are rearming. The Afghan Army is unlikely to be able to restore order as it did in the time of Najibullah. “It’s a joke,” Nasir said. “I’ve worked with the Afghan Army. They get tired making TV commercials!”

A few weeks ago, Nasir returned to Deh Afghanan. The Taliban were back, practically ignored by U.S. forces in the area. “The Americans have a big base there, and they never go out,” he said. “And, only four kilometres from the front gate, the Taliban control everything. You can see them carrying their weapons.” On a drive to Jalrez, a town a little farther west, Nasir was stopped at ten Taliban checkpoints. “How can you expect me to be optimistic?” he said. “Everyone is getting ready for 2014.”
The primary issue seems to be the increasing power of local "militia" groups. And, as Mao's famous maxim states: "Political power flows from the barrel of a gun."
The militias established or tolerated by the Afghan and American governments constitute a reversal of the efforts made in the early years of the war to disarm such groups, which were blamed for destroying the country during the civil war. At the time, American officials wanted to insure that the government in Kabul had a monopoly on the use of force.

Kunduz Province is divided into fiefdoms, each controlled by one of the new militias. In Khanabad district alone, I counted nine armed groups. Omar’s is among the biggest; another is led by a rival, on the northern bank of the Khanabad River, named Mir Alam. Like Omar, Alam was a commander during the civil war. He was a member of Jamiat-e-Islami. Alam and his men, who declined to speak to me, are said to be paid by the Afghan government.

As in the nineties, the militias around Kunduz have begun fighting each other for territory. They also steal, tax, and rape. “I have to give ten per cent of my crops to Mir Alam’s men,” a villager named Mohammad Omar said. (He is unrelated to the militia commander.) “That is the only tax I pay. The government is not strong enough to collect taxes.” When I accompanied the warlord Omar to Jannat Bagh, one of the villages under his control, his fighters told me that Mir Alam’s men were just a few hundred yards away. “We fight them whenever they try to move into our village,” one of Omar’s men said.

None of the militias I encountered appeared to be under any government supervision. In Aliabad, a town in the south of the province, a group of about a hundred men called the Critical Infrastructure Protection force had set up a string of checkpoints. Their commander, Amanullah Terling, another former Jamiat commander, said that his men were protecting roads and development projects. His checkpoints flew the flag of Jamiat-e-Islami. Terling’s group—like dozens of other such units around the country—is an American creation. It appears to receive lots of cash but little direct supervision. “Once a month, an American drives out here in his Humvee with a bag of money,” Terling said.

Together, the militias set up to fight the Taliban in Kunduz are stronger than the government itself. Local officials said that there were about a thousand Afghan Army soldiers in the province—I didn’t see any—and about three thousand police, of whom I saw a handful. Some police officers praised the militias for helping bring order to Kunduz; others worried that the government had been eclipsed. “We created these groups, and now they are out of control,” Nizamuddin Nashir, the governor of Khanabad, said. “The government does not collect taxes, but these groups do, because they are the men with the guns.”
* * *

Many Afghans fear that NATO has lost the will to control the militias, and that the warlords are reĆ«merging [sic] as formidable local forces. Nashir, the Khanabad governor, who is the scion of a prominent family, said that the rise of the warlords was just the latest in a series of ominous developments in a country where government officials exercise virtually no independent authority. “These people do not change, they are the same bandits,” he said. “Everything here, when the Americans leave, will be looted.”

Nashir grew increasingly vehement. “Mark my words, the moment the Americans leave, the civil war will begin,” he said. “This country will be divided into twenty-five or thirty fiefdoms, each with its own government.” Nashir rattled off the names of some of the country’s best-known leaders—some of them warlords—and the areas they come from: “Mir Alam will take Kunduz. Atta will take Mazar-e-Sharif. Dostum will take Sheberghan. The Karzais will take Kandahar. The Haqqanis will take Paktika. If these things don’t happen, you can burn my bones when I die.”
* * *

The maneuverings of B.K. point to a larger fear among the Americans and the Afghans who are helping to train the Afghan security forces: that under the stress of battle—and without a substantial presence of American combat troops after 2014—the Afghan Army could once again fracture along ethnic lines.

Afghan and American officials believe that some precipitating event could prompt the country’s ethnic minorities to fall back into their enclaves in northern Afghanistan, taking large chunks of the Army and police forces with them. Another concern is that Jamiat officers within the Afghan Army could indeed try to mount a coup against Karzai or a successor. The most likely trigger for a coup, these officials say, would be a peace deal with the Taliban that would bring them into the government or even into the Army itself. Tajiks and other ethnic minorities would find this intolerable. Another scenario would most likely unfold after 2014: a series of dramatic military advances by the Taliban after the American pullout.

“A coup is one of the big possibilities—a coup or civil war,” a former American official who was based in Kabul and has since left the country told me. “It’s clear that the main factions assume that civil war is a possibility and they are hedging their bets. And, of course, once people assume that civil war is going to happen then that can sometimes be a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
The end result?
After eleven years, nearly two thousand Americans killed, sixteen thousand Americans wounded, nearly four hundred billion dollars spent, and more than twelve thousand Afghan civilians dead since 2007, the war in Afghanistan has come to this: the United States is leaving, mission not accomplished. Objectives once deemed indispensable, such as nation-building and counterinsurgency, have been abandoned or downgraded, either because they haven’t worked or because there’s no longer enough time to achieve them. Even the education of girls, a signal achievement of the NATO presence in Afghanistan, is at risk. By the end of 2014, when the last Americans are due to stop fighting, the Taliban will not be defeated. A Western-style democracy will not be in place. The economy will not be self-sustaining. No senior Afghan official will likely be imprisoned for any crime, no matter how egregious. And it’s a good bet that, in some remote mountain valley, even Al Qaeda, which brought the United States to Afghanistan in the first place, will be carrying on.
This result was inevitable, however. "Nation-building" is a sham. Nations aren't built, but evolve. Afghanistan represents the most primitive of cultures. Centered around tribal relationships, with a largely illiterate and uneducated people, there is no national sense of unity and common purpose, or general respect for the rule of law. To think that we could drag Afghanistan into the twenty-first century while "respecting" the culture and beliefs that keep them in the 11th century is more than just hubris--it is shear stupidity. My prediction is that Afghanistan will descend into a civil war, and turn into a narco-terrorist state that, thanks to the U.S., will also be extremely well armed.

2 comments:

  1. Afghanistan should be rebuild back. Lots of civilian suffer from this war.

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    1. I agree that Afghanistan should be rebuilt. It would be great if we could have helped rebuild all the damage done by the Soviet invasion and the Taliban, just as we helped rebuild Western Europe and Japan after World War II. My point is that we can't--it is impossible.

      The solution is not to "win hearts and minds," but to change hearts and minds. In this respect, I disagree with the premise asserted by Jared Diamond in his book, "Guns, Germs and Steel," which bases the success of certain cultures on geographic advantages. I can see why he would arrive at that conclusion by comparing New Guinea to Europe as a whole, but it doesn't explain why those areas that produced successful civilizations thousands of years ago, such as Egypt and Iran, are less vibrant and successful now; or why resource poor countries like Israel, Japan and England, or poorly positioned countries like Sweden and Finland, have been successful. I believe that, instead, there are certain cultural, social, and legal traits that make certain nations successful, or fail, or both. These can be gained or lost over time. If I were to identify the important traits, they would include individual freedom (including not allowing religious or philosophical beliefs or systems be enforced by, or given special privilege under, the law); equal protections and application of the law; and a legal system willing and able to enforce private contracts. The West seems to be losing these traits. Perhaps Afghanistan can develop them.

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