Late at night in the summer of 2007 a group of elders with white beards and traditional Afghan robes (referred to as a “man dress” by US military members) gathered around a fire to speak with American military officers in western Afghanistan. One of those officers, U.S. Army Lt Col T. Smith*, started to try a piece of roasted lamb when an old man sitting next to him leaned over and asked him a question. Tall and lanky, Lt Col Smith wore glasses which made him look more like a college professor than an Army officer. Having survived a direct hit by an improvised explosive device on a Humvee he was riding in, he knew the dangers of war all too well. The interpreter quickly translated the question into English: “he wants to know why you have come to Afghanistan.”
Western Afghanistan is a remote area; the 700 kilometers to Kabul, the Afghan capital (pronounced cobble) is so bereft of roads and filled with rugged terrain a trip by land might as well be a trip to the moon for many Afghans. When asked about their number one enemy in Afghanistan, not a few U.S. military members will tell you “terrain.” In the dusty wind swept plains, known as Farah which in Persian means restless winds, television is rare, internet access is non-existent, and most people get their news from Persian language radio stations broadcast from neighboring Iran. The turbaned man who’d asked the question did not read newspapers, had no internet or TV access, and he knew nothing of 9/11. He simply did know why Americans had come to Afghanistan.
As Lt Col Smith explained, Al Qaeda killed thousands of Americans in New York and Washington D.C. on September 11th, 2001. Those attacks had been planned from Afghanistan, and the planners were still here. He and his men were here to kill them.
The old man’s eyes lit up and he nodded before speaking rapidly “Ah! So you’re here for badal.” Then he shrugged and added “Well, that’s certainly your right.”
Badal can be difficult for westerners to fully grasp. Afghanistan has never had anything like a formal justice system; courthouses, judges, and lawyers are not something most Afghans have ever seen. There are police, but most Afghans are more afraid of the police than the Taliban, because the police are notoriously corrupt and brutal. Law and order as it is understood in the United States and Europe doesn’t exist in Afghanistan. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t any rules. There are rules in Afghanistan, and breaking them can be deadly.
Journalist Sarah Chayes recounted how members of a local Pashtun tribe were sent with her as security while she was on assignment in Afghanistan. Though her security escorts were well-armed and capable fighters, “their mere presence silently threatened the vengeance of their entire tribe should any harm befall them.” Badal, which means revenge, is a social norm that performs one of the functions of a legal code by instituting punishment for murder and other crimes. Without courts and the institutions of government, Afghans have no choice but to try to perform the functions of the state themselves.
Afghanistan is a unique environment, yet Americans continue to ignore the reality on the ground there in favor of our own assumptions. From the outset of combat operations in 2001 till today at the highest levels of our government, the ground truth in Afghanistan, when it is noticed at all, is regarded as a mere nuisance to be quickly swept beneath American stratagems. In our minds what counts most is our intentions and our capabilities; the intentions and capabilities of others are an afterthought.
Colonel G.K. Herring put his finger squarely on the central contradiction present at the heart of American strategy in Afghanistan in the days after 9/11. Our first objective, to destroy Al Qaeda, was just and lawful. But the second objective planted the seeds of trouble which continue to grow to this day: Colonel Herring went on to say “In addition, the Bush administration sought to demonstrate that the United States was not at war with the Afghan people or the Islamic religion.” But at the same time: “Statements from (Bush) administration officials made it clear that they saw little distinction between al Qaeda, who had planned and executed the terrorist attacks, and the Taliban, who supported the terrorists’ activities.”
In reality the differences between Al Qaeda and the Taliban were enormous, and still are. Well financed and driven by global ambitions, Al Qaeda recruits were taught a comprehensive world view based on a puritanical interpretation of Islam. By contrast the Taliban is a Pashtun movement whose members did not speak Arabic (the language spoken by most of Al Qaeda’s members), were poorly funded, and who not only lacked global ambitions, they lacked even global awareness. There are also many Taliban, and the various factions do not support each other. The versions of Islam practiced in rural Afghanistan would be nearly unrecognizable to Muslims in Cairo or Baghdad. The Taliban focuses entirely on Afghanistan and mostly on the Opium trade; rank and file Taliban members know little and care even less about the rest of the world.
Al Qaeda brought money, weapons, and the reputation of its leader, Osama bin Laden, who’d fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan. That a rich Arab like Bin Laden lived simply and risked his own life in battle appealed to the Taliban, who themselves were fantastically poor. While western military recruits universally loathe the harshness of military training camps, for Taliban members barracks life represented a drastic improvement in living conditions. They saw the barracks as a step up, not a step down.
Meanwhile the country of Afghanistan exists as little more than an abstraction. To the north people consider themselves part of Afghan Turkistan; to the west most speak Dari, a linguistic cousin of Persian, and consider themselves Persian in culture and identity as well; the south and east are dominated by Pashtuns, who consider themselves the rightful rulers of Pashtunistan, a separate nation they would very much like to see created. In actual practice, the Afghanistan written on maps and in western textbooks simply does not exist. As of 2017, it still doesn’t.
President Trump, or at least his advisors, recognize at least part of this reality, which is why yesterday the President said “we will no longer use American military might to construct democracies in faraway lands, or try to rebuild other countries in our own image. Those days are now over.” But that move leaves the Afghan government in Kabul in serious limbo.
With little credibility beyond the capital, the Afghan government already clings to existence by the barest of threads. This announcement will likely finish off what little credibility it has left, opening the door for its collapse, which the Taliban will seize to regain power, just as they did in 1996 when a faltering and corrupt regime in Kabul finally fell apart. So the new strategy for Afghanistan will be viewed by the Taliban as a chance to start planning their return to power, even as it’s sold to the American public as a blueprint for winning the war on terrorism.
The new strategy, which is really just a continuation of both Bush and Obama’s strategy, could undo the very real accomplishments of the U.S. military in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda 1.0 has been decimated, and those with direct ties to 9/11 are long dead. The credit for that goes to the U.S. military and intelligence agencies, who deserve our thanks and praise. But the average age of todays’ jihadists is 24, meaning they were just 8 years old on 9/11 and not directly involved. Before us now is the question of how do we defeat Al Qaeda 2.0, and even 3.0? A token increase in military personnel in Afghanistan will not solve the problem of multi-generational warfare nor the political conditions perpetuating it.
The U.S. military found and killed Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan, and it is in Pakistan a large share of the fight against Al Qaeda must be fought and won. Recent American foreign policy moves to closer align with India will only drive Pakistan further away from American objectives, as Pakistan’s leaders seek to punish America for our stronger ties to India by turning lose more terrorist groups on Afghanistan.
What we lack is an effective strategy to deal with our allies, especially Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the two key Sunni powers who continue to cultivate and battle extremism within their own borders. From those countries comes the funding and ideologies which sustain global terrorism, whose recruits are sent to wage holy war in Afghanistan and other battlefield countries. Within Pakistan and Saudi Arabia real reformers are fighting for change, but they get little help from the government of the United States. Instead we make deals with the hardliners, giving them enormous weapons sales and military aid, which diminishes the clout of reformers and makes their efforts to fight extremism less likely to succeed. We are burning our candle at both ends.
Meanwhile Congress was not even part of the recent strategy discussion within the Trump Administration, nor was the State Department. Without a political strategy for Central Asia and the Middle East, our military efforts will never bring security or peace. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates warned us of the dangers of relying on military force alone repeatedly, and he was right. The danger is American military personnel will keep dying and fighting an endless conflict made worse by American foreign policy choices. While our elected leaders create foreign policies that worsen the situation on the ground in Afghanistan and create the conditions to keep terrorism going, they send our military members in to pay for their mistakes and incompetence with blood. All the while telling the American public not to worry because this time “we’ll win.” That is unacceptable, and it is time for Congress to exercise its Constitutional oversight authority and hold formal hearings on Afghanistan as part of a real strategy review which includes the entire spectrum of U.S. foreign policy. Our military members do not deserve foreign policies that work against them.
*Name changed at the request of the individual