Vail Valley Voices: Do the right thing in Afghanistan
Vail, CO, Colorado
On The Afghan War
The adage “War is hell” is generally attributed to Union General William Tecumseh Sherman during his retributive destruction of Atlanta and much of the “Old South” during our own Civil War.
It is a particularly apt phrase when considering the 30+ year conflict in Afghanistan. This war is repulsive — crushing to the human spirit, and exhausting first to the Afghan nation, and now to our own.
The Afghan conflict exhibits all the horror of the usual violence of war and its impact on the innocent bystander, the “collateral damage,” a desensitizing euphemism for women, children, and the elderly.
The Afghan conflict has been a vehicle for the as yet un-reconciled perversity of massive crimes against humanity (because simply killing people is not enough), ethnic cleansing, and regional opportunism fueled by money from regional manipulators, weapons dealers and drug gangs. That is the way it has been there for a long time.
It is particularly horrific to me because it is so transparently fueled by petty politics and greed.
What is it about this apparently remote, destitute corner in the middle of nowhere that makes Afghanistan so compelling, attractive, and necessary to first draw in, and then become the “graveyard of empires”? Why do we continue to beat our heads against the wall, and for what advantage or gain?
Historically, it is easy to see why Afghanistan has been at the crossroads of trade, technology, culture, and faith, and therefore power, for 50 millennia. Afghanistan was not just a stop on the Silk Road connecting China and Europe, but was also on every path connecting Arabia, India, Pakistan’s Indus River Valley, Mesopotamia, and Central Asia — in short, the entire Old World. Bronze age human migrations were channeled by geography and topography and led anyone with any global ambition and importance to come to, through, or at least near Afghanistan.
More recently, Greeks, Persians, Mongols, and finally in modern history, the English, Russians, Germans, Russians again, Arabs, Pakistanis, Iranians, and now the USA, have attempted to control Afghan real estate and relationships for their own various purposes.
In simple resource terms, Afghanistan is bordered on the north by vast natural gas fields seeking access to international markets, particularly in Europe and Japan, and these pipelines could be made shorter and possibly less subject to disruption by transiting Afghanistan, as opposed to Iran.
Look at winter satellite imagery and note the snowpack, and therefore the water, flowing from Afghanistan to its neighbors, enabling particularly Pakistan’s agricultural productivity.
Read the latest news reports about Afghanistan’s mineral wealth, now conservatively estimated at over $3 trillion. Cooperative management of these resources is, and will continue to be critical for regional security, stability, and prosperity.
More importantly, though, look at a map of the region, and note that Afghanistan is bordered on the east by Pakistan, an unstable, nuclear armed, nearly failed state with a national personality defined by paranoia about it’s own nuclear armed eastern neighbor, India.
Now look west, to Shiite Iran, an aspiring nuclear power with clear regional socio- political aspirations, both proud and paranoid about it’s heretical standing in conservative Muslim circles.
Look again to the north (to the gas fields), and the rapidly growing consumer and industrial markets of Central Asia, and see that transiting Afghanistan is the shortest, least expensive route to access them.
During the Afghan Civil War, Afghan “warlord” disruption of Pakistani trucking access to deliver world trade to Central Asian markets was one of the most important motivations to Pakistan’s support of the Taliban — simply to clear Afghan roads of unregulated toll extortion and banditry. Blocked trade is a classic road to conflict, and can be ill afforded in this volatile region where a nuclear confrontation would have disastrous global consequences.
Why are we doing this?
President George W. Bush announced the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, “Operation Enduring Freedom” in October 2001 for the purpose of “… removing the safe haven to Al-Qaeda and its use of the Afghan territory as a base of operations for anti-US terrorist activities.”
The “War On Terror” had officially begun. American forces were welcomed by the vast majority of the Afghan population, and this mission was achieved in tactical terms in the first 90 days of the operation.
In April 2002, President Bush announced the “New Marshal Plan For Afghanistan,” and I was among the participants in a follow up U.S. Trade and Development Agency conference in Chicago a year later in June 2003, when the budget for this plan was presented.
Our motivation for being in Afghanistan had moved from security on to include development. But it became immediately obvious that we Americans were not serious in our plan to rebuild Afghanistan on the model of the Marshall Plan for Europe after World War II, though, when USAID requested $150 million for the effort, and OMB approved $40 million instead.
In spite of the hundreds of billions of dollars spent, and tens of thousands of Afghan and foreign casualties, the results in terms of benefits for the Afghan people and U.S. security were minimal until 2009. The waste has been massive, enabled, even driven, by inattention and lack of political, administrative, and popular commitment and support commensurate with the expense or the stated intention.
The last “war” that America took seriously was World War II. I do not mean this in any way to depreciate the suffering, commitment, sacrifice, and honor of those who served in subsequent conflicts. I am talking about American national political and popular will and commitment.
America’s war in Afghanistan, until recently, became just one more under-resourced political sham like the War on Poverty, The War on Drugs, and The War On Crime. It is mandated and managed by politicians elected by less than 25% of the US adult population (the winning roughly 50% of the roughly 50% of eligible voter turnout), many of whom are primarily driven by their desire to be re-elected to office.
This means that congressional representatives make global decisions about places like Afghanistan according to the perceived wishes of their local constituents, many of whom almost certainly cannot find Afghanistan on a map of the world. It turns the mandate to “think globally, act locally” exactly upside down.
Why we must continue, and persevere
The story of U.S. global geopolitics is becoming increasingly littered with the bodies of small nationalities like the Montagnards and H’mong in Vietnam and Laos, the Kurds and Ma’dan (Swamp Arabs) in Iraq, and others.
In 1989, the U.S. manipulated Afghanistan in our successful Cold War against the Soviets, and subsequently abandoned the Afghan people to their own rapacious internal power brokers.
The reason it is difficult to recruit the Afghan people to our causes is because they may be “simple,” but they are not stupid. To be on the losing end of a fight in Afghanistan is to die or to be enslaved — but only after you watch your women raped, your home taken, and your livestock butchered.
It is easy for Afghans to see Americans as exploiters, packing up our bags to leave when our war is over, leaving the locals to settle their own. As the popular Taliban saying goes, “You Americans have all the watches, but we have all the time.”
Their fear is of joining the losing, or departing side, and that we will again leave them behind. That this departure would be politically mandated, rather than by military defeat, is incomprehensible to them.
For billions of the world’s oppressed and hundreds of millions of the abject poor in the developing world, and for billions more who can read and write, our very standing as a global power, our right to be viewed as a moral force for justice, our ability to mount international coalitions for any just cause — whether we will be seen as an honest or an opportunistic nation of people — all depend on our performance in the war in Afghanistan.
Are we a people of our word? Do we fulfill our public promises? When President H.W. Bush told the Iraqi Kurds and Ma’dan people to rise up against Saddam after Operation Desert Storm, and that America would support them, did he not lie? Chemical Ali decimated them, and we stood by.
When President George Bush told the Afghan people that we would rebuild their country, and propel them to an opportunity to enter the world community, did he also lie?
Mr. Bush said, ”We fight against poverty because hope is an answer to terror.”
I am sure that Mr. Obama would agree. What about us, the American people?
In the final analysis, we should stand up and speak out to prove that we as a people are willing to honor our word and our legacy as the land of the free and the home of the brave, to demonstrate the power of our basis to claim that legacy, and to put our money and even our lives where our politicians’ mouths are.
We should fulfill our commitment to the Afghan people because our global reputation depends on it, and because we said we would. To do less would be un- American.
Jim Fraschle, who has 35 years of experience in Afghanistan, is part of a Vail Symposium panel at the Vail Cascade that will discuss the country’s future at 6 p.m. Monday. Reception at 5:30. Tickets: $45 / $35 for Symposium donors. For more information visit http://www.vailsymposium.org/