McChrystal’s Afghan Desolation

The sorrow and grief, these black evenings,
Eyes full of tears and times full of sadness,
These burnt hearts, the killing of youths,
These unfulfilled expectations and unmet hopes of brides,
With a hatred for war, I call time and again,
I wait for peace for the grief-stricken Pashtuns

–Zarlasht Hafeez

On October 7, the Afghan sector of the Global War on Terror (since renamed) will open its ninth year. This conflict, or war, is now longer in duration than the U. S. presence in both world wars (only five years), and is coming onto the length of the formal Vietnam War (fifteen years if you discount the various operations in the Diem years). The loss of American life is not as great as it was in Vietnam or in the world wars, but the expense is greater (amounting to $4 billion per month, with a National Priorities Project study showing that the total cost by the end of 2009 will be almost $200 billion).

Afghan society is on life support, and it is here that there is no comparison with either Europe after its wars or Vietnam after its long bleed. An armistice was welcomed in each of the contests by the people who had the wherewithal and energy to pick up the pieces. Set aside the Afghan masses, whose well-being has not only been ignored but so too has their political development (the official literacy rate stands at 28%, and most areas of the country are outside formal political organization and institutions).

It is not clear that the Afghan elites lodged in Kabul would cheer at the departure of the NATO troops; it was thanks to the troops that the elites followed Hamid Karzai from Pakistan and India, as well as Europe and the United States to return to their homes and take charge. Exiled by the Communists (1978-1992), the long civil war amongst the mullahs (1992-1996) and then by the Taliban (1996-2001), the Afghan elite came aboard the NATO-US express, hoping against hope that the force of arms would turn back the tide of history. It has not been so.

There are many things about Hamid Karzai that resemble Ngo Dinh Diem, the president of the US-backed Republic of South Vietnam. Both can sing hymns to democracy as they set loose the dogs of repression; both, as well, are generous to their families, allowing them to circumvent the inconveniences of the law to enrich their Swiss coffers (Ahmed Wali Karzai mimics Ngo Dinh Nhu, and Kandahar is his Hué). One of the gravest political errors made by the CIA was to allow the 1963 coup against Diem (and his assassination). When Ho Chi Minh heard of this, he said, “I can scarcely believe the Americans would be so stupid.”

The Generals that took up residence in the Presidential Palace didn’t have Diem’s guile. It took an American escalation to allow them to extend their hold till 1975. General “Big” Minh lasted only three months; Nguyen Khanh followed, and ended his days in Westminster, California as the Chief of the State of the Government of Free Vietnam, more an exiled clan than a nation (it has been recognized by Homeland Security as a terrorist organization). Karzai has been in power since 2002, protected first by U. S. service bodyguards and then by DynCorp trained Afghan guards.

There can be no US-engineered assassination of him. The rigged Afghan election of 2009 is not going to bring anyone to the streets. Even Karzai’s rival, Abdullah Abdullah has been silenced. He has not worn green and taken to the streets. He will be silent on October 7.

Hidden in the Wazir Akbar Khan and Sirpur neighborhoods, amidst the splendor of the new Afghan “narco-tecture” (or warlord kitsch), the elite have bunkered down. Their man, Karzai, the mayor of Kabul, is their last defense against the hordes. Nothing in any NATO-US plan calls for his removal. That was idle chatter. He is indispensible.

Eight years ago, as the US air force prepared to strike targets in Afghanistan and prepare the ground for the advance of the Northern Alliance, the White House’s war aims seemed as unfocused as they are today. Retribution was in the air: revenge for 911 had to be extracted from the leadership of al-Qaeda, housed, at that time, in Kandahar and in the Safed Koh mountains. A bombardment of their caves and encampments would not have been enough, it seems. The Taliban, who offered them refuge, had to go as well (“any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime,” Bush, September 20, 2001). A week into the bombing, the Taliban government rather pathetically asked that the US government turn over “evidence” of Osama Bin Laden’s role in 911. “There no need to discuss innocence or guilt,” Bush said snottily, “We know he’s guilty.”

But there was Haji Abdul Kabir, totally outclassed by Bush, trying his best to find a way to extradite Bin Laden without the appearance of weakness. The fantasy of his political Islam blinded him to the realities of power. If Bush had been less a cowboy, Bin Laden might be taking his dialysis treatments at Guantanamo. But all that was mute. The dismissal of Abdul Kadir muddied the war aims. If Bin Laden was not the only target, then what was it: to overthrow the Taliban and bring in the Northern Alliance? (On October 14, 2001, I wrote in Counterpunch, “The Northern Alliance is not ‘at least better’ than the Taliban, as liberals want to believe; they are as bad for the people of Afghanistan.” That assessment stands proven).

It was a miserable deal. The Northern Alliance, or at least Karzai after his ascension in 2002 by the feeble loya jirga, has not been able to build Afghan state institutions, or even a political space from which to struggle against the Taliban. There is so little gap between the programs of the sanctified Jamaat-e-Islami and that of the banned Quetta Shura Taliban.

The two principle war aims, the destruction of al-Qaeda and the creation of a government in Kabul that would prevent al-Qaeda’s resurrection, remain unfulfilled. Al-Qaeda has certainly not struck the United States homeland, and its operations against U. S. forces in Iraq and elsewhere have also been compromised. Bin Laden’s franchises have been able to make hay in Indonesia, in the Philippines and in Europe, but these do not themselves advance al-Qaeda’s own agenda, viz. to push the “far enemy” (the United States) out of Arabia and, thereby, to weaken the “near enemy” (the pharaonic regime in Egypt and the royal families in the Gulf) whose fall would be inevitable without U. S. protection. The Salafi jihadis reserve their animus for the “near enemy,” who, a 1986 manifesto noted, is a “fifth column that gnaws the bones of Muslim society at the behest of foreign powers. They lost their will and sold their honor and dignity. They paved the way for colonialism and exploitation.”

But the fact is that the minions who comprise al-Qaeda are not in a hurry. The same eschatology that gives you the suicide bomber (who neglects his or her own life on earth) also gives you the patience of eons: the end times take much longer to make their appearance than the calendar of secular political power. The Taliban are not as patient, largely because they are not given over to the fantastic visions of Bin Laden. They recognized an impossible battle when they saw it, and fled as the B-1 and B-52 bombers delivered their awesome payload (in the last three months of 2001, the bombers dropped 72% of the total US ordinance expended on the war, which is to say, 4700 tons of firepower).

The Taliban troops won’t line up and march toward their Somme. They are cannier, waiting out the patience of the U. S., building up their own bases here and there. The fact is that if they do come to power, which is also not altogether likely in the event of a NATO withdrawal, it is thoroughly unlikely that they would allow Bin Laden to open up his camps again. That lesson must be learnt or else the Taliban leadership is thicker than one anticipates.

Papier-mâché armies

Unlearnt lessons are the modus operandi of the Pentagon’s intellectuals. Each week they seem to flood Washington with paper devoted to Afghanistan. The reports are devastatingly similar. At least they are consistent: the goal is to destroy or disrupt al-Qaeda and to prevent the formation of a government in Kabul that would allow terrorists to operate with abandon. They also admit that the latter goal cannot be accomplished unless a strong government is in power, and that the security situation in the country is improved (i. e., the Taliban has been defeated). The failure of the effort is apparent by the frequency of these reports and their repetition. General Stanley McChrystal’s recent sixty-six-page report to the Department of Defense is along the lines of everything that has come before (hereafter, Initial Assessment). It is filled with the RAND-Pentagon verbiage (“win the battle of perceptions,” and “redefining the fight”).

Most lawmakers probably stayed with Bob Woodward’s summary in the Washington Post (September 21). It had the advantage of brevity. The Initial Assessment draws from the White House’s own review and from the NATO review, both of which call for a change of strategy. Bruce Riedel, who chaired Obama’s review of Afghanistan-Pakistan, came to that job after a long career in the Clinton trenches and in the think tank workshops during the Bush exile. He authored a clear-eyed book (The Search for Al-Qaeda, Brookings, 2008) in which he called for a much more focused and forensic campaign against al-Qaeda, with a brief coda about the need for greater U. S. commitment toward the defeat of a resurgent Taliban. That last point appears at the book’s end, and it is cushioned by language of multilateralism, particularly regionalism (bringing in Afghanistan’s neighbors to clean up the mess, a policy that was ongoing in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation before it was mucked up by Bush). Riedel (along with Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institute) has now reduced whatever complexity he previously held to the siren of more boots on the ground (particularly those who can speak the languages of Afghanistan). The debate in Washington’s withered halls is about troop numbers. McChrystal tried to give them more. They weren’t listening.

The Initial Assessment opens with a remarkable concession, that the point is not to seize terrain or to destroy the insurgency. “Our objective must be the population.” Drawing, it seems, from the work of Carnegie scholar Giles Dorronsoro, McChrystal argues that his forces must first “focus on critical high-population areas that are contested or controlled by insurgents, not because the enemy is present, but because it is here that the population is threatened by the insurgency.”

Protect the cities, and build outwards toward the redoubts of the enemy. No sense in going on fishing expeditions with lightly armed detachments into areas where the Taliban are adept at setting up ambushes. But to do this, McChrystal wants to “change the operational culture” of the US-NATO forces, and to truly bring on board the Afghan National Army (“a foreign army alone cannot beat an insurgency; the insurgency in Afghanistan requires an Afghan solution”).

Benjamin Tupper’s Welcome to Afghanistan: Send More Ammo (Epigraph Books, 2009) is a window into both the frontline and to the ANA, the Afghan National Army. Tupper, who served as embedded trainer with the ANA, calls them the “flip flop army,” only because they came to battle in flip flops, and yet were capable of acts of bravery against remarkable odds. Tupper’s book bristles with stories that resemble the tales collected by Svetlana Aleksievich in her Zinky Boys (1992), where the Afgantsi, Soviet frontline veterans, tell her of their awful experiences (“Afghan was no adventure story,” said one private, “My image of it is a dead peasant, all skinny with big hands,” or another in conclusion, “that’s how I remember the war – as totally absurd”). Tupper evokes the sound of the 107mm guns, and the looks of bewilderment on the faces of his young comrades, the bravery in their own overheated hummers, and the fear as blood leaks from one life to the next. The ANA is brave, Tupper says, but because of the close air support and US firepower of other kinds, the ANA will never be able to assert itself. It has come to rely on the Mirages and the F-16s. Why leave the foxhole when the bombs from the sky will clear out the Taliban? The ANA has no reason to take confident strides as long as their American training wheels are doing all the work for them (or at least trying to). As Giles Dorronsoro put it in his Carnegie report (Focus and Exit, January 2009), “the ANA will progress only when it has more responsibilities in the field.”

Analysts like Dorronsoro have long called for the creation of “liberated areas” (such as Kabul) to become models of a proper Afghan state. They would then be a good comparison with the lawlessness elsewhere, the argument runs, which would give other Afghans the incentive to join with the Karzai-NATO-US alliance against the Taliban. But the matter is not so simple, as McChrystal quite openly states. The Karzai government has failed, despite the loving attentions of Washington and London. The state apparatus gave “preferential treatment to certain individuals, tribes, and groups or worse, abused their power at the expense of the people.” The elite has been pampered, which is why Karzai’s Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak told McChrystal, “Unlike the Russians, who destroyed our country, you came to rebuild.” Or, to translate him into plain English, the Soviets came in to defend a government that was predisposed against the elite, whereas the Americans came to make possible the return of the Afghan elite, and to oversee its reestablishment of its various indulgences.

Unable or unwilling to provide basic services in Kabul (where the slums of Chaman-e-Hazoori or Khoshal Khan Mina house more than half the city’s burgeoning population), the Karzai regime is even more parsimonious in the countryside. As McChrystal’s Initial Assessment put it, there is “little connection between the central government and the local populations, particularly in rural areas. The top-down approach to developing government capacity has failed to provide services that reach local communities.” This criticism could be turned as much against the U. S. commanders as the Western Non-Governmental Organizations. Tupper tells stories of computer equipment ordered for local governments in relatively safe areas, and then not turned in because an American commander told him that the Afghans “would just break them, sell them or steal them.” Oxfam’s March 26 study, Smart Development in Practice: Field Report from Afghanistan points out that “Many [foreign] contractors are widely regarded as inefficient, absorbing a huge volume of funds in consultant costs and profits while providing work that is of variable quality, relevance and impact, and all done with very little transparency.” McChrystal points in this direction with some strong words, “Too often these projects enrich power-brokers, corrupt officials, or international contractors and serve only limited segments of the population” As one young Afghan man told former UN advisor Clare Lockhart, “we may be illiterate. But we are not stupid” (“The Failed State We’re In,” Prospect, June 2008). McChrystal relies on bromides (“Success requires a stronger Afghan government that is seen by the Afghan people as working in their interests”), but he has just poured chloral hydrate over the entire experiment.

If the Karzai regime has failed to go to the people, the treacherous Taliban somehow seem to hold their attention. Here the Initial Assessment provides the most honest appraisal coming from Washington. The Taliban has a loose alliance with the Haqqani network (possibly the closest in organizational terms to Bin Laden) and the CIA’s old chum Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e Islami. The last has no base to speak of, although the Haqqani network has its own strength in Khost as well as in Pakistan’s Waziristan. The new Taliban base is in the prison system (the Taliban, as McChrysal puts it, “have gone from inaccessible mountain hideouts to recruiting and indoctrinating hiding in the open,” in the Afghan Correctional System). Its traditional base is in the South. “Afghanistan’s insurgency is clearly supported from Pakistan,” McChrystal notes, but “the insurgency in Afghanistan is predominantly Afghan.” In other words, the drone attacks will disrupt the Taliban operations, but they are not going to provide the kind of alternative to the Taliban that the Afghan people would like. It is a workaday assumption in Islamabad and Lahore that the NATO-US withdrawal will bring the Taliban to power on both sides of the Durand Line; the Initial Assessment is dour on the military strategy that straddles Af-Pak.

The Taliban, meanwhile, runs a “shadow government” in Afghanistan, dispensing its version of justice and providing order where it can. As McChrytal’s Initial Assessment puts it, the Taliban has created an “establishment of ombudsmen to investigate abuses of power in its own cadres and remove those found guilty. [This] capitalizes on [the Karzai-run Afghan states’] weakness and attracts popular support for this shadow government.” The historian Sultan-i-Rome made the same argument to explain why the “Pakistani Taliban” found a foothold in the Swat Valley (they dispensed justice much faster than the Pakistani courts, where bribery often moves cases at the pace required by the largest transfer of cash) [“Swat: A Critical Analysis,” Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, January 2009]. It is to be noted that political Islam in Somalia is also carried on the wings of justice, with the Islamic Courts Union promising to settle disputes with more transparency than the previous regimes.

The Taliban’s harshness brought a kind of order that can allow those in chaos to feel nostalgic. As long as disorder prevails, the Taliban can count on their stock being high. When Hekmatyar and Ahmed Shah Massoud tried out their version of the Taliban ideology in the 1970s (as university students, when they threw acid in the faces of women students), they found only a few hardened takers. It took the arms and funds from the Saudis and the CIA to help people like them and the younger generation (in the Taliban) to win the argument against the more secular and generous current; what must have drawn European parliamentarian Nicole Fontaine to invite Massoud to speak to the European Parliament in April 2001. It might be worth mentioning that it was the Asia Foundation that sowed the seeds of political Islam’s rising in Afghanistan’s universities, funding departments of Islamic theology and the Naqshabandi Mojadidi family (as remembered by Asia Foundation employees Rose and John Bannigan). It is now an irony of history that the Taliban can appear as Order against chaos, despite their deep antipathy to women and to social freedoms of all kinds. At least McChrystal’s Initial Assessment is not blinded by its aversion to the Taliban to see that it might have an appeal among sections of the people.

In The Quiet American (1955), Graham Greene wrote of the officials who went to Vietnam, that they were “impregnably armored by [their] good intentions and [their] ignorance.” McChrystal now wants the US to send along people who are “Afghan Hands,” or at least to train the soldiers about the complexity of Afghanistan. Tupper tells a funny story about his training, where the officer in charge at Camp Selby, Mississippi told them what to expect in Iraq, and when reminded that the troops were to go to Afghanistan, replied, “Well….I don’t know how they do it in Afghanistan, but this is how we do it in Iraq.” One haji or the other, it matters little if civilization is being brought by the barrel of an M240 Bravo. Robert McNamara said the same sort of thing. He quoted Diem, who told a visiting journalist, “The Americans are breaking Vietnamese psychology and they don’t even know they are doing it” (Argument Without End, p. 377). The wheel turns: enter a war zone with the expectation that the heavy armor will coerce the population into electing a favorable head of state; if this fails, then take refuge in your anthropologists, who will find a quick way to “nativize” the war and help you clamber onto the helicopters. The country you have left behind is now more of a humanitarian disaster than when you self-righteously flew in on the wings of humanitarian interventionism.

“We must never confuse the situation as it stands with the one we desire,” General McChrystal writes, “lest we risk our credibility.” As it stands, the call for more troops by itself is senseless. And to even retain NATO-US troops would provide little incentive for the ANA, who have come to rely upon the overwhelming air power of the NATO-US alliance (one that overwhelmingly kills civilians, once more distancing the Karzai government from the people). If you follow McChrystal’s logic to the end, there is no reason for the US-NATO occupation to continue. The only exit strategy is to exit.

Liberalism is enamored with its own ideals. It would like to proclaim its values, thrust them on the world even if this means it must come by force. In the 1960s and 1970s, the progressive dynamic in Afghanistan held the day. Mohammed Daoud’s regime moved a far-seeing agenda, and it won the support of upwardly mobile students and merchants, as well as the nationalists who wanted to revise the 1893 Durand line that separated the Pashtun speakers between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Daoud was canny (“I feel happy when I can light my American cigarette with a Russian match”). When his cousin Zahir Shah sat back on the throne in 1964, he could not go back on Daoud’s reforms, and nor would the country let him.

The Communists filled up the ranks of the military and the teachers’ unions, building their strength among the peasantry and the lower middle class who lived in the small towns, many now destroyed. Rather than support this dynamic, Cold War liberals and their hawkish allies in the American Right opened their hearts to political Islam and did all they could to break Afghanistan’s back. The Soviet invasion came in when the progressive dynamic had already been grievously damaged by the Holy War set in play from Washington and Riyadh (as well as Islamabad). The Soviet Central Committee spent three days in debate over intervention, with Prime Minister Alexei Kosygin pointing out, “Instead of sending our troops there, we should tell [the Afghan Communist leadership] to change their tactics.” KGB Director Yuri Andropov put the point sharply, “I do not think we can uphold the revolution in Afghanistan with the help of our bayonets. The idea is intolerable and we cannot risk it.” But they did, to their peril.

The Soviet hesitancy came in large part from being motivated not so much by the politics of proclamation, but by the politics of programs. A program must precisely assess the nature of politics on the ground, and make a judgment on how best to nudge history along. An honest, incontrovertible program today suggests that the NATO-US must set a timetable to withdraw. Afghanistan needs a political process, and even the hardened Taliban have made it clear that absent NATO and the U. S., they would come to the table, with regional partners taking their seats in the gallery, ready to offer assistance in a generous manner and not carrying forward their own problems into the room.

VIJAY PRASHAD is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His new book is The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, New York: The New Press, 2007. He can be reached at:

Vijay Prashad’s most recent book (with Noam Chomsky) is The Withdrawal: Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and the Fragility of US Power (New Press, August 2022).