Concussive bomb thunder and smells of gunpowder aren’t unusual for citizens of Nangarhar, the Afghan province where U.S. forces recently dropped MOAB, the largest non-nuclear explosive ever used.
This zone of my native country has been a battleground since the 1980’s Soviet war, which was followed by infestations of Osama bin-Laden’s al-Qaeda, the Taliban, pro-Pakistan mujahideen, and the Haqqani network. The latest plague – and target of that Mother of All Bombs – is Daesh, the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Although I have written before about Afghanistan’s failed state, I dream of a day when the primary product of this land is tourism, not terrorism.
We have beautiful national parks, mountains, lakes and rivers, historic shrines and museums. You can look them up on Trip Advisor.
Sadly, some of these mountains and much of this land has been usurped by ISIS, as it was by other zealots before them. Why Afghanistan? Three reasons, as they say in the real estate business: location, location, location.
Sandwiched between Iran, Pakistan and former Soviet satellite nations to the north, the hills and mountains of Afghanistan draw invaders like bees to honey.
In early 2015, Afghan media broadcast a short film of black-hooded men riding on horses through a forest under the fluttering black banner of the caliphate. It played repeatedly on Afghan TV news. They were called Daesh.
Afghan security now admits that ISIS is not only operating in the provinces of Farah, Helmand and Zabul, but also in the southeastern province of Ghazni and the northern provinces of Faryab and Kunduz.
ISIS, as other warrior groups before them, chose Afghanistan for six fundamental reasons.
1. Terrain. Afghanistan has desirable geography for guerilla warfare, hit-and-run attacks and hideouts. During the Russian invasion in 1980s, caves and tunnels were carved into the heart of these majestic mountains. WikiLeaks claims that the tunnels targeted by the recent MOAB bomb may have been funded by U.S. tax dollars – CIA gifts to the mujahideen in their fight against the Soviet’s occupying Red Army. After the Soviets left in defeat, those caves were re-purposed by jihadists fighting to establish their caliphate.
2. Weak Government: Two-and-a-half years after establishing a unity government, Afghanistan remains powerless to spread its authority beyond the major cities. It ranks among the most corrupt countries in the world, and chaos reigns in the provinces. Bribery is almost a way of life, as the country swirls down the drain of a political and economic vortex. Afghanistan’s failure to implement the rule of law invites foreign intervention.
3. Poverty: With unemployment hovering around 40 percent, ISIS has little difficulty finding men willing to join in exchange for money. Years of war and deprivation have gnawed at the core of tribal traditions and loyalty to motherland. Desperate times have led to deadly measures.
4. Radical ideology: Jihad watch reports there are about 24,000 madrassas (schools of Islamic law) in Pakistan which nurture and export intolerance, hatred and suicide bombers. U.S. Senator Chris Murphy, a member of the foreign relations committee, said these madrassas “aren’t the minor leagues for al-Qaeda or ISIS. But they do teach a version of Islam that leads very nicely into an anti-Shia, anti-Western militancy.”
5. Unsavory neighbors: Afghanistan has become a battleground for India and Pakistan. The hostilities between them has led each to use proxies to advance its agenda. Pakistan has been accused of sheltering the Taliban, which fights the legitimate government of Afghanistan. Afghan media now report that Iran and Russia are supporting the Taliban because that group helps them fight ISIS.
6. The definition of terrorism: The Obama administration refused to attack the Taliban, never said the words “radical Islamic terrorism,” and half-heartedly tried to “contain” ISIS. They wrongly believed the Taliban was an indigenous insurgency that posed no threat to the U.S. or western interests. This infuriated Afghan officials, who said all those who commit acts of terror against civilians and elected governments should be branded terrorists. The Taliban is no different from ISIS: both kill innocent citizens, including women and children. If Afghanistan falls into the hands of terrorists, be it ISIS or the Taliban, it will be a calamitous step backward for civilization.
In consultation with U.S. officials regarding the big MOAB bomb, Afghan president Ashraf Ghani reportedly told American generals that if they want to fight terrorism, “We both know where they live. They have offices in Quetta and Peshawar in Pakistan. Let’s not differentiate between terrorists. There are no good terrorists. They are equally evil.”
Will we ever see tourism instead of terrorism in Afghanistan? The beautiful mountains, valleys, lakes and streams beckon, but the problems are tough. They are not, however, insurmountable.
Those six factors that turned Afghanistan into a land ripe for invasion can be mitigated. Stronger government with less corruption could lead to a healthier economy and less unemployment. The U.S. and other nations could help lead the way with that.
Once that infrastructure is robust, Afghanistan could stand up to belligerent neighbors and radical, intolerant ideologies. The new U.S. administration doesn’t seem to have a problem making clear distinctions as to what constitutes terrorism.
So that leaves just the first problem: terrain. Once we’d solved the other five issues, terrain becomes an asset instead of a liability.
Come visit the ski slopes of Bamiyan (yes, in Afghanistan!), the waterfalls of Band-e-Amir National Park, the Gardens of Babur, the palaces and nightlife in Kabul.
Tourism, not terrorism.