An Eternal Return in Afghanistan?

By Vanni Cappelli

Afghan President Hamid Karzai's asserted this month that the United States and the Taliban are working in an opposed but complementary manner to destabilize his country and “prolong the presence of the American forces,”  each for their own ends. These controversial words are not just another passing furor in America's longest war. 

The remarks feed into a growing narrative that views Afghanistan as an intractably corrupt, atavistic, and irrational land, whose problems are essentially cultural and therefore unsolvable by the United States. This month, during his trip to Afghanistan, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel described the Afghan situation as “complicated.” The picture drawn by an emerging consensus in government, foreign policy elites, and the media is not that of a labyrinth but of a prison or even a lunatic asylum, with the inmates circling around their confined space to return to exactly where they were before the Americans arrived.

If there was indeed never a chance of winning in Afghanistan because of the nature of that country, as this view holds, then the prospects of a return to civil war, a return of the Taliban, and even a return of terrorist safe havens are seen as inevitable, and, in the aftermath of the killing of Osama bin Laden and the weakening of al-Qaida, not a vital national security concern of America. It is as if we are being presented with a smaller, limited version of the ancient idea of the eternal return, which views history as cycling through the same events, negating the free will of individuals and nations.

Writing about Washington infighting in Foreign Policy, analyst Sarah Chayes deplored such efforts "to define the narrative on Afghanistan, to tell a story that lays the blame for the policy's failure at someone else's door." Yet these self-exculpations are ultimately an attempt to control the narrative on September 11th, avoiding an honest reckoning with the historical causes of that catastrophe and the failure of the United States to respond to it effectively. Karzai may be wrong about our conscious intentions, but he is right about the results of our actions.

Only by highly selective of narratives can September 11th be said to have resulted only from al-Qaida's taking refuge in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, and an appropriate response limited to a military defeat of those two entities. The attacks were actually an emanation from the general Islamic extremist milieu created and fostered across South-Central Asia by Pakistan's ruling military-security services complex over the preceding half century, in order to maintain its power and further its deeply linked domestic and foreign agendas. Any coherent policy seeking to preserve American national and international security from Islamic extremism should have begun by addressing the existence of this atmosphere as a whole, and the tragic role of the United States in enabling it during the Cold War.

Ever since Pakistan's foundation under the cry "Islam in danger" in 1947, its elites have sought to preserve the country's feudal socio-economic structures and block democracy, land reform, and women's rights via an authoritarian religious militarism that channeled national energies away from undesirable modernizations, which were associated with India. Over time, this approach evolved into using Islamist militants to crush secular reformers at home, while also deploying them in transnational proxy wars. For example, the Pakistani army organized the brutal razakars, a Bengali paramilitary group that guilty of war crimes in Bangladesh before its independence from Pakistan in 1971. Pakistan also sent jihadis against Afghanistan and India in the 1990s. Lacking the resources to pursue these multiple, prolonged aggressions on its own, Pakistan secured massive military assistance from the United States, which uncritically provided it since the 1950s out of a strict Cold War calculus.

The policy of building up Pakistan into a major regional military power was countered by withering and prescient criticism over the decades by American statesmen such as Under Secretary of State Chester Bowles and Senators Albert Gore Sr., Edward Kennedy, and Larry Pressler. All Washington could see, however, was that it possessed a secure square on the Cold War chessboard. Such myopia ignored the fact that the country's official "Ideology of Pakistan" was as anti-Western as it was anti-communist.

Nevertheless, the investment seemed to bear spectacular fruit when America and Pakistan collaborated to back the Afghans' successful resistance to the Soviet invasion of their country in the 1980s. Yet this final Cold War victory was achieved at a high price. America consented to the Pakistanis' demand that the extremist fighters who were most under their control receive the lion's share of the aid. The secular reformist and religious moderate groups who overwhelmingly represented the enduring cultural traditions of Afghanistan were excluded or marginalized. Thus, after America’s preoccupations had shifted elsewhere, the stage was set for the brutal proxy war through which Pakistani intelligence brought the Taliban to power in Kabul.

The nature of Afghanistan was never as critical as the nature of Pakistan, and Washington's refused to confront this fact. Afghanistan and the adjoining Tribal Areas, which were historically a part of the country, were never incubation points of Islamic extremism. Militancy was opportunistically projected into these impoverished and devastated lands by the Pakistani army as part of its "strategic depth" policy of ideological and military confrontation with India—as it had long fostered radicalism in territories directly under its control. By contrast, India and Bangladesh have Muslim populations of comparable size with Pakistan's, yet fundamentalism has a minimal following in those countries because it does not enjoy state support.

Since the September 11th attacks were a manifestation of terror in the service of an extremist ideology that had long ravaged South and Central Asia with similarly inspired violence, it was myopic and dangerous for America to have focused solely on the direct perpetrators and assume that their elimination would free us from the threat of terror at large. It was certainly oxymoronic to have turned to the entity most responsible for the diffusion of this radicalism in its region and the world as an ally against it. The ultimatum delivered to Pakistan by the Bush administration in September of 2001 was predictably accepted—as an existential necessity to avoid direct war—and then predictably evaded—as an existential necessity to maintain a power paradigm.

The causes of America's retreat from Afghanistan have less to do with the unchanging regional realities than with Washington's resistance to recognize the degree to which its own unchanging policies have created these realities. Fighting militants in Afghanistan and hitting them with drone strikes in the Tribal Areas, while arming their masters, has yielded a circularity as fixed as any found in ancient legend. If the killing of bin Laden in a stronghold of the Pakistani military did not break this cycle, it is hard to imagine what will.

Afghanistan remains a forlorn and devastated land under attack from a much larger neighbor. Washington must transform the mission from the Sisyphean goal of defeating the Taliban to a realistic one of containing Pakistan's ability to destabilize its neighbors in order to make possible a transition to real civilian rule.

For the people of Afghanistan, the prospect is one of endless war and a reversal of the tenuous achievements of the last dozen years. Areas "cleared" by the Marines can be retaken by the Taliban in days, and a girl's school can be burned down in an hour. For the people of Pakistan, the prospect is one of the unrelieved grip of a military security-services complex that has stunted its social, economic, and cultural development and created a climate of escalating sectarian and political violence. The people of India will continue to bear the brunt given their proximity to a rogue state that has launched repeated attacks against them. Populations across the region and the world will face the return of whole countries as terrorist safe havens.

And for all the talk of war weariness among a population that has been minimally engaged in this war, the American people's involvement in this drama is far from over. The United States’ own role in providing Islamic extremists with a megaphone and weapons has left the world no safer than it was in the summer of 2001. America’s refusal to recognize that the cry "Islam in danger" did not begin and will not end with al-Qaida can only bring the same returns it has yielded in the past.



Vanni Cappelli, a freelance journalist, is the president of the Afghanistan Foreign Press Association.

[Photo courtesy Manca Juvan from her book Unordinary Lives]   

Related posts