Victory in Afghanistan is impossible—either militarily or in the quest for hearts and minds. Insurgencies like the Taliban cannot be finished for good. They ride a global wave of Islamic anger and support that can’t be expected to diminish. No important Muslim insurgency in the past 30 years has been decisively crushed, and the Taliban will not be.
The Taliban have a strength most Muslim terror groups lack—a large demographic advantage. Their footsoldiers come from the country’s predominant ethnic group, the Pashtun—45 per cent of the population. They melt into a fiercely traditional society ruled by men who fear and bristle at Westernization. The very few Afghans who may long for change and choice will seldom want them enough to go against the grain—and risk their lives. Good Western intentions are therefore all but useless in Afghanistan. America and NATO have stumbled into an implacable blood and honor culture. The recent election happened only because NATO and the E.U. patrolled so many of the voting stations.
NATO’s wager that Afghanistan will stabilize over the years is naive and baseless. Since the time of the shahs the country has never had anything approaching stable government. The main ethnic groups despise and distrust each other: Mullah Omar’s Pashtun Taliban see the Tajiks (25% of the population) as blood rivals, and the less numerous Hazaras as a servant class. And each ethnic group is a mix of shifting, often hostile kinship factions.
It would take an occupying force of a million to begin to hold down a country so large, rugged, and primitively connected. No Western politicians would be ready to commit or even imagine such a force. If they did, on the force’s eventual departure the schools would soon again become madrassas, and the roads ruins, like those built by the Soviets and the U.S. in the Seventies.
America and NATO went into Afghanistan for good reasons—to destroy Al Qaeda, crush its Taliban hosts, and prevent another 9/11. A nation-building venture was not part of the scheme then. It should not be now. Special forces strike teams, drones, and inter-ally intelligence can do the prevention to avert anything like another 9/11. The bulk of the troops can be brought home. Yes, the Taliban and their violent Pashtun brothers in Pakistan will for a while slip back and forth across the border to make mayhem, but their raison d’etre will be gone.
In America, convincing public explanations for the withdrawal will come hard, but they can be made. There will be screams of “surrender,” as there were in Vietnam. Exiting Afghanistan will take much more political will than the Vietnam pullback, since no draftee soldiers will be coming home. But it will be less politically mortifying to do it now than in ten years, when the NATO mission is hemorrhaging more critically and still has nothing to show.
It’s instructive to recall that Afghan irregulars more than once slaughtered and evicted the forces of the then globally-dominant superpower, Britain. More recently they spat out the 500,000 troops the Soviets threw at them. Alexander the Great strewed the country with more than a dozen “permanent” colonial cities. Only two of them lasted for more than 50 years. One that didn’t, Alexandropolis, is today’s Kandahar, the Taliban stronghold.
Afghanistan can be good at raising Western hopes, but it is better at killing them. I remember a short almost-democratic time three and a half decades ago, when one could see women in skirts on the streets of Kabul, and in jeans at the university. Then traditionalists started throwing acid in their faces.
To get an idea of the cultural continuity of Afghan society, look at what happened not long ago at a girls’ school outside Kandahar.
Can you be optimistic?
Richard S. Reid
Sarigul sok.15/5, Caddebostan, Istanbul, Turkey, 34728
(Richard Reid was UNICEF regional director for the Middle East and North Africa. He presently teaches international relations at Bilgi University in Istanbul.)