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December 02, 2009

Questions about Afghanistan

Now that President Obama has committed 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, it might be a good time to revisit some basic questions about what the hell we're supposedly doing there. 

i) Isn't it kind of crazy to think that the U.S. can transform the nation of Afghanistan into something we like better?

ii) Even if we assume we can turn a pre-industrial tribal society into a stable developed country, it's going to take a really long time. The official line is that we're there to defeat terrorism by making the people like us better than the terrorists. It seems like this strategy has a major flaw: People hate having us around! We're making enemies in Afghanistan at least as fast as we're making friends. There's a long history of colonial powers bringing technological, institutional, and economic progress (insert scare quotes, if you like) and being reviled anyway. Why should we assume that the Afghans will ultimately be more grateful to the U.S. than resentful? It seems like we're creating at least as many terrorists as we're mollifying.

iii) Afghanistan is a huge and largely empty country. Even if we succeed beyond our wildest dreams, how can we be sure that Al Qaeda won't set up training camps in remote locales anyway, regardless of what the central government thinks?

iv) Is this just whack-a-mole? NATO has driven al Qaeda out of Afghanistan, but they just relocated to Pakistan. If anything, that seems like a worse outcome. Pakistan is a politically unstable regime with nuclear weapons.

v) Isn't our continued presence in Afghanistan a recruiting beacon for al Qaeda? Their core brand idea is kicking Americans out of Muslim countries. They got their start attracting young men from the Middle East to kick out the Soviets. Aren't we just repeating the pattern, and thereby assuring their continued relevance? I bet there's a lot more popular support for kicking out occupying armies than there is for suicide terrorist attacks on the model of 9/11.


Good questions. And I am sure drones in the sky are not too endearing either. I was at a meeting during Obama's address. Now I have to watch it, but I feel so sad, so sad.

i) Yes.
ii) We shouldn't.
iii) We can't.
iv) Yes.
v) Yes.

Lindsay, you should think of Korea as an analogy. I don't know if it's applicable to Afghanistan, but 1953 South Korea was a premodern country, so poor that Christian missionaries made it cool for Americans to adopt Korean children. It was headed by an autocrat who wasn't any better than Karzai is. It had a lot of resentment against the main local US ally, Japan, and even some resentment of the US itself.

Unlike Korea, Afghanistan has an internal security situation, one that can't be resolved with minefields and a DMZ. In that sense, Vietnam might be a better parallel, and we all know how that turned out. (On the other hand, communist Vietnam is actually building an industrialized nation-state.) And the US attempts at nation-building in Afghanistan sometimes remind me of MacNamara's barbed wire villages. But those are all security problems. If the security situation calms down, Afghanistan's history of not being a modern nation-state no longer makes it so special.

As for terrorists using Afghanistan as a recruiting ploy: have they, actually, used Afghanistan as a recruiting ploy? They've used Iraq, and they've used Israel, but I don't remember Bin Laden ranting too much about the US occupation of Afghanistan, not since before the US went to Iraq. Do I remember wrong?

Mr. Levy,

I would argue that Korea makes a very poor analog. Afghanistan is, for example, a nation of multiple ethnic groups(Persian and Arab, most predominately), it is by nature a tribal society that, through its own means and without the intervention of foreign powers, developed means of making large scale decisions in spite of shifting tribal alliances and loyalties - the loya jirga most notably among those. Korea, on the other hand, had a long tradition of a strong central government, is extremely homogeneous ethnically (and quite racist about it) and dramatically smaller with greater population density.

However, for me this all misses the point. I urge you and other readers to review Matthew Hoh's letter of resignation from his State Department post in Afghanistan in which he details his reasons for resigning, stemming not from only the contradictions inherent in US policy but the moral questions about shoving a form of government down the throats of those who never asked for the "help." In that, this former Marine (with combat service in Iraq) echoes the words of another former Marine, actually former Marine Commandant under JFK and the recipient of the Medal of Honor for his service in WW II, Gen. David Shoup. Shoup told an audience of college students in 1965:

"I don't think," he told his audience then, "the whole of Southeast Asia, as related to the present and future safety and freedom of the people of this country, is worth the life or limb of a single American [and] I believe that if we had and would keep our dirty bloody dollar crooked fingers out of the business of these nations so full of depressed exploited people, they will arrive at a solution of their own design and want, that they fight and work for. And if, unfortunately, their revolution must be of the violent type…at least what they get will be their own and not the American style, which they don't want…crammed down their throat "

If the Brits hadn't used their military and force of arms, to give the USA a new government, just think how backward we'd be today.

Oh, nevermind...

Seems to me this isn't about the people of Afghanistan at all. Democracy. Women's rights. Blah blah blah. Seems to me this is more likely about global positioning and power. An unstable, ungovernable Afghanistan is better (to our rapacious greedy corporatist leaders) than one which can actually get the TAPI oil pipeline built and secured to China without US involvement. An unstable, ungovernable Pakistan is better (to our rapacious greedy corporatist leaders) than one which can actually get the IPI oil pipeline built and secured to China. Our leaders would much prefer TAPI over IPI since that cuts out Iran from the deal, but if they can somehow get Afghanistan set up and stable as a client state, then wow, global domination is one step closer.

Thing is, it won't happen. The Russians have tried this before and apparently our leaders did not learn from Russia's mistakes. China is content to watch our country hang itself. It's NATO vs. SCO. Who will win? Not the Afghani or Pakistani people. Not the American people. It's in part being waged because our leaders did not want pay the transfer tax to the Taliban for securing the TAPI pipeline through Afghanistan. Thing is, someday I suspect they'll see the futility of this war and end up right back where they started... on the other side of the table from the Taliban leaders negotiating the transfer tax.

Face it, our government couldn't care less about the little people of the world. That includes you, me, and just about all the people in the Middle East. That's why this war should be opposed by anyone who wants to live peacefully. But, hey, this is capitalism. To avoid this eventuality we all have to start our quest for peace by challenging the economic systems that create the climate for war to occur. The more people their are, the more the environment is degraded, the more competition there will be for finite resources. In other words, it's lamentable that Iran, Turkmenistan, etc. are sitting on "our" oil.

Well put, Lindsey. Also, Dave at collinda, thanks for the Gen. Shoup quote. Very enlightening.

Katie B., I think you are dead on. We're stepping on our own feet in Iraq and Central Asia, and other countries (esp. China, India, and Russia) are waiting to step in and clean up. Our arrogance is our own undoing.

Weaseldog: actually, US independence is a good point of what happens when a frontier society's leaders get to set their own rules - they keep slavery legal for a couple decades longer than anyone else.

Katie B: somehow you managed to write screed about the causes of war in Afghanistan, without ever mentioning the Afghan government's involvement in 9/11.

let's ask the more direct questions: Why are we actively promoting violence and gangland activities in the middle-east? and the corollary post-modern money-trail question, What is in it for US?

1) Actually, no. But it's damned hard and you can't expect Afghanistan to ever become a Swiss democracy. But we can make things better, for the residents and for us

2) See above. Afghanistan ain't gonna be advanced in our lifetime. But it can be less bad than before. If it is not a haven for AQ, or the worst of the Taliban, that's where we start

3) We will do the best we can

4)Pakistan is a larger problem than Afghanistan. Yes, that needs to be addressed.

5) Maybe. But the fact is that the Taliban ( and certainly Al Queda ) are not popular in Afghanistan.

We proceed, as we must.

What was the Afghan Government's role in 9/11?

According to our own government, the hijackers came from Saudi Arabia and Egypt. They were financed by the Bin Ladens, House of Saud, and Pakistan's military.

Alon are you saying that Afghanistan is a frontier society that has legalized slavery?

The Taliban regime in Afghanistan provided safe harbor for Al Queda while it was planning the 9/11 attacks

After those attacks, they were offered the chance to give up Bin Laden and oust Al Queda but they refused to do so.

They are as culpable of 9/11 as Al Queda was

What Phantom said.

And as for Afghanistan's becoming a Swiss-style democracy, that will never happen. I don't see the Afghan government banning minaret construction, ever, no matter how Kemalist it may get.

but I don't remember Bin Laden ranting too much about the US occupation of Afghanistan

Maybe, but I let my subscription to the Bin Laden Quarterly Rant lapse, so I could have missed it.

He's an opportunist; if he thought it would profit him to make that rant, he would. Things could change; if we screw up (Abu Ghraib, for example) in Afghanistan, it is a propaganda boost for him.

They are as culpable of 9/11 as Al Queda was

Our (U.S.) government (and our national fuel consumption habit) supports the House of Saud, which funded (however indirectly) the indoctrination and training for the 9/11 attacks. The U.S. also had a hand in recruiting what would eventually morph into al Qaeda. So does that make all of us culpable, too?

I say we deploy 30,000 troops to overthrow the Pentagon and the CIA. I would say we should send troops in to overthrow and pacify General Motors, but that would be redundant.

Sam, the operating word is "indirectly." The Taliban didn't indirectly support Al Qaida; it incorporated it into the government, and refused to hand Bin Laden over even after the US and Pakistan demanded it.

Dr2chase, I think if the US left Afghanistan and the Taliban took over, it would be even more of a propaganda boost for Bin Laden. The main lesson from Abu Ghraib for Obama shouldn't be "never intervene"; it should be, "crack down on abuses before they happen." A lot of the problems the US got in Iraq weren't about the invasion, but about the fact that the neocons were delusional and didn't care about governance, and Rumsfeld was the most delusional of all of them.

This map should nswer some of the question above.

It's population density vs. attack frequency map. Tho' the attack map is gathered to nearest city, but in general it's representative of attack density

As you can see, the main road bomb, attack are urban/suburban/near city. The scary map that people often see... well those area has lower population density than North Dakota. Helmand and kandahar are arid desert for most part.

taliban grip


but the basic problem of afghanistan is correct. how do you bring about order to pre-industrial society that has received good dose of modern weapon and guerilla fighting training?

IIRC what the Taliban actually required was a way of ensuring that Osama bin Laden got an unbiased, non-stacked international trial.

Great, Alon. Directly or indirectly: regarding the Taliban, it's a distinction without a difference. So as a solution we bombed the crap out of Afghanistan, killing civilians and 'combatants' alike, and hired some drug-dealing 'warlords' to do our heavy lifting on the ground, and we let al Qaeda get away. We knocked the Taliban out of the nominal seat of power (as if they cared), and replaced them with a corrupt puppet government that is basically a poorly drawn happy face on the brutal warlords and is doing everything it can to make the Taliban popular. Now we are acting as though there is a military plan that can work in a 'country' that doesn't really exist to most of the people who live within its English-drawn borders. Obama is strategically conflating al Qaeda, which is a stateless criminal terror network no longer based in Afghanistan (if it can be said to be based in any single place), with the Taliban, which are a largely rural insurgency that draws much of its support from the anger and desperation of a largely rural population that is chafing under the strain of foreign invaders and foreign-backed domestic despots.

The U.S. cannot-- I repeat, cannot conquer or even 'pacify' Afghanistan. It cannot unite Afghanistan under a central puppet government. A military buildup might give the corporate media some newsworthy imagery for a while, and it might make some Western white males feel a little more manly for a while; but it won't help Afghanistan and it won't enhance U.S. security a whit. The only hope for any semblance of peace or order is to draw down troop levels and open negotiations involving the Taliban and Pakistan. Al Qaeda should be treated as an afterthought; if the U.S. is seen as a fair, nonviolent arbiter that respects the rights of self-determination for Muslims*, then al Qaeda loses it biggest marketing tool.

*Finally dealing fairly with the Palestinians might also help in this regard.

Al Queda wasn't committing crimes in Afghanistan. The government of Afghanistan asked for documentation showing that those people committed crimes. Bush refused to provide any. Mainly because there was none. the people that actually did the deed were dead, and the financial trail led back to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. There was no evidence that anyone in Afghanistan was linked to the attacks. Just Bush's word that they were. Osama Bin Laden for example, was believed dead before the attacks. There has been no video of him since Jan 2001, when we were told by experts that it looked like his condition was terminal. A later video showed a Osama Bin Laden that had youthened by 25 years... If you believe that one, then we should find him just to uncover the secret to immortality.

If you remember, before 9/11, the Bush administration was already talking about going to war with Afghanistan after Ken Lay's failed negotiations, here in Texas, for a pipeline deal.

If the Russian Government demanded that the US government give up David Duke and all the klansmen for a crime committed in Russia and provided no evidence that they were involved, do you believe they'd round them all up and fly them out, as we expected Afghanistan to do for us?

Alon said, "The Taliban didn't indirectly support Al Qaida; it incorporated it into the government, and refused to hand Bin Laden over even after the US and Pakistan demanded it."

Now you're just making stuff up. The logical tricks were cute, but some of us were fully aware adults when this was going on, and we were intensely researching every angle of the conflict. Outside of the words of Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity, you won't find a news source that backs up what you're arguing here, because it's BS. They lied.

Perhaps you're too young to have been paying attention when this was going on? If so, can I suggest that you go back and read up on this from articles being written in the years leading up to the conflict and as it occurred? Some of that information is freely available on the internet, some is safely hidden away at your local library.

I paid very close attention to this matter and I do not retract anything that I said.

The Taliban gave sanctuary to Al Queda and they refused to hand over bin Laden.

They were guilty as sin and were accessories to what Al Queda did.

Osama Bin Laden was already dead.

You're right, that the Afghanistan government refused to capture and turn over Al Queda.

They wanted extradition paperwork filed. They wanted to see evidence that crimes were committed. Bush could not provide such evidence, because he didn't have any.

The people that they refused to turn over, never committed crimes against the USA.

You can stick to your points, but there are legal avenues to apprehending suspects that have fled to foreign countries.

We had no legal standing to go after these folks, so decided to start bombing the hell out of country that posed no risk to us. After all they defied us. That's all the justification we need to start turning innocent human beings into rotting hamburger.

I accept your reasoning. I understand your justification for committing war crimes. I just don't share your enthusiasm for slaughtering people for profit.

a) He's not believed to be dead. I wish he was.

b) This was war. This was not a paperwork matter.

c) The invasion of Afghanistan was no war crime. It was entirely justified on the grounds of self defense.

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