A good war works economic wonders for those who survive it. The metamorphosis is often remarkable. When the first Europeans associated with Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), began to take up residence in ’03, a well made Afghan rug sold at most bazaars for $200, $300. The rug shop owners would often spread the rugs on the road in front of their shops so donkey carts, camel caravans, untold numbers of pedestrians, and the thousands of old yellow and white taxis that passed by daily would run over them, giving them that worn, valuable appearance that Americans sought.
In 2004, the price for the same rug had jumped to $400. By ‘05 the same piece of merchandise couldn’t be touched for less than $1,000 or more.
Never before seen, or needed, curiosity shops popped up on every corner. Their wares included dozens of trays of old coins and medallions that had been dug up from any one of the thousands of battlefields dotting the country, upon which had been shed the blood of warriors who had fought for every leader from Alexander the Great to Dost Muhammad, and oh by the way, had dropped coins and medallions on the battlefield. In these shops one might also find old ornately carved knives, still rusty from the blood of the last victim, along with strangely intact, black powder fired pistols and rifles and other antiquities too numerous to list.
A closer examination would show that the coins and medallions had been carefully cut from various pieces of flat metal, stamped with the likes of Julius Caesar or some other ancient deity, and carefully soiled to appear as though they had only recently been excavated. The muskets and pistols, pieced together with scrap, appear authentic enough to lure Americans with a few extra bucks and fewer places to spend money.
The owners of these shops provide employment for a vast web of suppliers and other support staff. The shops themselves number in the thousands even in moderately sized communities. It is safe to say that in communities far removed from Kabul, with moderate size local ISAF and coalition populations, these shops account for a sizeable portion of the local economy.
Conrad Schetter’s, “The Bazaar Economy of Afghanistan” pointed out that Afghanistan is a country without a state due to the existence of the ‘war economy’. This economy it is said, has taken the place of the very need for state order, and has eroded any semblance of state structure in all areas remote from the capitol.
If you factor in the millions of local Afghans employed in support capacities on coalition military installations throughout Afghanistan, the economic impact of the mere presence of American and coalition troops in the country is mind-boggling.
The United States and its allies have effectively adopted the country of Afghanistan; in virtually the same manner a couple would adopt a child. As such we have assumed the responsibility for a huge portion of the country’s economic well-being for the foreseeable future.
The arrival of coalition forces also signaled the death of a vital thread within the moral and ethical fabric of Afghanistan. Prior to the year 2000, an Afghan family would be shamed out of their village and clan if a family member were to ask for or accept a bribe. The more serious offences would likely result in village elder approved, immediate digital amputations.
Afghans, just as any other culture, have ambiguity in their moral structure, but prior to 2000 there existed a general community abhorrence of the type of dishonesty that involved theft or corruption at any level. The arrival of America and its allies signaled a severe and immediate deterioration of the very strength that had bound this countrythe morality that provides the one constant in an ever-torn and challenged, constantly changing environment. Until this time, one Afghan could normally trust another Afghan to treat them fairly and with a certain respect.
“Now, if I go to pick up a package from the postal service,” one woman lamented, “I must carry a handful of bills. I pay everyone from the doorman to the official who actually holds my package. When I complain to the responsible department I am told by another official, ‘These people pay a great deal of money for their jobs. They must be allowed to collect a bribe in order to make a profit.’”
The government of Afghanistan is currently bound by a tenuous web of corruption, influence peddling, nepotism and plain simple greed. Virtually every Afghan government official from the highest echelons to the lowest district official must pay someone for his position. The only way he can recoup and make a living wage is by augmenting his salary through bribes and graft, a portion of which he must continually kick back to higher officials.
The ‘web’ analogy is appropriate for several reasons, the most disconcerting of which is the fact that a web is delicate and easily destroyed. When the United States and its allies draw down in less than two years, more than 85% of Afghanistan’s gross domestic income will vanish. The corruption and influence peddling, permeating the country, have prevented any grain of stability from sprouting. The highest ranking, most powerful individuals in Afghanistan seem bent on continuing their systematic looting of the country’s treasury right up until ‘lights out’ at which time they will retire to their villas in other parts of the world, where their ill gotten gains have been sheltered. The ultimate demise of their homeland appears of little concern to them.
And America pursues a policy of counterinsurgency, which has absolutely no resemblance to any historic counterinsurgency ever undertaken by any other country. The term however, sounds impressive and since no one knows how to define it, no one will know whether we were successful upon leaving, and the price of rugs will once again drop to $100 or less.
This administration’s current pseudo-counterinsurgency policy has as its ultimate goal a total withdrawal within two years. Throughout history, successful counterinsurgency operations, in addition to having no deadline for completion, have had one absolutely necessary ingredient; a viable, somewhat effective legitimate government into the hands of which a liberated people may be entrusted. Few in Afghanistan today have faith in their country’s government, and most here blame the United States. Even those in power, bent on looting the meager resources of Afghanistan, find a convenient whipping boy in the US, deflecting blame for their own nefarious behavior. The immediate negative economic impact of a coalition withdrawal, combined with several other key factors, will virtually assure a return of Taliban rule and with it a more congenial, convenient, supportive safe-haven for Al Qaeda.
In addition to the economic impact, the post-withdrawal retribution for coalition supporters, including the aforementioned shop owners, interpreters, local base staff and ANA soldiers will mirror that which befell our South Vietnam allies following our withdrawal from that country. Even now, those who are unfortunate enough to be caught cooperating with US forces, particularly in and around the southern former Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, are often brutally tortured and executed.
Populationcentric counterinsurgency theory stresses the need for understanding the culture and in doing so, winning the support of the people. This current counterinsurgency policy and the ultimate result of our withdrawal, proffer dire consequences, and even the least educated least informed person in Afghanistan knows this. The only people apparently ignorant of this fact are those who are instrumental in formulating US policy for Afghanistan.
For the past ten years, the United States has done what it always does in such casesthrown money haphazardly and thoughtlessly at the problem. A recent congressional study concluded that $19 billion in US aid, instead of providing an economic infrastructure for the country, has done nothing more than encourage the aforementioned corruption. General David Petraeus describes coalition progress in the country as fragile and reversible.
Successes in any true counterinsurgency ever undertaken in any part of the world have been characterized by patience and a willingness to endure sacrifice. The idea that a time limit can be attached to a counterinsurgency mission is ludicrous to the point of incredulity.
Additionally, successes in Afghanistan (and there have been a number of such) have also been characterized by patience and a willingness to endure sacrifice.
Congressman Lindsay Graham recently opined that Afghans do not want to return to a country ruled by the Taliban. Congressman Graham has made several trips to Afghanistan but has spent little time talking to Afghans from the thousands upon thousands of villages located in the remote mountains.
Many Afghan elders in these mountainous villages dotting Afghanistan’s vast, mostly inaccessible terrain yearn for the life they lived under Taliban rule. As long as they obeyed Sharia law and turned a blind eye to the occasional hanging or dismemberment, they didn’t have to worry about criminals and they certainly didn’t have to pay a bribe to walk into a government building. They also didn’t have to waste precious little idle time, thinking. The Democracy we offer them, though invaluable in our eyes, requires a thoughtful pondering populace and Afghans, especially rural Afghans, have seldom been required to ponder deeply, the state of affairs outside their own immediate family.
Taliban rule offers a stress free political environment and if we don’t counter this with a much more valuable, viable alternative for all the people, our efforts over the past ten years and all the lives lost by coalition forces will have been for naught. The Taliban will return to rule the areas distant from Kabul and its influence will soon, once again be an overwhelming force. Claiming a “counterinsurgency victory” and pulling out in two years will most assuredly open the door for the return of those forces that ruled this country before our arrival. Afghanistan is balanced on a razor’s edge and the direction it ultimately tumbles will have serious implications for the entire Middle East. At one time the United States had a huge amount of influence on the direction Afghanistan would take. But now, since the whole world knows we will leave in two years, we are virtually moot, other than as a continuing source of unencumbered funds.
If we are intent on remaining an ally of the people of Afghanistan, we must back away from plans for departure and send an unequivocal message that the United States is in this country for the long haul. We must also throw our support behind viable, honest candidates for national office. There are leaders in this country who are willing to give their lives to assure a return of the Afghanistan of their fathers. The US and its allies must embrace and support these individuals and turn their backs to those who have consistently signaled a firm intent to use political influence in order to loot their country. For better or worse, we chose to be here. We have an opportunity to ensure that our mistakes of the past are not repeated. The window of opportunity, however, is fast closing.