Obama's Decision on More Troops to "Someone Else's Civil War"

On October 27, the Washington Post reported the resignation of Matthew Hoh, a top U.S. civilian official in Afghanistan, in protest of the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Hoh charged that "the United States is asking its troops to die in Afghanistan for what is essentially a far-off civil war," the Post reported. In his letter of resignation, Hoh wrote,

"I fail to see the value ... in continuous U.S. casualties or expenditures of resources in support of the Afghan government in what is, truly, a 35-year old civil war."

"The Pashtun insurgency," Hoh asserted, "is fed by what is perceived by the Pashtun people as a continued and sustained assault, going back centuries, on Pashtun land, culture, traditions and religion by internal and external enemies. The U.S. and NATO presence and operations in Pashtun valleys and villages, as well as Afghan army and police units that are led and composed of non-Pashtun soldiers and police, provide an occupation force against which the insurgency is justified."

The appearance in mainstream U.S. media of the credible assertion that the United States is intervening militarily on one side in another country's civil war, especially a conflict with an ethnic character, might be expected to have a significant impact on public perceptions of whether continuation of U.S. military involvement was justified. One of the great political and media debates of 2006-7 was whether the United States was involved in a civil war in Iraq.

In November 2006, the New York Times reported that President Bush "dismissed suggestions that Iraq had descended into civil war," noting that while officials in other countries were "warning that Iraq is verging on civil war," Bush was "well aware that a label of civil war would make the Iraq mission even more difficult to justify."

Not long after that, an influential American gave a speech in which he asserted:

'It's time to admit that no amount of American lives can resolve the political disagreement that lies at the heart of someone else's civil war."

That, of course, was Senator Barack Obama, announcing his candidacy for President of the United States, in Springfield, Illinois, on February 10, 2007. Here is the text

(Well said, Senator Obama. From your lips to God's ear.)

But prior to Matthew Hoh's resignation, the assertion that the United States is intervening militarily on one side of a civil war in Afghanistan was "absent without leave" from major U.S. media.

Searching through the Washington Post and the New York Times for the past year, I could not find a single news article in which the idea that a civil war existed in Afghanistan at any time following the U.S. invasion in 2001 was mentioned, with the exception of the Washington Post article about Hoh's resignation.

The idea that a state of civil war exists in Afghanistan today has made two appearances on the New York Times' op-ed page in the last year.

It was mentioned in an op-ed on August 21 by Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations:

"In March [President Obama] articulated a broader mission: The United States would now 'take the fight to the Taliban in the south and the east,' in effect making the United States a full party to Afghanistan's civil war."

And the idea that there is a civil war in Afghanistan was mentioned on October 28 in an op-ed by Garrison Keillor that referred to Matthew Hoh's resignation and criticism:

"[Hoh] says that our presence among the Pashtun people, the rural, religious people, is only aggravating a civil war between them and the ... government of Kabul."

The idea that a civil war exists in Afghanistan today also appeared twice in the last year in op-eds in the Washington Post; in September, former U.S. counter-terrorism official Paul Pillar referred to

"U.S. entry into the Afghan civil war."

The omission from all news coverage in the Washington Post and the New York Times of the idea that there may be a civil war in Afghanistan today is striking, given that prior to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, the New York Times and the Washington Post used the phrase "civil war" in reference to Afghanistan, both papers still use the term in talking about Afghan history before the U.S. invasion, and the political and ethnic configuration of the conflict today bears strong similarities to the situation that existed before the U.S. invasion, the main differences being who is in the "government" and who is in the "insurgency" and the fact that the U.S. is now intervening militarily on one side of the conflict.

In December 1998, the Times informed its readers that "the devastating effects of civil war continue in Afghanistan's north, where rival forces have been battling...." In December 1997, the Times reported that the Clinton Administration was "putting pressure on Pakistan ... to use its influence on the Taliban...who control two-thirds of Afghanistan, to get them ... to negotiate an end to the civil war..." The latter article reported that "Several former bitter enemies have formed a shaky alliance to fight the Taliban. One faction is commanded by Ahmad Shah Massoud, a Tajik, and another by Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek. A third group consists of ethnic Hazara and Shiite Muslims." Clearly, in the view of the Times, the civil war in Afghanistan, prior to the U.S. invasion, had an ethnic character.

Writing in the New York Times Magazine on August 9 of this year, Elizabeth Rubin explained how many of the current "cast of characters," including Hamid Karzai, Abdullah Abdullah, Muhammad Fahim, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, and the Taliban - and their competing ethnic allegiances - have a joint history going back to the pre-US invasion civil war:

"To understand why everyone was so shocked that [President] Karzai chose [Muhammad] Fahim as his running mate, you need to know a little of the personal history between the two men...Back in 1994, the mujahedin factions who fought off the Soviets were supposed to be cooperating in a coalition government. Instead they were deep in a civil war...

One of these factions belonged to Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, today an outlawed insurgent but then prime minister and head of a large, mostly ethnic-Pashtun political party. Another belonged to the man who was then Afghanistan's president, Burhanuddin Rabbani, leader of a largely Tajik party... Karzai was deputy foreign minister and trying ... to play conciliator ... But Rabbani and his men began to suspect that Karzai was plotting something with Hekmatyar. Rabbani's head of intelligence was none other than Muhammad Fahim...

In 1996, after the Taliban captured Kabul and threw out the mujahedin factions, Karzai briefly considered becoming an ambassador for the Taliban government. After all, the Taliban were mostly, like Karzai, Kandahari Pashtuns; he knew many of them. But the position went to someone else...

With the overthrow of the Taliban, the ethnic Tajiks who made up the bulk of the Northern Alliance considered themselves the victors. At the Bonn Conference held in Germany in December 2001 to create the future Afghan government, the Northern Alliance Tajiks demanded and got the most important ministries. Given Afghanistan's demographics, [i.e. the fact that Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group] everyone knew they needed an ethnic Pashtun as president, and Abdullah Abdullah, who was then with the Northern Alliance, pressed the case for Karzai."

This history is key to understanding the present conflict. Prior to the U.S. invasion, there was a civil war underway between the largely Pashtun Taliban government and the largely Tajik Northern Alliance insurgency. In its campaign to overthrow the Taliban government, the U.S. allied itself militarily with the largely Tajik Northern Alliance. As Rubin noted, that U.S.-Tajik alliance had a major impact on the post-2001 Afghan government, with key positions in the government going to one side in the civil war.

In an op-ed in the Times in August, Selig Harrison, a former Washington Post bureau chief in South Asia, wrote that this impact persists to the present day:

"...One of the basic reasons many Pashtuns support the Taliban insurgency is that their historic rivals, ethnic Tajiks, hold most of the key levers of power in the government.

Tajiks ... largely control the armed forces and the intelligence and secret police agencies that loom over the daily lives of the Pashtuns. Little wonder that in the run-up to Thursday's presidential election, much of the Taliban propaganda has focused on the fact that President Hamid Karzai's top running mate is a hated symbol of Tajik power: the former defense minister Muhammad Fahim.

Fahim and his allies have been entrenched in Kabul since American forces overthrew the Taliban in 2001 with the help of his Tajik militia, the Northern Alliance... A clique of these Tajik officers ...took control of the key security posts with American backing, and they have been there ever since...
[...]
...a former adviser to the European Union representative in Kabul told me that ...'the intelligence services are still basically seen as anti-Pashtun and pro-Northern Alliance because the power structure in the directorate is still clearly dominated by the original Northern Alliance group,' and above all because 'they also have control of the prosecution, judicial and detention branches of the security services.'
[...]
...one United Nations official recently said ... '70 percent of the army's battalion commanders are Tajiks'... It doesn't help that many of the army units sent to the Pashtun areas consist primarily of Tajiks who do not speak Pashto."

In the year reviewed, Rubin's article in the NYT Magazine was the only news piece I found that explained the roots of the conflict in the ethnic divisions of the pre-invasion civil war and Harrison's op-ed was the only piece I found that was actually addressed to the topic. In the Washington Post, I found no news article or op-ed in the last year which substantively addressed the ethnic roots of the Afghanistan conflict in the pre-US invasion civil war.

Perhaps, if more officials resign, these issues will get more attention in the two papers.

But if, as Senator Obama asserted,

'It's time to admit that no amount of American lives can resolve the political disagreement that lies at the heart of someone else's civil war."

then what is to be done?

On the eve of the U.S. Presidential election last November, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius wrote that the new president was going to face two choices, escalate or negotiate:

"Okay, let's think about Afghanistan. We're slowly losing the war there, the NATO alliance is in increasing disarray and the talk among strategists is that maybe the best way out is to negotiate with the Taliban. Perhaps John McCain could get away with that, but could Obama? Yet that's the choice the next president will face -- cutting a deal with our enemies or sending more troops to fight what may be an unwinnable war."

(Last Friday, Ignatius - showing that his fear last November that Obama "couldn't get away with" negotiations was a self-fulfilling prophecy - forgot his earlier suggestion of negotiations and weighed in on the side of "sending more troops to fight what may be an unwinnable war" - as we've already done once this year, with our forces now nearly triple what they were in January 2008.)

The reporting of Selig Harrison suggests that one of the issues that negotiations will have to address will be the perceived anti-Pashtun character of the distribution of power in the present Afghan government that the U.S. helped establish - an issue that including Abdullah Abdullah of the Tajik Northern Alliance in government would likely do little to address. It would facilitate public discussion of the need for negotiations if there would be more media coverage of these issues than one op-ed from Selig Harrison, once a year.

[A version of this article will appear in the December 2009 issue of Extra!, the magazine of FAIR.]