Afghanistan (Again)

Scepticalscribe

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Afghanistan never seems to be far from the news.

For an interesting, intelligent, and invariably well informed piece on Afghanistan (I knew some of their writers when I was deployed there - and met with them reasonably regularly - and the publication retains - and has always employed - excellent and very well informed writers, reporters/analysts, both Afghan and western), I cannot recommend The Afghanistan Analysts Network highly enough.

A piece by Kate Clark and Obaid Ali, dated July 2, is a must read.
 
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lizkat

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A piece by Kate Clark and Obaid Ali, dated July 2, is a must read.

is this the one?

 

Scepticalscribe

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is this the one?


The very one.

In my experience, this is one of the best - and balanced, and best informed, - of the sources writing from, in, and about Afghanistan.
 

Scepticalscribe

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is this the one?


People tend to forget that Afghanistan didn't collapse when the Soviets withdrew their forces, in 1989; rather, its collapse commenced after the Soviet Union itself collapsed - in December 1991.

In other words, it collapsed when the money to sustain the state - and to pay the salaries of the police, and the military, the security services - was withdrawn.

And that is the lesson of the current withdrawal; it is one thing to withdraw troops, and another, yes, to withdraw air support.

But, it is another thing yet to pull the plug on paying the salaries (and bills) - and paying for (and maintaining) the equipment - of the state security services.

When I was there - for the best part of two years between early 2013 and late 2014, - around 70% of the state's income came from foreign aid, with less than 10% coming from (legitimate) tax sources (and an astonishing quarter of that 10% - the state's total tax take, - came from Herat, which was the wealthiest, most progressive, most advanced - re stuff such as employment, female education, etc - and most developed region in the country).

It was explained to me that a bigger threat to the stability and security of the state - long term - lay, not in the existence of "boots on the ground" (something which was always emphasised by a very male type of journalism), but, by the concomitant withdrawal of funds (foreign aid - too much of which, yes, did indeed, vanish into cosmic black holes of stratospheric corruption) which would mean that the state could not afford to pay (and equip) its security forces, which would - in turn - threaten state collapse.
 
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lizkat

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When I bumped into your post about the Afghan Analysts Network piece, I was just starting to read one in the Christian Science Monitor, asking if the USA's manner and timing of departure from the base at Bagram speaks poorly of US leadership there.


I dunno... seems like if one is leaving Afghanistan without having been able to stand up a really sturdy central government to maintain any interim achievements per previously stated goals, well, "join the club". There's probably no great time to say ok we're outta here now, when an occupation and associated internal strife have gone on for decades. The USA are not the first to have run that gig in Afghanistan. Historians have not tagged that country "graveyard of empires" for nothing.

You're right though that sometimes when occupiers leave, the left-behind government does not fall right away. It can depend on how much care is taken with nonmilitary assistance in the wake of a departure and how much corruption attends the central government's relationship with other power structures. The US congress tried to shore up the remains of a then very weak Lebanese government after Reagan pulled the Marines out of there in the mid 80s. It worked "for awhile"...

Anyway the CSM piece is looking at whether loose ends in aid of the Afghan security forces and current central government might not have been tied up a little more helpfully as we were leaving Bagram... and so was haste to depart made a higher priority than concerns over "what next" would befall the Afghan contingent there? Of course there was recognition that the longer preparations to depart a major base might have taken, the more risk that the Taliban would have advanced to interfere with the process, despite assertions at peace table they would not attack departing forces.

But stuff like the US having left at Bagram a bunch of utility vehicles without keys, perhaps unintentionally (since the US forces did destroy stuff they definitely didn't want falling into Taliban hands) speaks to some disorganization and lack of communication. Same with the odd indicators --food and beverages left around-- that departure date and time were announced to some of the US or allied forces there with very little notice.

The bottom line though, I suppose, may always end up at "If you're gonna leave... better get going."

As for financial aid going forward, I think there have been more than one piece in the NYT or WaPo already on concerns about whether US departure of "boots on ground" will mean also a drop in nonmilitary assistance and so also leave in the lurch some NGOs providing Afghans with ancillary services... exactly the kind of aid that the Taliban would love to supply temporarily as a wedge into local rule again, the way Hamas has done in the Middle East.

Anyway I will read that piece you had cited now, thanks for the reference.
 

lizkat

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@Scepticalscribe Wow. That piece is harsh on Khalilzad, not that he doesn't merit the observations. Well, you had warned me off him back in some thread in PRSI (which of course now I cannot consult since the whole f'g subforum is not archived but removed in its entirety). I think at the time I was reading some book either by or about Khalilzad when you posted your related remarks.

Anyway he seems currently to have cut the Taliban a lot more slack on our behalf than was likely warranted. Maybe we just wanted to save some face and get something out of the talks, so we gave away large parts of the store we were itching to depart from anyway. If that was behind his moves by USA direction, shame on us. If done partly on spec or his own instincts alone and let stand, maybe some folks back in DC were no longer bothering to pay enough attention.
 

SuperMatt

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They interviewed an Afghan general on the radio today. Sounds like the issue of Taliban crossing into and out of Pakistan at will is still a big problem. The title of this isn’t fully representative of what the General actually said, so listen instead of judging based on the headline.

 

lizkat

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They interviewed an Afghan general on the radio today. Sounds like the issue of Taliban crossing into and out of Pakistan at will is still a big problem. The title of this isn’t fully representative of what the General actually said, so listen instead of judging based on the headline.


Infiltration from Pakistan and from Iran as well... two porous borders.

This quote below from General Sadat seems discouraging in the sense that these tactics have been what we were hassling against all along, and now the USA is essentially saying that earlier on during our occupation it was worth it, but now it's not (for us?) although it's still happening.

But I guess this is what a "built" government faces when an erstwhile occupier has decided to cut losses. Ugly for our Gold Star families though, and for our troops to look back on if they have come home maimed, injured or lacking the emotional ability to keep a grip on civilian life now without help they may not feel able to ask for.

Anyway, General Sadat noted:

So my corps is located in southwestern Afghanistan, where I have around 300 kilometer border with Pakistan and then 330 kilometer with Iran. So literally, we are in the middle of two countries' proxy war that we're fighting. From Pakistan, the Taliban crossed armed with a lot of IEDs and landmines and vehicles and other means. There's a number of al-Qaida fighters coming into Afghanistan recently. I've never seen so much al-Qaida fighters in my area of responsibility. There has been this resurgence of al-Qaida battle groups coming back to life, creating, like, radio communication centers, creating facilitation nodes to support some of the Taliban fighters. And I think what they're trying to do is to recruit more, like, Punjabi and extremist elements from Pakistan and then facilitate them into the Taliban ranks.
 
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Two work colleagues of mine were ambassadors at our embassy in Kabul and I knew a number of lower level dips posted there through the years. The funds spent by my government through the embassy and the military was controversial within the department and the spin put on it to the public at home was shameful. History has shown that winning there is almost impossible and tribal issues hundreds of years old cannot easily be understood by outsiders, and frankly it is not outsiders business. If one of my loved ones died or was seriously wounded in this war, I would be furious as it was in vain.

It would be great if the west could save the world, ensure that the poor girls in Afghanistan could go to school and could live safely. But sadly, that was and is just a pipe dream. It is clear that the only way to have these things happen on a lasting basis is to either have foreign troops permanently stationed there or to provide never ending massive funding to try to support the country. We should do neither.
 

Scepticalscribe

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Infiltration from Pakistan has always been a problem for Afghanistan (and here, we are right back to the roles played by both the US and Pakistan as long ago as the 1980s).

Mind you, (and Afghanistan has been a nation/state - granted an often fractious one - since 1747, as Afghan friends kept reminding me), it is worth noting that Afghanistan never recognised the Durand Line, - which divides Afghanistan from what is now Pakistan - and still does not recognise it.

They refer to it as "a boundary" not a "border".

This was something that didn't matter much as long as British India remained British India, but which did come to matter, an awful lot, once British India splintered into India, Pakistan, and East Pakistan (later Bangladesh) with the (messy and swift) departure of the British, subsequent civil war and the eventual emergence of the modern states of India and Pakistan (and Bangladesh).

Afghan friends also reminded me - with that wry, self-deprecating humour I loved them for - that only one state in the UN (for, Afghanistan, a state since 1747, of course automatically had a seat in the UN from the time the UN was first established) actually attempted to veto - and voted against - the recognition of Pakistan in 1947. "Shooting ourselves in the foot is our speciality in foreign policy," an Afghan friend sighed, when relating this story to me.

However, while Afghanistan was stable (and richer, more developed, more advanced, more progressive) than Pakistan until the 1980s, since then, Pakistan has openly (and covertly) interfered in Afghan affairs (paying special attention to try to sabotage any attempts on the part of the Afghan authorities to forge ties - economic, military, social political - with India).

I've always thought that there would be another civil war in Afghanistan before - or rather than - a Taliban victory, or complete state collapse.

What is ominous, however, is the fact that - in addition to internal divisions (Taliban and their supporters versus the urban centres, the west - Herat - the north (Mazar-i-Sharif) and the centre (the area around Bamiyan - home to the Hazaras, and passionately anti-Taliban) - that this also seems to be shaping up into a proxy war between Iran (a Shia state, lest we forget) and Pakistan (which, is, of course, fiercely Sunni).
 
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Scepticalscribe

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Two work colleagues of mine were ambassadors at our embassy in Kabul and I knew a number of lower level dips posted there through the years. The funds spent by my government through the embassy and the military was controversial within the department and the spin put on it to the public at home was shameful. History has shown that winning there is almost impossible and tribal issues hundreds of years old cannot easily be understood by outsiders, and frankly it is not outsiders business. If one of my loved ones died or was seriously wounded in this war, I would be furious as it was in vain.

In my time in Kabul - I served in a diplomatic capacity (Polad - that is, political adviser/counsellor) with one of the EU missions - my experience was that the US diplomats rarely, if ever, ventured out of the Embassy and - possibly for security reasons - didn't seem to have many Afghan contacts.

I do know that I met - and had been asked to brief - US diplomats that had never left the Embassy precincts, and had never met - or interviewed, or spoken with - an Afghan.

I wondered what they were reporting.

Actually, the "tribal issues" are, to my mind, more a "Pashtun" issue, for the Taliban is mainly (though not exclusively) a Pashtun body, and an expression of perfervid Pashtun nationalism, that seeks to conflate itself with Afghan nationalism (a view that is contested by Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, among others) and expresses itself by means of an unusually austere and severe interpretation of Islam.



It would be great if the west could save the world, ensure that the poor girls in Afghanistan could go to school and could live safely. But sadly, that was and is just a pipe dream. It is clear that the only way to have these things happen on a lasting basis is to either have foreign troops permanently stationed there or to provide never ending massive funding to try to support the country. We should do neither.
A third option would be to split the country, and hive off the Pashtun parts, whether unifying them with Pakistan, or creating some sort of new state, an independent "Pashtunistan" which would include the ungovernable and unstable "tribal territories" (FATA) of Pakistan.

Personally, I think that the north, centre, and west of Afghanistan (i.e. comprised of the Uzbeks, Tajiks, and Hazaras) could become a perfectly functional central Asian state; granted, not a model western democracy, but, for now, that is an ask too far.

However, until the state of Afghanistan works out a way to live with Pashtun exceptionalism - without destroying itself - (and perhaps, this may not be possible) and remember, even when the Taliban took over in the late 1990s, a region in the North of the country, the Panjshir valley, where the legendary Massoud held sway, remained beyond their reach and sway, for the other ethnicities will contest this Taliban surge, even if they have to enlist the support of the old war-lords to do so, - it will not be stable.
 
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Scepticalscribe

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It would be great if the west could save the world, ensure that the poor girls in Afghanistan could go to school and could live safely. But sadly, that was and is just a pipe dream.
I meant to return to this.

Afghanistan is not a monolith, and attitudes to the education of girls vary between,

1) the respective ethnicities (the Hazaras are the most liberal, or progressive on such matters, - many Hazaras see education - for both boys and girls - as a means of social mobility - whereas, the Pashtun, - above all, the rural, impoverished, uneducated Pashtun, least so),

2) region, and here, I refer to the old rural urban divide - cities are far more liberal and progressive in their attitudes on such matters, - a pattern seen almost everywhere else in the world,

3) region - in the country: The west (Herat), North, (Mazar-i-Sharif), centre (Bamiyan), and indeed, the capital (Kabul) are a lot more relaxed, and progressive than are the Pashtun areas of the south (Kandahar etc),

and,

4) social class & (somewhat related to social class) educational attainment: Upper class Pashtun - especially older, educated, upper-class Pashtun, also tend to hold progressive views on such matters.
 

SuperMatt

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We’ve all been angry at Trump the last 4 years, but Bush would like to remind everybody what a piece of crap President he was:

"It's unbelievable how that society changed from the brutality of the Taliban. And now all of a sudden, sadly, I'm afraid Afghan women and girls are going to suffer unspeakable harm."
"You know, I think it is," said Bush, 74, when asked if the withdrawal was a mistake. "Yeah, because I think the consequences are going to be unbelievably bad. And I'm sad. Laura and I spent a lot of time with Afghan women. And they're scared."
Maybe you shouldn’t have diverted resources to Iraq in search of fake WMD’s? Or maybe not start a war there at all? But sure, it’s everybody’s fault BUT yours, dubya.

 

lizkat

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We’ve all been angry at Trump the last 4 years, but Bush would like to remind everybody what a piece of crap President he was.

Yeah when I read that piece you cited, I pretty much snapped out of the nostalgia I was almost feeling for Bush 43 after Donald Trump had hit his stride in the White House.

Edit: Coincidentally I have been re-reading Peter Baker's book on Bush and Cheney: Days of Fire. Some parts of that offer a glimpse of Bush struggling to find his own way as a novice on foreign affairs and so needing some good advice, but reluctant to rely on what his dad and his dad's advisors had on tap, still wary of his own advisors, and in the end often depending too much on Cheney and the neoncons pushing regime change in Iraq. He did later see some of that as a mistake and by the end of his second term was practically freezing Cheney out, but imo the worst of the damage he allowed regarding decisions on Afghanistan and Iraq occurred in 2003-2006. Honestly I think only Trump will have kept Bush 43 from ending up with the tag of worst US prez ever. The invasion of Iraq topped off by ad hoc reconstruction planning and zero cultural awareness was a horrendous, catastrophic error.
 
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M

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We’ve all been angry at Trump the last 4 years, but Bush would like to remind everybody what a piece of crap President he was:



Maybe you shouldn’t have diverted resources to Iraq in search of fake WMD’s? Or maybe not start a war there at all? But sure, it’s everybody’s fault BUT yours, dubya.

So what is his proposed solution? Have US and other allied troops remain there forever? If he is so keen he should move to Kabul. He can take his easel and paints with him so he can relax in his downtime. "Mission Accomplished" and "Brownie, you're doing a heckuva job". What a low intellect fool.
 

lizkat

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So what is his proposed solution? Have US and other allied troops remain there forever? If he is so keen he should move to Kabul. He can take his easel and paints with him so he can relax in his downtime. "Mission Accomplished" and "Brownie, you're doing a heckuva job". What a low intellect fool.

To take a somewhat broader view though, a lot of the destabilization and retrogression that's been going on in Afghanistan and will continue to occur for the foreseeable future is down to Pakistan allowing it, as far as sinking at or even aiding operations of the Taliban. There was just a piece in Foreign Affairs by a former ambassador from Pakistan to the USA (2008-11) on how one of these days Pakistan will come to regret its furtherance of Taliban aims with respect to Afghanistan. Well noted in that article was the fact that the USA is not likely to forget Pakistan's reluctance to cooperate in making Afghanistan less likely to serve purposes of militant terrorists in future. It's not like the Taliban leadership has a good grip on its own variously ragtag and radicalized enforcers, as is currently being demonstrated across Afghanistan villages. Meanwhile Pakistan has in the past relied on the USA to help keep its nuclear weapons secure. So it may not just be Pakistan that eventually regrets some of that country's decisions over the past 20 years.


Another opportunistic operator in the region is Iran, one noted for playing a very long game and so having both more restraint and patience than the USA has demonstrated, at least since it learned a few lessons about the drawbacks of putting direct fingerprints on violence committed abroad. It has never been averse to making short term strange bedfellows of assorted militants (be they Sunni, Shia, adherents to non-Islamic religions or secular) for assistance in reaching its near to medium term goals. After the ousting of the Shah in 1979 but before the revolutionary government of Iran had built out its own networks of agents in foreign capitals, Iran often availed itself of terror groups in Europe that were managed by the likes of Arafat from his years spent in exile over in Tunisia. It's long been accustomed to finding niche alliances inside countries that tend towards tribal politics, whether religious or ethnic. But it's been a long time since Iran was directly involved in capers like kidnapping Americans and holding them hostage. Now it detains visitors instead, or people abroad disappear "somehow".

It's still true though that US administrations (often along with Congress and some leaders of the military) are often reluctant to seek much less take suggestions from the State Department, or to learn more about the culture and history of countries in which we may decide to put boots on the ground (or "US military advisers" alongside foreign leaders at their request, whatever may be the reasoning of those leaders).

There's an unfortunate tradition of considering State Department regional experts a bunch of dithering academics, resulting in an impatience to dispense with "all that" and to get on with what is seen as urgent action needed to resolve a particular situation. That of course is the kind of thinking that landed us in Baghdad in 2003 without an understanding of what would happen when a tyranny of the minority was suddenly made headless after decades of iron-fisted rule. Apparently we thought that "liberating Iraq" would lead to full flowering of democracy instead of what was far more likely to happen and did happen, i.e. a gruesome, drawn out sectarian war. And so yeah it falls on Bush 43 not to have said "wait up, let's hear more about the post-invasion plans before we head into Iraq."
 

Scepticalscribe

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To take a somewhat broader view though, a lot of the destabilization and retrogression that's been going on in Afghanistan and will continue to occur for the foreseeable future is down to Pakistan allowing it, as far as sinking at or even aiding operations of the Taliban. There was just a piece in Foreign Affairs by a former ambassador from Pakistan to the USA (2008-11) on how one of these days Pakistan will come to regret its furtherance of Taliban aims with respect to Afghanistan. Well noted in that article was the fact that the USA is not likely to forget Pakistan's reluctance to cooperate in making Afghanistan less likely to serve purposes of militant terrorists in future. It's not like the Taliban leadership has a good grip on its own variously ragtag and radicalized enforcers, as is currently being demonstrated across Afghanistan villages. Meanwhile Pakistan has in the past relied on the USA to help keep its nuclear weapons secure. So it may not just be Pakistan that eventually regrets some of that country's decisions over the past 20 years.


Another opportunistic operator in the region is Iran, one noted for playing a very long game and so having both more restraint and patience than the USA has demonstrated, at least since it learned a few lessons about the drawbacks of putting direct fingerprints on violence committed abroad. It has never been averse to making short term strange bedfellows of assorted militants (be they Sunni, Shia, adherents to non-Islamic religions or secular) for assistance in reaching its near to medium term goals. After the ousting of the Shah in 1979 but before the revolutionary government of Iran had built out its own networks of agents in foreign capitals, Iran often availed itself of terror groups in Europe that were managed by the likes of Arafat from his years spent in exile over in Tunisia. It's long been accustomed to finding niche alliances inside countries that tend towards tribal politics, whether religious or ethnic. But it's been a long time since Iran was directly involved in capers like kidnapping Americans and holding them hostage. Now it detains visitors instead, or people abroad disappear "somehow".

It's still true though that US administrations (often along with Congress and some leaders of the military) are often reluctant to seek much less take suggestions from the State Department, or to learn more about the culture and history of countries in which we may decide to put boots on the ground (or "US military advisers" alongside foreign leaders at their request, whatever may be the reasoning of those leaders).

There's an unfortunate tradition of considering State Department regional experts a bunch of dithering academics, resulting in an impatience to dispense with "all that" and to get on with what is seen as urgent action needed to resolve a particular situation. That of course is the kind of thinking that landed us in Baghdad in 2003 without an understanding of what would happen when a tyranny of the minority was suddenly made headless after decades of iron-fisted rule. Apparently we thought that "liberating Iraq" would lead to full flowering of democracy instead of what was far more likely to happen and did happen, i.e. a gruesome, drawn out sectarian war. And so yeah it falls on Bush 43 not to have said "wait up, let's hear more about the post-invasion plans before we head into Iraq."
Excellent piece in Foreign Affairs, well worth a close read.

In my time in Kabul, among some of the people I used to meet, China was frequently referred to as Pakistan's "all-weather friend."

Pakistan has long played a malevolent, destabilising, destructive, spoiler role in internal Afghan affairs, and its eternal - almost pathological - obsession with India (which is not reciprocated to anything like the same extent) is well conveyed and described in the article.
 

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@lizkat: Another extremely good (and Afghan) source of news is Tolo News.

I was astonished (and deeply impressed) by the quality of the media (granted, much of it funded by western aid, or NGOs, but run and staffed by Afghans) when I was deployed there.

We know the positive stories re access to education and women's rights (and they are rightly applauded), in Afghanistan since 2001, but, also worth noting is the fact that the media in Afghanistan is astonishingly good, and - candidly - in comparative terms, is superb, (intelligent, informed, pretty balanced, solidly analytical, and extraordinarily courageous, - many journalists, especially female journalists - have been killed by the Taliban and their supporters) given what one finds elsewhere in the region.
 

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The very one.

In my experience, this is one of the best - and balanced, and best informed, - of the sources writing from, in, and about Afghanistan.

I tried reading it but it's seriously up for TL;DR award of the year.

I'm in the camp that believes whether we withdrew 10 years ago or 50 years from now it would still end up with this same result.

Does the article mention anything about what we were doing there in the last 20 years to prepare their government for our withdrawal and their self rule? It appears to be nothing. Whose fault is that?
 

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I heard a piece about the resurgence of the Taliban on the radio. Despite the problems, people there have noted how much better their lives are now than they were 20 years ago. They mentioned young people having smart phones, internet cafes, freedom of the press, women having jobs, etc. It will not be easy for the Taliban to take all that away now that most people enjoy have been enjoying the freedoms for quite a while.

The US troops could not stay forever. I think everybody knew there would be difficulties when they left. The Afghans now need to work this out themselves, and I hope they will be able to do so.
 
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