America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes

Anand Gopal was a Pulitzer finalist and won the Ridenhour Prize for "No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes" (2014). For those interested in Afghanistan, I've covered books by Ahmed Rashid, William Dalrymple and Stephen Saideman elsewhere. Gopal's book is an excellent read and presents the counter-narrative to Saideman - rather than the foreign experience, this is Afghan experience. This is not an academic text, as Dalrymple's is, but offers a wealth of insight. The New York Times Book Review described Gopal's book as "essential reading for anyone concerned about how American got Afghanistan so wrong". I could not agree more. Some notes:

  • Given the recent shift to talk with the Taliban, history shows how other paths were available. Before the war, the "Taliban agreed to place bin Laden on trial, but Washington, not trusting the impartiality of Afghan courts, demanded his extradition to US soil. The Taliban, for their part, doubted the objectivity of the American legal system. They agreed to hand him over only to a neutral Islamic country for trial, which Washington rejected." (p. 12)
  • The shallow vision of the socio-political context resulted in tremendous errors: "Karzai understood what his American friends did not yet grasp: not only individuals but entire tribal communities were winners and losers in the invasion. Time would reveal this in a most painful way." (p. 44)
  • Finger pointing often means four fingers pointing at oneself, and one at the other: "Looking to keep the war fueled, Washington - where the prevailing ethos was to bleed the Russians until the last Afghan - financed textbooks for schoolchildren in refugee camps that were festooned with illustrations of Kalashnikovs, swords, and overturned tanks." (p. 56)
  • The (short-term) consequentialist thinking driving decision making, disregarding the lives lost in the means taken: "when Zbigniew Brzezinski, who as national security advisor to President Carter helped to initiate Washington's anti-Soviet mujahedeen policies, was asked in the late 1990s whether he had any regrets, he replied: "What is more important in the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?" (p. 67)
  • The cold reality: "Save for a few lone wolf attacks, US forces in Kandahar in 2002 faced no resistance at all. The terrorists had all decamped or abandoned the cause, yet US special forces were on Afghan soil with a clear political mandate: defeat terrorism. How do you fight a war without an adversary? Enter Gul Agha Sherzai - and men like him around the country. Eager to survive and prosper, he and his commanders followed the logic of the American presence to its obvious conclusion. They would create enemies where there were none, exploiting the perverse incentive mechanism that the Americans - without them realizing it - had put in place. Sherzai's enemies became American enemies, his battles its battles. His personal feuds and jealousies were repackaged as "counterterrorism," his business interests as Washington's. And where rivalries did not do the trick, the prospect of further profits did." (p. 109)
  • Creating enemies: "They were forced to kneel there for hours, their hands bound behind them. Some passed out from the pain. Some lost sensation in their hands and feet. Then they were marched into a room and made to strip and stand in front of American soldiers for inspection, inspiring a humiliation that, in the Pashtun ethos, was difficult to even imagine. "When they made us walk naked in front of all those Americans," captive Abdul Wahid later told a reporter, "I was praying to God to let me die. If someone could have sold me a poisoned tablet for $100,000, I would have bought it." In a final act of emasculation, soldiers appeared with clippers. One by one the captives beards were shorn off, and many of them broke down in tears. Some, for resisting, had their eyebrows removed as well... After five days they were brought to Kandahar's soccer stadium and released [finding them to have supported the US]. A crowd of thousands, who had made the trip from Maiwand, was there to greet them. A few months earlier many of these farmers had packed the stadium seats waving the new Afghan flag and chanting in favor of the coming loya jirga. Now, for the first time, anti-American slogans filled the air." (p. 110-111)
  • "Reading the official list of charges against the rest gives a sense of the farce the system had become. One inmate was accused, among other crimes, of supporting the political organization of Ahmed Shah Massoud, the pro-Western Northern Alliance leader murdered by al-Qaeda. Another was alleged to have been a member of Herakat-i-Inquilabi—an anti-Soviet mujahedeen group, backed by the United States, that had been defunct since the mid-1990s. Inmate Muhammad Nasim arrived at Guantanamo accused of working as a deputy to Rashid Dostum, the pro-US warloard and former Gelam Jam militia leader who, prison authorities mistakenly believed, had "defected to the Taliban in 1998"—or so Nasim's classified filed stated. In fact, Dostum had been a member of the Northern Alliance and a staunch anti-Taliban fighter, even winding up on the CIA payroll during the 2001 invasion. Nasim was also accused of being the former Taliban deputy minister of education, even though records indicate there was no person by that name in that position. Abdullah Khan found himself in Guantanamo charged with being Khairullah Khairkhwa, the former Taliban minister of the interior, which might have been more plausible—if Khairkhwa had not also been in Guantanamo at the time." (p. 144-145)
  • "Of the $557 billion that Washington spent in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2011, only 5.4 percent went to development or governance. The rest was mostly military expenditure, a significant chunk of which ended up in the coffers of regional strongmen like Jan Muhammad. In other words, while the United States paid nominal amounts to build the Afghan state, it fostered a stronger and more influential network of power outside the state." (p. 273)
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The Battle for Afghanistan

The way war is waged has significantly changed since the 1800s. One might assume the lessons for contemporary times from such a period would be limited as a result. William Dalrymple's telling of the British attempt to conquer Afghanistan in 1839-1842 convincingly show the opposite. In "Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan" (2013), Dalrymple tells the stories of battles long past in an engaging way, while also drawing allusions to present efforts of conquest in the country. The 567 page book tells the history of how the British army was devastated, and then their response following defeat – to toss away their own moral positions and engage in what we would today classify as crimes against humanity. In this post I focus on the linkages Dalrymple makes to the present, and have not attempted a summary on the attempted conquest itself. For those interested in Afghanistan, and conflict generally, this is essentially reading.

"I asked if they saw any parallels with the current situation. 'It is exactly the same,' said Jagdalak. 'Both times the foreigners have come for their own interests, not for ours. They say "We are your friends, we want to help." But they are lying' (p. 485). In a conversation with elders, Dalrymple recounts: one explaining "some American officers called us to a hotel in Jalalabad for a meeting. One of them asked me, "Why do you hate us?" I replied, "Because you blow down our doors, enter our houses, pull our women by the hair and kick our children. We cannot accept this. We will fight back, and we will break your teeth, and when your teeth are broken you will leave, just as the British left before you. It is just a matter of time."' (p. 487). The author recounts a visit to the "the Herat Museum of the Jihad: a collection of objects left behind by the various foreigners who have foolishly tried to conquer Afghanistan, ranging from British cannon from the First Afghan War through to Russian tanks, jets and helicopter gunships. It won't be long, one can be certain, before a few shot-up American Humvees and British Land-Rovers are added to the collection" (p. xxxvi).

Much like the Canadians, Afghanistan was an arena engaged not for its own sake, but for other self-serving military and political reasons. The British effort of the 1800s was similar: "it was also clear from this attempt to reach out to the Afghans that the British were not interested in cultivating Shah Shuja's friendship for its own sake, but were concerned only to outflank their imperial rivals: the Afghans were perceived as mere pawns on the chessboard of western diplomacy, to be engaged or sacrificed at will. It was a precedent that was to be followed many other times, by several different powers, over the years and decades to come; and each time the Afghans would show themselves capable of defending their inhospitable terrain far more effectively than any of their would-be manipulators could possibly have suspected" (p. 8). So too would the hypocritical rhetoric about independence, freedom and justice – applied as a means to promote agendas when in fact the actors themselves were often worse perpetrators of what was apparently the reason to go to war against another (see p. 77). Justifications would be supported with what Dalrymple describes as "doctored intelligence" (p. 490) with exaggerated threats "manipulated by a group of ambitious and ideologically driven hawks" (p. 490).

Much like the Americans, victory was declare prematurely, and new wars were started, resulting in weakened efforts to hold territory in Afghanistan: "rather than concentrating on consolidating Shah Shuja's fragile rule in Afghanistan, and providing the resources needed to make the occupation viable and secure, Lord Auckland – like more recent invaders – instead took the premature view that the conquest was already complete and so allowed himself to be distracted by launching another war of aggression in a different theatre" (p. 220). Dalrymple makes this point: "in 2001, the British and American troops arrived in Afghanistan where they proceeded to begin losing what was, in Britain's case, its fourth war in that country. As before, in the end, despite all the billions of dollars handed out, the training of an entire army of Afghan troops and the infinitely superior weaponry of the occupiers, the Afghan resistance succeeded again in first surrounding then propelling the hated Kafirs into a humiliating exit. In both cases the occupying troops lost the will to continue fighting at such a cost and with so little gain." (p. 482).

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Lessons from Canada’s War in Afghanistan

Canada sent thousands of troops to Afghanistan, and spent an estimated $20 billion doing so. The outcomes of the mission are debated, but will likely have little to no sustained impact. What can be learned from Canada's war in Afghanistan? Stephen Saideman sets out to answer this question is his "Adapting in the Dust: Lessons Learned from Canada's War in Afghanistan" (2016).

The books focus is narrower than the title might imply. Saideman explains it "is neither on the decisions made in Ottawa or Kandahar nor on what Canadians encountered in Afghanistan. Instead, the premise here is what that we can learn a great deal about Canada from what is experienced in Afghanistan and how it reacted" (p. 4). As a result, the book is highly Canada- and Canadian-centric. While the book makes minor allusions to the impact the war had on Afghans and Afghanistan, there are no details on this. Readers learn only of Canadian casualties, Canadian foreign relations, Canadian media, and so forth. Contextualization is important. I suggest that this book not be read alone, but alongside others, such as: Descent into Chaos by Ahmed Rashid (2008), The Wars of Afghanistan by Peter Tomsen (2011), Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan by Dalrymple (2012) and The Dogs Are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan by Graeme Smith (2013).

One of the interesting discussions that Saideman weaves throughout this book is the reasoning and justification regarding why Canada went to war in Afghanistan. It is often assumed that Canada had no choice, due to its membership in NATO. The author writes that the "famous Article V, which says that an attack upon one member will be viewed as an attack upon all, includes an opt-out clause that allows each country to respond to the attacks as it 'deems necessary'" (p. 21), and thus Canada did have options. Secondly, even after agreeing to join the mission, there was a question of scale. Saideman highlights Greece, as a NATO member, which had very few (often less than 20) soldiers in Afghanistan at any time. At one point, Canada sent more than 3,000 soldiers.

Why did Canada go? And, why did it enter at such a large scale? The author explains: "To be clear, Canada did not go into Afghanistan for the sake of Afghans but to better position itself in international affairs: to solidify relations with the United States, to improve its position within NATO and support alliances at a critical time, and to visibly make a difference" (p. 40). What sorts of successes can Canada claim? According to the author these include changing the culture of the Canadian Forces, improving Canada's position within NATO, and changing the international perception of Canadian forces. From this Canada-centric perspective, the war was a "success". He concludes: "We can cloud the issue by talking about schools, vaccinations, and the like, but the reality is that Canadian leaders (three of them, from two political parties) sent troops into harm's way because of Canada's place in the world. We can look at the conflicting progress reports about what was achieved in Afghanistan, but the mission always was about Canada's commitment to its allies" (p. 125).

While the author raises what cost this had to Canada, we do not learn of the costs to Afghans and Afghanistan. "Taking all this into consideration, I think a better approach to the question 'Was it worth it?' is to think about whether the relationship with the United States and membership in NATO were worth the [Canadian] casualties and financial commitment" (p. 125). Unfortunately, the author does not raise Afghan lives as important considerations in this assessment. Saideman does not mention the over 26,000 civilians killed during the war. One lesson the author does not tease out is how willing Canada and Canadians were to engage in war and take the lives of others to improve their own standing in the world.

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Descent into Chaos - Afghanistan

Reflections on international development from Ahmed Rashid's award-winning 2008 book "Descent into Chaos: The U.S. and the Disaster in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia." For those interested in the region, or of military intervention in the era of the 'war on terror' this is essential reading.

Proposals before 9/11:

  • "We proposed using economic aid related to the reconstruction of Afghanistan as a tool to isolate the Taliban and create an alternative political infrastructure that could also become a lobby for peace inside the country. Similar thoughts were being advocated by other U.S. and European officials." (p. 55)

Priorities and consequences:

  • "President Bush's embrace of Musharraf and the military, rather than of the Pakistani people and the development of state institutions and a democratic process, has created an immense hatred for the U.S. Army and America, hatred that penetrates all classes of society. Ninety percent of the $10 billion in aid that the United States has provided Pakistan with since 9/11 has gone to the military rather than to development." (p. xxxix)
  • "Richard Clarke attended meetings on Iraq on September 12. He later wrote, "At first I was incredulous that we were talking about something other than getting al Qaeda. Then I realized with almost a sharp physical pain that Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz were going to try and take advantage of this national tragedy to promote their agenda about Iraq." I visited Washington several times in early 2002, sincerely believing that now the United States would do the right thing by Afghanistan and rebuild the country. I came up with suggestions for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development as to how they could speed up nation building. By the early summer of 2002, when it became clear that the United States had no intentions of rebuilding Afghanistan, disillusionment set in as I saw that Iraq was the real target." (p. 64)

On aid in Afghanistan:

  • "…in many areas, USAID humanitarian food deliveries and development projects were being taken over by the joint CAI-SOF teams. Credible Afghan tribal leaders who had been identified by the Afghan government or the UN as "positive agents of change," capable of fostering stability at the community level, were bypassed in favor of the commanders and warlords preferred by the CIA. Afghan civil society was being strangled even as it emerged, and the Afghan government was made to look incompetent and powerless. Afghan policy was now in the hands of covert CIA-SOF operatives, who had vast sums at their disposal but no mandate to rebuild the country." (p. 136)
  • "Several USAID officials were to resign disillusioned with their organization, disgusted at U.S. policy, and frustrated at their failure to be effective. USAID was eventually to get swept into the State Department and lose what little independence it once had. In keeping with prevailing views in the Republican Party, USAID became a source of funds for Christian fundamentalist NGOs active in the Muslim world – giving them $57 million between 2001 and 2005 out of a total of $390 million distributed to all NGOs." (p. 176)


  • "U.S. consultancies and construction firms, rather than local NGOs, won the contracts to implement projects. Louis Berger alone won contracts to build ninety-six new clinics and schools in time for the Afghan elections, but a year later, at the end of 2005, only nine clinics and two schools had been completed. Designs for school buildings drawn up in California did not take into account excessive snowfall in Afghanistan, which buckled roofs. Some roofs were designed with so much steel that they could be put in place only with cranes, which were unavailable. A report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office published in 2005 stated that the projects were having little impact on reconstructing the country." (p. 190-191).
  • "Farmers were paid cash for eradicating their crop [opium] at the rate of $1,250 to $1,500 per hectare. MI6 and British commandos handed over cash to governors and police chiefs in the provinces to pay off the farmers. The program, which cost more than $80 million, was mired in massive corruption, as Afghan officials distributed the money to their tribes or clans, who took the cash but failed to eradicate the crop. Other farmers used the money to increase cultivation, while thousands of other who did eradicate their crop received nothing. A huge piece of the money ended up in the war chests of the warlords." (p. 321)
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