How We Should Really Be Viewing Afghanistan

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Melissa Roddy Filmmaker and member of the Fieldwork International Group

Lately there is a loud chorus among pundits, proclaiming Afghanistan to be the new Vietnam. Well, it's not. While the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan is certainly unique, it bears a great deal of resemblance to the former Yugoslavia. It is oh so easy to chant "Troops Out!" But the chanters have no clue the devastating consequences which would result if their wish were to become reality. It is critical to understand the dynamics of this situation, because if U.S. and NATO military forces withdraw from Afghanistan before that country has had a real chance to recover from decades of war, hundred of thousands of Bosnians Afghan civilians will be killed.

The Durand Line

Understanding the Durand Line is fundamental to understanding the Af/Pak region. In 1893, Sir Mortimer Durand drew a line on a map which cut the nation of Afghanistan in half, along with cutting it off from its coast along the Arabian Sea. Prior to that time, Afghanistan actually extended east of the Indus River, which now runs down the center of Pakistan, a nation created in 1947. From the Afghan point of view, the Durand Line Treaty became null and void when the British left India. Great Britain saw things differently. Instead, Pakistan was established.

In a nutshell, Pakistan is the story, Afghanistan is the result.

Pakistan is the Unwilling Alliance of Four Ethnic Groups

Pakistan is primarily comprised of four ethnic regions: Punjab, Sindh, Balochistan and Pashtunistan (which is subdivided into the Northwest Frontier Province ["NWFP"] and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas ["FATA"] including North and South Waziristan. The largest ethnic group are the Punjabis. Pakistan is basically an oligarchy ruled by 22 Punjabi families. The Punjabis also dominate the military of Pakistan, which is sometimes described as "an army with a country," rather than the other way around, it is that pervasive in the daily lives of Pakistanis.

Ages before there was such a thing as the British Empire, Pashtun and Balochi tribesmen fought against Punjabi domination. Yet, Punjabi domination is exactly the legacy that the British left them in 1947.

The Durand Line (the 1,600 mile border between Afghanistan and Pakistan) divides both the Pashtun and Balochi ethnic regions. The people who live along the border don't recognize it, partly because it was so arbitrarily drawn that it not only runs down the middle of towns, it cuts through the middle of properties. One old Afghan hand told me, "There are places along the border where you can eat lunch in Pakistan, and then go to the loo in Afghanistan." Because of the Durand Line and their longstanding resistance to Punjabi domination, the Pashtun, Balochi and Sindhi peoples have been fighting separatist rebellions since Pakistan was created. This is the most significant fact which is not reported in the news. Understanding it helps to reveal the patterns in the chaos of the region.

The Taliban is a Pakistani Paramilitary Organization, NOT a Pashtun Movement

Because of these separatist rebellions, and the fact that two of these groups have brethren on the Afghan side of the border, with whom they long to unite, the Punjabi elite of Pakistan have for over three and a half decades acted on the belief that Afghanistan must be kept unstable and/or under their control. They began recruiting and training Islamic (and Maoist) rebels in 1972 and sending them in to terrorize and destabilize Afghanistan, in order to keep the Afghans too preoccupied to assert re-negotiation of the Durand Line. The mujahiddin were part of this, and in 1994 Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Agency ("ISI") organized the Taliban for the same purpose. The Taliban are not a Pashtun movement. They are a Pakistani paramilitary group. They receive their training, funding, weapons and supplies from the government of Pakistan.

Additionally, Pakistan uses the Taliban to suppress the Pashtun and Balochi separatist movements. What you never hear on the news, but which I have learned by speaking with Pashtuns, is that the Pakistan Army is not fighting either the Taliban or Al Qaeda. Rather, the Army works with both the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and another group called Hezb-e-Islami Hekmatyar ("HIG") to suppress the separatists. The Pakistan government is very careful to keep this information out of the news, because it would cause an international uproar and bring an end to the enormous financial and military assistance from the U.S. which it has long enjoyed. Next time you read a news story about conditions in Pakistan, check the source. It will invariably be a government official. But Pakistan also controls the news by simply murdering journalists who threaten to broadcast the truth. Daniel Pearl was kidnapped two days before he was to leave the country, and ISI has a particularly nasty habit of assassinating Afghan journalists.

Afghanistan = Bosnia, Punjab = Serbia; and the Bush Administration's Bad Math

Because of this situation wherein one ethnic group controls the military and uses it to oppress the other ethnic groups of the region, Af/Pak bears great similarity to the former Yugoslavia, with Punjab standing in for Serbia, while the Pashtun and Balochi regions, along with most of Afghanistan, can be seen as stand ins for Bosnia and Kosovo. Afghanistan is nothing at all like Viet Nam. It is like Bosnia.

The comparison to Bosnia is particularly apt when evaluating the U.S./NATO military mission. Peace and security were successfully restored to Bosnia with a ratio of 1 soldier for every 50 civilians. Under the Bush Administration, every 1 American soldier in Afghanistan was responsible for about 400 civilians. 1/50 worked. 1/400 is obviously impossible, and was clearly a recipe for failure from the outset. The surge which President Obama just announced will bring the ratio down to 1/200. What is clear to the soldiers, but misunderstood by the "Troops Out!" camp, is that a large army is actually safer than a small one. Which sounds safer: walking into a biker bar alone, or walking into a biker bar with half a dozen friends? The same is true in a combat zone.

The Bush Administration Screwed Up Afghanistan on Purpose

Another recipe for failure in Afghanistan can be seen in the Bush Administration purposefully allowing the leadership of both Al Qaeda and the Taliban to be airlifted out of Kunduz and later to walk across the border into Pakistan from nearby Tora Bora. American Special Forces working with the Northern Alliance had succeeded in encircling the enemy in the town of Kunduz in northern Afghanistan in November of 2001. They were ordered to stand down while Pakistan was given permission to airlift out the enemy's leaders. This event became known as the Evil Airlift. What was not widely reported was the fact that the Taliban and Al Qaeda leadership included many Pakistan Army officers.

As previously mentioned, from the point of view of Pakistan's rulers, Afghanistan must be kept unstable in order to prevent Pakistan from falling apart. There are solutions. Afghanistan has expressed a willingness to accept the Durand Line as the border. However, that doesn't settle the internal issues in Pakistan. The Punjabis have long been robbing the other provinces of their natural resources (primarily oil, gas and copper), without sharing an appropriate amount of the national treasure with those regions. The Pashtuns, Balochis and Sindhis might be less inclined to fight for their independence if they were allowed greater control over their natural resources, and greater autonomy.

The Soviet Union Was Lured into a Trap

Pakistan created the mujahiddin to destabilize Afghanistan. This began during the 1970s. When Zbigniew Brzezinski was President Carter's National Security Adviser, he suggested that, if the United States provided additional funds and weapons to Pakistan's Islamic (and Maoist) pawns in Afghanistan, the Soviet Union would very likely intervene to quell the situation. Unfortunately for the Afghans, Brzezinski was right.

Pakistan insisted on controlling distribution of U.S. assistance to the Afghan mujahiddin during the 1980s, and as a method of further ensuring instability in Afghanistan, never allowed the Afghan resistance to coalesce around a single organization. Rather, ISI organized the Afghans mujahiddin into seven parties, all based in Pakistan, and ordered the commanders of its favorite party, HIG, to attack their Afghan allies whenever they encountered them inside Afghanistan. Thus the stage was set for these seven factions to compete for power in a brutal civil war as soon as the Soviets left Afghanistan. Divide and conquer.

The Consequences of Military Failure for the Afghan People

It is well known that over one million Afghans died during the 1980s war with the Soviet Union. What has not been reported is that, from the fall of the Afghan communist government in 1992 to the fall of the Taliban government in 2001, over 400,000 Afghan civilians were killed.

Circumstances are ripe for a repeat of the 1990s holocaust. American and NATO soldiers are standing between the civilians of Afghanistan and another slaughter. I speak regularly with Afghans all over the world, and they all believe that if the US/NATO withdraw militarily before Afghanistan has recovered enough to defend itself from Pakistan's ongoing aggression, the civilian casualty rate will exceed 400,000.

The United States bears a great deal of responsibility for the destruction of Afghanistan during the 1980s and 1990s. We have a duty to help Afghans rebuild their country and to defend them against their enemy whom we have long enabled.

I will save the stories of how the CIA created Al Qaeda, ISI created the Taliban, Pakistan used its oil fields to influence American policymakers and the long long list of reconstruction fake outs from the past eight years for another day. Suffice it to say, when President Obama says that this is not year eight of the Afghan war, but rather Year One, he is correct.