Tuesday, August 21, 2012



The United States has been fighting a war in Afghanistan for over a decade.  I’m sure the question on your mind is: why can’t we just leave already?

Here’s why:

The Current State of Affairs:

The United States is in the process of handing control of the country over to the Afghan government.  The problem is that the Afghan government is totally unprepared to assume control of the country.  To understand why, let’s do a quick history and then outline Afghanistan’s main problems.

Map of Afghanistan

A Quick History:

Since people started keeping track, Afghanistan has been a war zone.  Because it is wedged between a number of more powerful countries, Afghanistan has been more or less a buffer zone for a really long time.  Here is a timeline:

- In 500 B.C. Afghanistan was conquered by the Persians.  These are the same Persians who fought and were defeated by the Ancient Greeks. (think of the legend of Marathon, the movie 300, and a ton of Greek literature)

- In 350 B.C. Afghanistan was conquered by Alexander the Great and his Macedonian (Greek) Army.

-  In 100 B.C. Afghanistan was conquered by a new Persian Empire.

- In 870 A.D. Afghanistan was conquered by Arab Muslims.

- In 1219 A.D. Afghanistan was conquered by Genghis Khan and his Mongol Horde.

- During the early 1700’s Afghanistan was briefly independent.

- By the late 1870’s, the British arrived and began to dominate Afghan politics.

- In 1919, Afghanistan briefly gained independence once more.

- After the 1950’s, the Cold War intensified, and Soviet and American influences began to compete for power in the area.

-  In 1978 the Soviet Union decided to back a socialist revolution in the country and invaded Afghanistan with 100,000 troops.  In response, the United States allied with Pakistan and supported the opposition.  The opposition was dominated by Mujahedeen, which basically means people fighting in the name of Islam.  Over one million Afghans died in this war.

- The Soviet war ended in 1990’s and Afghanistan immediately fell into a different civil war.  A new group called the Taliban, which enforced a strict version of Islam and had its roots in the U.S. supported Mujahedeen, emerged as a powerful force.

- As the Taliban consolidated control, they were joined by Al-Qaeda, fighters from Pakistan, and other Muslim extremists.  The Pakistani government provided support for the Taliban during the war.  One reason for the Pakistani support is that the Taliban are Pashtuns, an ethnic group from both Afghanistan and Pakistan.

- On 9/11/2001 Al-Qaeda destroyed the Twin Towers.  A couple months later, America and its allies invaded Afghanistan.

To recap, different groups have continually invaded and dominated Afghanistan.  Each group left a little bit of their culture.  This diversity makes any lasting peace difficult to maintain. 

It Has Been Ten Years; What Has The United States Accomplished?

Coming into the war, the United States had three main goals: destroy Al-Qaeda, neutralize the Taliban, and create a stable, secular, Afghan government.

The United States has largely dismantled Al-Qaeda.  Bin Laden is dead.  Al-Qaeda exists but is much less capable.

The Taliban is weakened but still viable.  In the southern portions of Afghanistan they run shadow governments.  The Taliban freely operate in areas of Pakistan just south of the Afghan- Pakistan border.  They routinely attack international forces and the Afghan government.

The Afghan government exists but is not stable.  Over ten years, it has extended its control and improved in some areas, but it remains very dysfunctional.

The Problems Facing the Afghan Government:

Afghanistan’s government has four main problems: The Taliban insurgency, government corruption, a weak economy, and mistrust between Afghans and international forces.

Taliban Insurgency:

The Taliban government fell shortly after the United States invaded.  However, the Taliban wasn’t completely destroyed and most didn’t surrender; they simply fled south into neighboring Pakistan.  Over the last ten years the Taliban have been launching attacks from Pakistan and remote bases in Southern Afghanistan.  These attacks target foreigners and anyone working for the Afghan government.  The attacks are also extremely brutal.  Recently, the Taliban bombed a hospital which held patients recovering from a different Taliban attack. 
Short of invading Pakistan, there is not a whole lot the Afghan government can do to stop attacks.  If the United States halts drone strikes within Afghanistan and Pakistan, their efforts to stop attacks will be further compromised.

Currently, the Afghan government is trying to negotiate a truce with the Taliban because the Taliban holds sway in Southern Afghanistan.  This is difficult because the Taliban is very fragmented.  One can never know if they are actually talking to the person in charge.  Further, the Taliban state that they will not negotiate until all foreigners have left the country.  Accordingly, negotiations have not been very successful.

This problem does not seem to be going away.

Government Corruption:

The Afghan government is insanely corrupt.  The elections that followed the fall of the Taliban were marred by fraud.  Most elected leaders use their offices to pay off the people who helped them get elected.  This is called patronage and the result of this system is that government posts are filled by people close to the elected leaders and not by people who are actually qualified.

Further, the executive branch, (the President) is absurdly strong.  This is because there is not a strong judicial branch (courts) or legislative branch (congress) that can keep the President in check.  Thus, the President can routinely engage in corruption.

The flow of billions of dollars from the American government also breeds corruption.  If you received unlimited money from someone you didn’t like, you probably wouldn’t follow that person’s exact directions either.

The courts are not transparent and are viewed as favoring the rich.  This is a huge liability because the Taliban offers a simpler religious court which is much easier for an illiterate farmer to use.  If you find American courts confusing, imagine how confusing they would be if you couldn’t read or write.

This corruption leads average Afghans to distrust the government.  Further, this plays into the Taliban’s hands because they portray themselves as the religious and therefore “moral” alternative to corrupt politicians.

There will be an election in 2014.  The results of this election will have enormous consequences for the country because 2014 is the year that Obama plans to leave Afghanistan.  However, political parties are weak and voter registration is insufficient.  The election is not expected to be smooth. 

A Weak Economy:

When the United States says it is rebuilding Afghanistan, the United States means it is starting from scratch.  War has been raging in Afghanistan for 30 years, so the U.S. is not just rebuilding from their war, they are rebuilding from the three previous wars as well.

The average Afghan is poor.  Rates of illiteracy are high and Afghanistan’s main industry is heroin production.  Afghan life expectancy hovers around 44 years old.  The corrupt policies of the Afghan government are not helping the situation.  Currently, the total budget of the country would not even support the Afghan government's army.

Mutual Mistrust:

The Afghan people are weary of American forces.  American drone strikes targeting the Taliban often result in mass civilian casualties.  The cultural differences are intense and incidents of Koran burnings at U.S. bases have made things worse.

By the same token, the Americans distrust Afghans.  In addition to suicide attacks and roadside bombs, there have been several incidents of newly trained Afghan soldiers turning their guns on the very Americans who trained them.

Basically, neither the Americans nor the Afghans are happy about the American presence in Afghanistan.

So What Now?

Clearly the United State can’t support the Afghan government forever.  However, it is equally apparent that after the United States leaves, there is a strong chance the Afghan government will fall apart.  If the government falls apart, or the Taliban regain control of the country, much of what we fought for will be for naught.

Bottom line: There does not seem any way to “win” Afghanistan.

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