A retired intelligence officer and expert on Russo-Afghan history recalls how history influences present day Afghan reality and what this should mean for American policy.—Ed.
History’s Lessons on Afghanistan
by Anthony Arnold
Nowadays it has become the conventional wisdom that the internationalist al-Qaeda under Osama bin Laden, the leadership-decimated Pakistani Taliban, and the Afghan Taliban led by Mullah Omar, are essentially one amorphous enemy. To lump all three together, however, is to ignore the differences between insurgency and terrorism in general, and especially between the Pakistani/internationalist and the distinctively Afghan opponents whom we face. History shows that the Afghans deserve our special, separate attention, especially now that commitment of more American forces to that unhappy land impends.
Though once a crossroads on the Silk Route between Asia and Europe, Afghanistan largely lost its cosmopolitan exposure centuries ago when the land route gave way almost entirely to the sea-lanes for trade and commerce. As in many mountainous lands, from Switzerland to our own Ozarks, this isolationism suited the independent and individualistic mind set that so often seems to go along with alpine topography. The term “internationalist”, implying collectivist values and allegiances, is a hopelessly inappropriate label to put on most Afghans, whatever their individual beliefs.
How does that feature relate to the present security problem? To illustrate the difference between terrorism and insurgency, we need only look at our own history, first and foremost to George Washington. Hard though it might be to stomach, by today’s definitions George was unquestionably a “warlord.” In addition, he organized and led an illegal, violence-prone movement that sought to (and eventually did) overthrow a foreign (British) ruling presence. But except for loudly voiced British monarchist propaganda, was he a terrorist? Scarcely.
Nor was he an internationalist. His basic motive was limited to securing his people’s independence, and although he foresaw that the same democratic message might appeal elsewhere in the world, he certainly had no ambitions to have America play an active role in any such movement. Could this be true of most Afghan Taliban insurgents? History says: Yes. Consider the following:
• In 1842 the Afghans rose up to visit on the British Army the first defeat it ever suffered at the hands of an ethnically unrelated colony. True, the British stormed back within a year and beat the Afghans down but thereafter London ceased trying to rule directly from Kabul. Only 15 years later, with this semi-successful rebellion still fresh in all minds, impassioned Indian insurgents called on the Afghans to help in their own massacre and expulsion of British overlords, an undertaking that came within a whisker of succeeding. With Afghan help, the Indians might well have won, but the Afghans refused, on the grounds that India’s war with England was India’s; not Afghanistan’s.
• In World War I the Central Powers included Turkey, then the most advanced Moslem state, which tried to provoke the Afghans into launching a religious jihad against British rule in India. Despite lingering anti-British sentiment, firm Islamic traditions, and deep admiration for Turkish achievements, the Afghans refused. Shortly after the war, the Afghans won full independence and sovereignty from Britain, but entirely on their own, without foreign help.
• Perhaps the closest thing to Afghan connivance in international military diversions occurred in the 1920s, when a newly crowned leftist Afghan amir, Amanullah, came under heavy pressure by Moscow to allow the transit across Afghan territory of Soviet-trained Indian revolutionaries. Amanullah reluctantly concurred in principle, but with the provisos that the Indians be disarmed for the trip, and their munitions forwarded separately, under Afghan guard. As it turned out, the operation never occurred, thanks to a British/Soviet treaty of non-interference that was signed while these negotiations were under way.
• German attempts to secure influence in Afghanistan emerged again in the early years of World War II. In August 1940 an almost prostrate Great Britain was the only power still opposing the victorious Nazis. Awaiting an anticipated German cross-channel invasion from occupied France, the British Empire’s only foreign support was an officially neutral United States. With Germany and the Soviet Union still locked in an unholy imperial embrace (the Molotov/Ribbentrop Pact) that had already seen each of the two profit territorially from military aggressions, the Germans came to Kabul to offer the Afghans restoration of their entire old Durrani Empire. This included much of today’s Pakistan and western India, and it would have more than doubled Afghanistan’s territory. The price? Merely fomenting enough diversionary attacks along the border with India to tie up some British divisions. Instead, on August 17, 1940, the Afghans firmly declared their neutrality. With a bellicose, expansionist Russia on its northern frontier, a weak but pro-Axis neighbor in Iran to its west, and no possibility of support from an enfeebled colonial Britain, this declaration of neutrality showed unusual courage.
• In the late summer of 1941, a reeling USSR was now a British ally, and the two countries had managed to dispose of Iran’s pro-Axis government in a joint Anglo-Russian military operation. With this local South Asian show of force as a precedent, London then put great pressure on Kabul to expel all German non-diplomatic residents, whom the British accused of stirring up trouble in India. The Afghan response was to kick out the non-diplomatic visitors of all belligerent powers (including the English), thus preserving Kabul’s neutrality stance throughout the war.
Has Afghan dedication to international non-involvement survived in the present century’s upheavals? Available evidence certainly supports that conclusion. It is true that al-Qaeda took advantage of the anarchy that followed the Soviet retreat from Afghanistan to set up its terrorist training camps near Kandahar, but one may question how much detailed information was shared with the still struggling Taliban in Kabul about al-Qaeda’s international intentions. The rings of non-Afghan security forces that isolated the camps from contact with any unauthorized visitors (including Afghans) imply that there was precious little “openness.”
In this regard, note that no Afghans participated in the 9/11 assaults. Also, despite a generation of Afghan refugee male children’s brainwashed education in Pakistani religious extremist boarding schools (madrasas), no Afghan has been implicated in any post-9/11 terrorist attacks outside his own country. Only in 2009 have we seen for the first time allegations that an Afghan father-son team probably was planning a subway attack in New York. Considering the allegedly tight Taliban/al-Qaeda links that is an extraordinary exception to an extraordinary record.
Returning now to the al-Qaeda long-term basic objective, it is the creation of an international caliphate of all Moslem states to oppose the infidel world. Can anyone with knowledge of Afghan history believe that there is anything in common between al-Qaeda’s goals and the Afghan Taliban’s? Joining such a collective jihad would be anathema to basic Afghan values no matter how sympathetic any individual Afghan might be to al-Qaeda aspirations.
Yes, Osama bin Laden and Mullah Omar may still enjoy good relations, but now there are signs of a possible fissure in that relationship as Omar seems to be opening the door for discussions with NATO forces. Even if proven untrue, such rumors are much more in line with traditional Afghan values than with any Afghan allegiance to the surreal al-Qaida goals.
What, then, are the Afghan Taliban’s goals beyond simple removal of the foreign presence and an imputed desire again to take over complete political power? These have not been enunciated and with the precedents of Taliban atrocities committed in the name of Islam after their 1996 occupation of Kabul, we are faced with the daunting possibility of a return to the same kind of cruel autocracy.
Again we must keep in mind basic Afghan values. The Soviet withdrawal left anarchy and a power vacuum. Into this vacuum stepped the Pakistanis with a hidden but extremely heavy military presence that all but dictated Taliban operations, military as well as civilian, in the era of civil war (1993-2001). Included were not only Pakistani ground troops, but heavy weapons, artillery and air units, none of which could have been manned by youngsters with only a madrasa education. Pakistan itself and especially its Intelligence Service (ISI) must bear some responsibility for the Taliban crimes committed in the name of Islam during this time.
Today, a case can be made that Afghans should be, if anything, less tolerant of the Pakistani version of a “foreign presence” than they are of ours. After all, the Pakistanis are next door and have territorial aspirations that run counter to Afghanistan’s interests, whereas it should be clear that America has no such ambitions.
What are the implications of this Afghan unilateralism for US policy?
• First, certainly any negotiations, direct or indirect, with the Afghan Taliban should openly and honestly show honor and respect for the Afghan historical dedication to independence and self-determination. After all, it is exactly how we as a country began, isn’t it? There is a fundamental kinship in values there that must be openly recognized and exploited.
• Second, our present military “surge” plans in Afghanistan, though probably necessary to avoid a complete collapse of the discredited Karzai regime in the short term, must be extremely brief and be followed by as rapid a withdrawal as we can manage. Those who maintain that any such withdrawal will result in extremist exultation over defeat of yet another foreign invader of Afghanistan are unquestionably correct in their predictions. But so what? Realistically, that is exactly what is happening anyway, and the only way of “winning” this war would be a long-term commitment to military occupation, entailing ongoing American losses in pursuit of an unachievable goal. Can anyone believe that we as a people have (or even should have) the stomach for such a fight? I submit, quite happily, that we Americans make lousy imperialists.
• Third, we must step in and put full heat on the Pakistanis to cease their covert efforts to bend Afghanistan to Pakistani aspirations of establishing a “strategic reserve” territory to be used in case of a war with India.
• Fourth, we must focus our future attention inside Afghanistan on the drug trade, analyzing and openly revealing the connivance of specific individuals, organizations, and whole countries in this primary source of terrorist financing. Forget about the “warlords.” Go after the drug lords, no matter what the cost.
• Fifth, we must reassure all Afghans that we remain committed to human rights (especially women’s rights) but have learned to our sorrow that we as foreigners can do little practically to solve what must be essentially an Afghan problem. We do not favor Afghan blind obedience to any theocratic or corrupt regime, and we will continue to oppose all human rights violations wherever detected. But it is the Afghans themselves who must determine their own future by eliminating corruption, damping the drug-financed violence, and establishing their own human rights parameters. Our main effort now is to be focused on preventing any other foreign entity be it Pakistani, Arab, drug cartel or other source from interfering in their affairs.
• Sixth and last, we must get across the message that America remains immensely grateful to the Afghans whose struggle against the Soviet occupation of their country was such an important element in bringing down the entire Soviet empire.
And on that score we do, in fact, owe the Afghans more than we can ever repay them. We truly do.