Jonathan Power: Downhill in Afghanistan

How far is downhill? Well, that’s like asking how long is a piece of string. But whatever the answer, the American/NATO military effort in Afghanistan, triggered by 9/11, seems to have all the marks of a quick descent.

In Barack Obama’s phrase, American public opinion doesn’t get it. How could they when Obama himself, supposedly a fresh eye on the international scene, bangs the drum for more troops and yet more force?

Does European and Canadian opinion get it? Apart from the Canadians, who have had the good sense and the foresight to give a date for the withdrawal of their troops, public opinion appears to be asleep at the switch.

Our Afghanistan policy, made within hours of the atrocity of 9/11, seems still to be to try to bomb the country to cinders, irrespective of the number of civilian casualties. How is it possible that Americans have yet not learned the lesson of Dresden, that wild and merciless bombing rather than leading to capitulation merely reinforces local opinion against the aggressor. And troops on the ground have continued to alienate local opinion with their seeming inability to differentiate between fighters and civilians.

The war is being lost as the Taliban, whether actively defending Al Qaeda or just fighting for their own piece of ground, gain the upper hand, improving their strength and their military skills by the month. The poppy growers watch their profits soar, with plenty of coin going to Taliban coffers, because the West is unable to face honestly the one policy that might work—legalization of the drug trade, as the former minister of finance of Pakistan, Sartaj Aziz, suggested in Prospect magazine. (He argued for a controlled experiment in one province.)

President Bush, the American military, and now Obama seem to think the only way out is to take their failed tactics into Pakistan, despite the opposition of the government in Islamabad and its powerful military chiefs. (So much for territorial integrity, the war cry of NATO for Georgia.)

Last week, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress that he wanted “a new, more comprehensive military strategy that covers both sides of that border.” Al Qaeda bases inside Pakistan will be hit hard.

Meanwhile, the West wonders anxiously why public opinion within Pakistan is becoming dangerously anti-American and why, after many quiescent years, the mujahedin have retooled for new attacks against the Indian presence in Kashmir (and even the Indian embassy in Kabul), with the clandestine support of Pakistan’s intelligence service. India is increasingly seen as an ally of America which, although exaggerated, highlights New Delhi’s missed opportunity offered by ex-president Pervez Musharraf, who, with generous compromises, attempted to end the Kashmir conflict once and for all. In the eyes of Pakistan—and many outsiders—Washington should have pressed India to agree.

The border between Pakistan and Afghanistan is 1,640 miles long. This is the distance between New York and New Mexico. Now consider that much of this border is virtually inaccessible, remote, and mountainous, with only locals able to move freely on goat and foot paths.

This region is populated largely by martial Pashtuns, who provide nearly all the Taliban insurgents. The 25 million Pashtuns are one of the largest tribal groups in the world. (In fact, by some measures, they are the largest ethnic group without a state of their own.) Pakistani and Afghan government institutions have never been able to gain a foothold in these areas. Taxes are not paid, and outsiders repulsed.

This fierce and lawless land has repulsed rule and foreign invaders from the time of Alexander the Great through the modern era. Indeed, the Soviets killed more than 1 million Pashtuns and drove 3 million into exile in Pakistan and Iran—and still they were compelled to retreat. In this lawless region, the forces of government in Islamabad have never controlled more than 100 meters to the left and right of the few paved roads.

One of the most remote places on Earth has now become the most dangerous. But both history and present activity suggest it can never be subdued by outside powers. At best, over generations, it can be quietly subverted. So, ask the Pashtuns what they want: schools (at least for males) health services, and agricultural development. And it will be these kinds of programs, rather than the unending application of additional force, that might (if anything) be the anodyne.

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Jonathan Power is a syndicated columnist and a contributing editor of Prospect magazine, London. His most recent book is Conundrums of Humanity (Martinus Nijhoff, 2007).

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