Lifting the veil on conflict, culture and politics
Afghanistan: neither Vietnam nor Iraq, but closer home perhaps
[Women at a cemetery in Kabul, picture by Reuters' Ahmad Masood]
As U.S. President Barack Obama makes up his mind on comitting more troops to Afghanistan, the search for analogies continues. Clearly, Afghanistan cannot be compared with Vietnam or Iraq beyond a point. The history, geography, the culture and the politics are just too different.
The best analogy to Afghanistan may well the very area in dispute – the rugged Pashtun lands straddling the border with Pakistan and where the Pakistani army is in the middle of an offensive, argues William Tobey in a piece for Foreign Policy.
Tobey, a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfar Center and who served on the National Security Council staff under three U.S. presidents, takes a walk down history to the 1936 uprising against British rule in Waziristan.
The rebels were driven by radical Islam, Pashtun nationalism and armed opportunism, much the same factors firing up the modern Taliban campaign.
“The rebels improvised roadside bombs, ambushed convoys, and launched hit and run attacks on isolated outposts to drive out alien forces. They kidnapped and beheaded British soldiers and civilians. In unprotected villages, they massacred civilians who did not support them. ”
And when troops chased them, they crossed the border into Afghanistan. Much of the same is happening on either side of Waziristan’s border with Afghanistan and you could be forgiven to think if this isn’t a re-run in some ways.
Even the British response in Waziristan seems to be similar to US/NATO operations in Afghanistan. They called in air strikes, the earliest use of air power, and with similar set of rules to limit civilian casualties. But of course, like the NATO forces they ended up causing civilian casualties.
[U.S.Marines in Helmand, picture by Reuters’ Asmaa Waguih}
The British, also attempted, to improve civil society, building roads and schools. Again the results were mixed. Some people appreciated the assistance, but many others saw it as a way to extend British military power and Western values deeper into their lands.
Here’s a Time magazine article from January 1948 detailing what it calls Britain’s “most dogged (and futile) essays in civilisation.”
Eventually Waziristan was pacified through a combination of overwhelming force, shrewd political moves dividing and sapping the morale of the rebels, and patience, Tobey says.
The thing to remember is that the West’s war with al Qaeda must somehow not be transformed into a war with nearly 40 million Pashtuns who live on both sides of the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, he says.
The West has just saved itself more trouble by acquiescing to the re-election of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, however imperfect the process may have been.
The brute reality of Afghanistan is that it would be even more difficult to govern under a non-Pashtun president such as Karzai’s main challenger Abdullah Abdullah who is half-Tajik, since Pashtuns are half the population and “most of the trouble”, says Bret Stephens in a piece in the Wall Street Journal.
Stephens, in fact, argues that it is self-serving for the U.S-led coalition to blame Karzai for all of Afghanistan’s problems.
“It would be equally useful if some of Mr. Karzai’s more acerbic Western critics could ask themselves why matters went abruptly south in Afghanistan after several years in which they had gone swimmingly well under Mr. Karzai, including a thriving economy, girls back in school, people having access to health care and so on. The answer has a lot less to do with Mr. Karzai’s performance than with NATO’s.,” he says.