On Afghanistan, a Cold Bucket of Water in the Face
We are blaming the wrong people
R.K. Lembke has an article over at Small Wars Journal that had me nodding my head in agreement on the subject more than any I have read in a long time.
Regular readers of CDR Salamander will see many of the issues we've raised here over they years, but Lembke's presentation, tying them in together while providing sound and well documented quotes from the start, is simply a powerhouse.
I spent half a decade of my active duty life on, and for a few months, in Afghanistan. A wee bit early on at the Tactical, but most as a staff weenie on the in-theater Operational and Strategic levels at USA and NATO commands from Bush43 through to the first year of the Obama administration. I am not in full alignment with everything Lembke stakes out, but almost all.
The most important gift in the article is his focus, as much as one can as an outsider, on the Afghan people. He goes to the heart of the issue and does not focus on just the latest news and personalities of today.
The hardest part of Afghanistan - the greatest challenge - has always been the long game; the Afghan people and their culture(s) and how that is understood from the western mind.
Lembke lets you know in the first paragraph - he's not taking the indirect approach - and he's naming names;
Peace is possible in Afghanistan, but it has to be by the terms of the average, rural, Muslim, Afghan tribesman. They represent the majority of the Afghan population. Taliban, U.S., and Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) empathy and accommodation of the average Afghan is the only door to peace. Thanks to the U.S. and international involvement in Afghanistan, for right or wrong, Afghanistan has become the poster child of what happens when western-inspired Progressive, Post- Modernist, Critical Theory meets Islamic Tribalism – and it's not working out very well for the average Afghan. Thanks to the Taliban, Afghanistan has also become the poster child of when the execution of 7th Century Islamic jurisprudence meets the modern world – also not working out very well for the average Afghan. Unfortunately, it appears the desires of the average rural farmer population doesn't matter to anyone at the peace table.
He follows up on each point with the facts of the reality on the ground.
I am not going to do a fully paragraph by paragraph review. It is too long for this format and readers here have varying levels of understanding of the topic at hand. I really would like everyone to take time to read it in full.
I do want to bring up two topics he raises that have bothered me for a decade and a half because they do not get enough discussion; The Bonn Conference and agriculture. Regular readers have heard them raised here and on Midrats, and they are brought in to Lembke's critique.
While updating OPLANS for AFG, we would discuss Bonn as the original sin - the fatal flaw - in everything we were trying to do. We feared that no matter how hard we tried, however many forces we brought in - we may not be able to help the Afghans construct something useful around the internationalist fantasy that came out of Bonn.
The Taliban claim the Afghan government is not legitimate and the Afghan Constitution needs to be changed. Frankly, if one is honest, they have a point. It is likely even if the Taliban were to surrender tomorrow, fighting would ensue once the rest of the population know of the conflict between the constitution and their tribal/Islamic rules. The seeds of GIRoA and the constitution began from Bush Doctrine with progressive, postmodern, and Critical Theory elements. The seeds grew into the root of the current government, the 2001 Bonn conference (Office of the Deputy Minister of Policy, 2001). While the Afghan representatives to the Bonn conference represented the Bush administration’s progressive values, the old monarch values, and those of the victorious minority backed by the U.S., they did not represent the single largest intersectional group in Afghanistan – the Pashtun who practice the Deobandi Fiqh of Islam (BBC News, 2020). The corrupted root grew into the tree, the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. From the tree grew a constitution that was at best a compromise between the secular United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and the Holy Koran (Freedom or Theocracy?: Constitutionalism in Afghanistan and Iraq, 2005; Jura Gentium, 2010; New York Times, 2003). Progressives claim the constitution gave too much power to the Mullahs, the Taliban claim the constitution is the UDHR in Islamic window dressing (Afghan Constitution, 2020; Rand, 2003).
The 2001 Bonn conference in 2001 was significant because its attendees appointed the interim government, designed the blueprints for the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA), and defined the process to use to write the constitution (U.N., 2001). Based on the demographics, one would expect the Bonn conference to have a fair proportional representation of all intersectional groups' values in Afghanistan, but it didn't (Conciliation Resources, 2018; PBS, 2009; Office of the Deputy Minister for Policy, 2001; Vendrell, 2012).
Historically, tribal traditions and the Islamic fiqhs form Afghan's values (Afghanistan Culture, 2009; Yassari & Saboori, 2010). Based on the intersection of ethnicities, fiqhs, and social classes, the representation in Bonn should have been proportioned to reflect the values of the following intersectional groups: The rural Pashtun Deobandi Hanafi should have been represented by at least 43% of the representatives; the rural Tajik Hanafi Lahori by 29%; the Hazara Shiite by 11%; the rural Uzbeki Hanafi by 11%; Urban Kabulis - Ex-royalists, academic, communists, and modern progressives- by 6% (CIA World Factbook, 2020; World Population Review, 2021). The actual Bonn conference consisted of 24 voting members and one nonvoting member. All but one represented competitors to the rural Pashtun Deobandi Hannafis. Of the 24 voting members, 30% were rural Tajik Hanafi Lahori; 12% were urban academic progressives; 30% represented wealthy elite Pashtun Kabulis, Pashtun Monarchist, and progressive Pashtun academia; 20% were Hazara Shia; 4% was Uzbeki Lahore Hanafi (Bonn Conference, 2001; International Conference on Afghanistan, Bonn, 2001). Not one person represented the rural Pashtun Deobandi Hanafi community, not even Pacha Khan Zadran, who was both too controversial to be effective and associated with the monarch.
While it is comforting to some in the West to point to the Afghans as the problem, they are wrong. Afghanistan is their culture, their people, their history. The problem was we refused to make the effort to see the problem from their eyes. We allowed us to get played by exiles of questionable worth and then took the worst ideas from think tanks and academia and tried to spot weld them on a people who would instantly become an antibody to them.
Deconstructing Bush's doctrine, there are elements of progressive, postmodern, Critical Theory defining the U.S. approach to constructing the "new" post-Taliban Afghanistan. Walter Nugent in 2010 defined progressivism as the belief that societies will evolve from uncivil to civil societies through the application of empirical knowledge (Nugent, 2010).
As embodied by Wilson, progressives exchange their faith in the invisible hand of a God to that of the bureaucrats in administrative states (Link, 1967; Pestritto, 2007). Whether one agress with it or not, progressivism has become the philosophy of choice in foreign policy in the modern west (Reeb, 2020; Schambra & West, 2007; Van Jackson, 2018). I am guessing the Muslims who watched hundreds of millions of people executed by modern secular governments in the 20th century - such as China and the USSR - are a little skeptical of the wisdom of "expert" progressive bureaucrats. It is clear the philosophy of Islam is popular with 99% of Afghans – they have not yet given up on their faith in the invisible hand of God (Nelson, 2013; Asia Foundation, 2019).
Between 2002 and 2005, Bush gave 37 speeches reference the Afghan people's rights and aspirations (Whitehouse Archives, 2004). He never mentioned God, faith, or divine rights once. Bush's following quotes reference the importance of government, coalitions, and even armies –but nothing about faith or God.
"Under the Taliban, women were oppressed, their potential was ignored. Under President Karzai's leadership, that has changed dramatically. A number of innovative programs designed in collaboration with the Afghan government are increasing the role of women in the private sector." President Bush's remarks in a press conference with President Karzai of Afghanistan
-The Rose Garden, Washington, D.C. June 15, 2004. (Whitehouse Archives,2004)
[Comment: I do not think the 100,000+ mothers who gave permission for their sons to fight for the Taliban felt oppressed by their definition of oppression. Understanding by current progressive postmodernist Critical Theory ideology they are ignorant and have been fooled by males to thinking that way. Yet, they are still allowing their sons to fight for what they believe – no matter how wrong we think their beliefs are.]
"Afghanistan and America are working together to print millions of new textbooks and to build modern schools in every Afghan province. Girls, as well as boys, are going to school, and they are studying under a new curriculum that promotes religious and ethnic tolerance." President Bush's remarks in a press conference with President Karzai of Afghanistan The Rose Garden, Washington, D.C. June 15, 2004. (Whitehouse Archives,2004)
[Comment: The Afghan government and U.S. developed the new curriculum - not GIRoA, Ulema, and parents worked together in developing he curriculum.]
"In Afghanistan, we helped to liberate an oppressed people. And we will continue helping them secure their country, rebuild their society, and educate all their children, boys and girls." President Bush Delivers the State of the Union, January 28, 2003. (Whitehouse Archives,2004)
[Comment: First, the 43 % + of the country supporting the Taliban didn’t think they were oppressed. Secondly, note the “U.S.”. will rebuild their community and educate their children. Bush did not say we would work with the government, parents, and Ulema to build society. In his statement, Bush was saying the secular U.S. is replacing the elders and Ulema. ]
Point by point, Lembke brings receipts. You may not like it, but his case is solid.
Finally, the second point I was so happy to see Lembke bring up. We tried on multiple occasions to get more rural expertise on the planning staffs. There were just a few of us who would try to pull at least the ideas in, but with few exceptions, no interest was shown by the senior uniformed and civilian leadership.
We would bring up the importance of understanding rents and land lords, security and quality of transportation of goods to market. We even tried to bring in the well known concept of subsidies for certain crops to overcome the inadequacy of both security and access to markets - something we in the West do for our farmers - but besides a few small projects ... nope.
Our military and civilian senior leaders were either so far removed from any rural understanding or, more likely, uninterested in it. Especially in the USA with our states that have land grant universities with large agricultural expertise in climates not dissimilar to Afghanistan - and untold numbers of National Guard members with that expertise - in the half decade I was involved with planning the operation, we could never get traction on the concept.
In a rural society - find out what the farmers need, get them on your side, and at best the rest will follow - or at least they won't actively help those who will get in the way of your help to them.
Yes it's transactional. Welcome to the real world.
According to the farmers’ and southern Pashtun I have talked to, they perceived the Taliban movement’s beginning as a movement against the injustice caused by expatriated monarch families returning to Afghanistan to take back their lands and power – not to establish a terrorist occupation. The communist government redistributed land from wealthy landowners (representing the “rich” half of the tribes in the south) to poor land workers (representing the “poor” half of the tribes in the south) in the late 1970s and early 1980s (Rubin, 2002). The wealthy landowners took their money and ran to the U.S., Europe, Russia, Pakistan, and Turkey. After the communist government fell, the old landowners came back and made a deal with the Mujahadeen government: their tribes’ support in exchange for their old lands and power. In fact Karzai, the first "appointed" President of Afghanistan, was a son of one of the wealthy returning Popalzai families (Hamid Karzai Biography, n.d.). The workers, who had been allowed to own and work their own land for the first time in centuries, rebelled against the government giving the monarchists their old lands back. Most joined the Taliban to unite against the monarchists and their supporting Army Brigades. The Taliban movement quickly spread into a national movement for peace and justice. As it turned out, the Taliban couldn't govern fairly and compassionately, proving to be an inadequate alternative (Ghufran, n.d.). Once the U.S. jumped in the war, the old autocrats and their sons used their U.S. and European colleagues' influence to reclaim their wealth through the Bonn Conference and constitution (Bonn Conference, 2001; Conciliation Resources, 2018; Freedom or Theocracy?: Constitutionalism in Afghanistan and Iraq, 2005; International Crisis Group, 2003 ).
It is easy to say, "We need new elites." but we do.
If we will continue to insist on pulling people from the same intellectually inbred lines, we should at least hold them to account and make them address their shortcomings.
Yes, the Afghans failed themselves, but we did not help them all that much either. We damaged our own - and their - opportunity after the events of almost 20-years ago.
We will repeat those errors again, somewhere else, if we do not look at how we failed - who led that failure - and the ideas that drove their failure - with clear eyes.