The West simply cannot afford to lose its war in Afghanistan. As the soldiers’ bodies come home in ever-increasing numbers, pressure will inevitably grow for a withdrawal. Already an unpopular war in continental Europe, it will become increasingly difficult for the American and British governments to keep their resolve if media and public pressure focus on the costs in terms of lives and money and there is little sign of real progress.
Unfortunately military experts anticipate 2-3 years of hard combat and several more years of Western military presence if the South of the country is to be stabilised. But, if we don’t pay those costs, then the Taliban are likely to take over government again in Kabul. It is thought that, in spite of their apparent significant defeat in the Swat Valley, their eyes are set next on Islamabad and the prize of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. Even if Pakistan doesn’t fall, Afghanistan will continue to flood the West with heroin (in spite of the Taliban officially being against opium production!) and it will almost certainly go back to being a training camp for al-Qaeda terrorists.
What do we need – another 9/11 or 7/7 – to remind us what British and American troops are fighting and dying for?
Part of the problem: the nature of the Taliban
When the Americans smashed the Taliban in 2001, they were perceived by many Afghans to be liberators. The Taliban’s 5 year regime had been brutal, repressive (particularly for women and non-Muslims) and economically disastrous.
What should have been the opportunity for the West to be seen as helping the Afghans rebuild their shattered country was fumbled when George W Bush decided to bring down Saddam Hussein. American energy went into first of all justifying an assault and then pursuing a war that turned into a bitter, costly and lengthy occupation. Not only did the reconstruction of Afghanistan go very much on the back burner; but increasingly the war in Iraq was seen as an anti-Muslim war in most Muslim countries – with the result that many young Muslims from relatively moderate backgrounds were radicalised. The mess in Iraq helped breathe new life into the Taliban who began to creep back in force while the Americans were too busy trying to prevent outright civil war in Iraq.
What also helped the Taliban come back was that the government structure the West helped set up and is now trying to sustain is demonstrably corrupt – arguably from Hamid Karzai down. It needs to be remembered that many officials, especially in local government, were once the bandit leaders of the Northern Alliance which the Americans used as their ground troops in 2001. Using the Northern Alliance that way certainly saved thousands of American soldiers’ lives but it also opened the door into legitimate government for those who were ruthless robbers and murderers. In Gravesian, terms the RED vMEME was given the opportunity to use BLUE structures for its own ends – so all but inevitably it lined its own pockets! In the South of the country locals say they prefer to use Taliban judges rather than their government counterparts because they are more honest.
In the South (and across the border in Pakistan) the Taliban are increasingly becoming indistinguishable from the Pashtun people. The Pashtun tribes are a good home for the Taliban. For the most part, rural, poor and religious, the Pushtans have little in common with the urban elites of Kabul – looking to gain from the Westernisation of their country – or the other tribes from the North. The Pushtans are primarily dominated by PURPLE tribalism, undoubtedly led by leaders with strong RED while the mullahs peddle a RED-BLUE hardline form of Islamic zealotry. The BLUE-ORANGE-GREEN values the West wants to promote of respect for human rights, gender equality, religious moderation and one person/one (secret) vote Democracy simply don’t fit with the Taliban/Pushtan mindset. The values mismatch is huge.
When the Americans smashed the Taliban, they drove out what little BLUE culture there was in Afghanistan. As we know all too well, when BLUE goes, RED steps into the vacuum. No wonder Afghanistan is a violent and corrupt place! When the Taliban started to creep back, they offered some sense of order against the corruption and secularisation emanating from Kabul. If the Americans had hoped ORANGE-driven modernisation would take root in Kabul and spread from that centre, it was a clear lack of understanding that, for healthy ORANGE to grow, there needs to be foundation of strong, healthy BLUE. Although they were very different countries, the collapse of Communism in the USSR and Yugoslavia did not open the door to ORANGE’s MacDonaldisation strategies; instead the loss of that BLUE superstructure let loose RED gangsterism and PURPLE tribal enmities. If anyone in the White House or the Pentagon had thought it through, what has happened with the resurgence of the Taliban was, in fact, predictable.
The problem with the convergence of ‘Taliban’ and ‘Pushtan’ is that the Pushtans comprise around 40% of Afghanistan’s population and are the largest single ethnic group. That’s an awful lot of people to fight.
Part of the problem: the West is confused
What do we want in Afghanistan – other than for our soldiers not to be killed and our much-needed money not to be haemorrhaging away? (It is estimated that the war will cost Britain £3.4 billion this year alone.) And once our objectives are clear, do we know what we have to do to achieve them?
Beyond ‘winning’ – presumably meaning breaking the Taliban for good? denying al-Qaeda the use of Afghanistan? – and getting out, it’s not entirely clear just what the objectives are. Certainly, as in Iraq, not enough thought has been given to the post-invasion reconstruction – and what thought has been given has been based on erroneous assumptions. Ie: that with a little money and a little effort, we can make them just like us – Capitalist consumers. It’s a mistake the West has been making repeatedly ever since Walt Rostow (1960) came up with his 5-stage Modernisation Theory for saving the Third World from Communism.
What the Gravesian approach shows us is that we have to work with where people are at – and, if the Pashtuns aren’t ready yet for gender equality, then we need to put that on the back burner until they’re ready to grow into it. Offending their values is just going to get them reaching for their AK47s.
Our objectives need to include helping develop an Afghanistan where the tribes can co-exist peacefully, where people can take pride in being Afghan, where there is respect for a universal and fairly-applied legal system. Gender equality and one person/one (secret) vote Democracy can come further down the line. What matters now is that people feel safe, have respect for themselves and others and there is confidence in the government and the law. And, of course, that law needs to be compatible with a form of Islam that emphasises charity, faith and order. Such an Afghanistan would be distinctly unappealing to the Taliban who feed on dissatisfaction.
Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg recognised some of this when he said NATO should not be over-ambitious “by trying to import overnight a Western-style democracy in a country that has never had a functional government” but instead should aim to stabilise Afghanistan “to provide a space for the state to grow.”
If we are clear on our objectives, then can we implement the strategies to achieve them?
Because it contributed significantly to the relative calming of Iraq, the concept of high visibility patrolling the streets with the overtly-stated aim of protecting the ordinary citizens from the insurgents (Taliban) is being tried now in Afghanistan. High visibility, of course, means easy target – and that’s one of the reasons the British casualties have increased. (Apart from the fact the troops claim to be significantly under-resourced – attributed by many commentators to be result of big cuts in defence spending. (A lack of big picture thinking in BLUE-ORANGE short-sighteness!)
Lord Paddy Ashdown, himself a former royal marine, thinks the protect-the-citizens strategy is an error – saying: “The army’s job in a war is to find and kill the enemy.”
Actually we need both strategies. Protectors of those who are reasonable and want to be safe and proud. Killers of those who are determined to kill us and cannot be reasoned with. But no more robot drones wiping out innocents at wedding parties! Thankfully, all of this – including avoiding civilian deaths – is endorsed by the new NATO commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal.
We must find ways of removing the dissatisfaction that the Taliban feed off. Strong support in Afghanistan for an Islam that emphasises charity and justice for all. Rebuilding the physical infrastructure. Redeveloping the economy, including crops that are a viable alternative to opium poppies. Creating hope. Building a sense of national identity. Etc. Etc.
As part of building a national identity, we need to find ways to demerge ‘Taliban’ and ‘Pashtun’. As a people the Pashtuns have a proud and ancient heritage, their traditional Pashtunwali code of honour promoting self-respect, independence, justice, hospitality, love, forgiveness and tolerance. It’s a stain on that code that they allow the brutal and repressive ways of the Taliban to influence them to such an extent. Like many peoples in our troubled world, the Pashtuns need to rediscover themselves.
Some of what is needed in Afghanistan, I have mentioned above. But what is needed really is a full MeshWORK analysis, looking through 4Q/8L at the health of all the vMEMES in play and then deciding what needs to be done. Multiple strategies will need to be employed simultaneously so that nothing is missed. And, as much as possible, the decisions and actions need to be undertaken by Afghans – otherwise they are the work of an occupying force. And, if the decision-making isn’t ‘democratic’ but the Afghan way (tribal/feudal), then we Westerners need to allow them to be that way.
Yes, it will be hellishly expensive – in both money and lives – but we are in a war and wars are costly. The sooner Britain and the United States – and Europe, for that matter – accept we are at war, the better. Plus, it is a war we have to win. But it is a war of hearts and minds as well as bullets and bombs.