Former Secretary of State Colin Powell claims he never used the term "Pottery Barn rule" in his cautionary remarks about going to war in Iraq. Powell says he told President Bush, "...once you break [Iraq], you are going to own it, and we're going to be responsible for 26 million people standing there looking at us. And it's going to suck up a good 40 to 50 percent of the Army for years." (What's more, it turns out that Pottery Barn does not have a "you-break-it-you-own-it" policy.)
Powell's warning may now be applied to Afghanistan, which was already a broken nation when we arrived in late 2001 but of which we quickly assumed ownership. The big questions now, it seems to me, are, what does that ownership mean in terms of our obligation to Afghanistan? Are we stuck with it ad infinitum? What does our warranty cover? We still have a lot of troops in Iraq, and now Afghanistan is going to "suck up" another large percentage of our fighting forces. We would do well to ask, Is it worth it?
For one thing, the Afghan people have a serious aversion to foreign ownership. While they were almost universally grateful to us for giving the boot to the Taliban (who, by the way, were largely the creation of another foreign power, the Pakistanis, and bankrolled by still another, Osama bin Laden), now the rank-and-file Afghan despises our army of occupation. "Didn't you learn anything from the Soviet Union's experience?" they ask. The Soviet army of occupation was actually less an alien presence than the Western armies, made up as it was of thousands of Muslim conscripts from the neighboring 'stans.
The American army has even less kinship with the Afghans. Virtually every communication between our troops and the people they are supposed to be defending has to be filtered through a translator, often of doubtful ability and even loyalty. That lesson was illustrated by a recent PBS Frontline documentary. As American forces moved into an Afghan village with a mandate to befriend the population and interact with them, all the residents moved out, under orders from the Taliban. The U.S. troops were left to befriend a vacant market village. Their frustration was visible as an officer tried to question, through an interpreter, a group of Afghan men, asking over and over "Where are the Taliban?" and, getting no answers, lost his temper. The American soldier was sincere, he was earnest, but he had no understanding of the people he claimed to be helping, and their culture and traditions were impenetrable to him. In their eyes he was a hopeless fool, not worth talking to in any language.
There is also the question of the Afghans' own commitment. The training of the Afghan National Army, and especially of the police, has lagged far behind the expectations of our planners - who understand the Afghans about as well as the soldier did. The ANA soldiers don't really like fighting against other Afghans, and that is who the Taliban are, largely; their officers siphon off half their pay; and they are hedging their bets on who is going to be the eventual winner in Afghanistan. Once the Western armies leave - and we will, sooner or later - the Taliban's top targets will then be the ANA soldiers. And a job on the police force is simply an opportunity for enrichment through bribes, protection rackets and extortion.
Finally, there is President Hamid Karzai. As one "old Afghan hand" noted recently, the very fact that Karzai was elected (a word whose meaning was pretzeled in the August poll) makes him illegitimate in the eyes of many Afghans. There is simply no tradition of elected leaders in Afghanistan. If you are strong, you lead. If you are less strong, you follow. And Karzai seems to have shown the world conclusively over the past eight years he simply doesn't have the strength to lead the Afghans, a historically fractious bunch who are tougher than two-dollar steaks.
As I noted in a recent debate at Boston University, the great conundrum of our efforts in Afghanistan is, the more we try to fight for the Afghans, the more we seem to fight against them. There are ways to help the Afghans, but occupying their country with an army isn't one of them.