Legitimation Crisis in Afghanistan | The Nation


Legitimation Crisis in Afghanistan

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In the media celebration of our "victory" over the Taliban in the Helmand Valley, little attention has been given to the nature of insurgency: the proper tactic of guerrillas is to fade away before overwhelming power, leaving behind only enough fighters to force the invaders to harm civilians and damage property. This is exactly what happened in the recent fighting in Marja. Faced with odds of perhaps 20 to 1, helicopters, tanks and bombers, the guerrillas wisely dispersed. Victory may not be quite the right description.


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William R. Polk
William R. Polk's most recent book, Understanding Iran, will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in October. He is...

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Mr. President, don't derail your presidency by bungling Afghanistan.

That battle will probably be repeated in Kandahar, which, unlike the agricultural area known as Marja, is a large and densely populated city. Other operations are planned, so the Marja "victory" has set a pattern that accentuates military action. This is not conducive to an exit strategy--it will not lead out of Afghanistan but deeper into the country. Indeed, there is already evidence that this is happening. As the Washington Post reported shortly after the Marja battle ended, not far away "the Marines are constructing a vast base on the outskirts of town that will have two airstrips, an advanced combat hospital, a post office, a large convenience store and rows of housing trailers stretching as far as the eye can see."

Since the Helmand Valley is the focal point of the military strategy, it is important to understand its role in Afghan affairs. The Helmand irrigation project, begun in the Eisenhower administration as a distant echo of the TVA, was supposed to become a prosperous island of democracy and progress. As a member of the Policy Planning Council in the Kennedy administration, I visited it in 1962. What I found was deeply disturbing: no studies had been made of the land to be developed, which proved to have a sheet of impermeable rock just below the surface that caused the soil to turn saline when irrigated; the land was not sufficiently leveled, so irrigation was inefficient; nothing was done to teach the nomad settlers how to farm; plots were too small to foster the social engineering aim of creating a middle class; and since there were no credit facilities to buy seed, settlers were paying 100 percent interest to moneylenders. In short, after the buildup of great expectations, disappointment was palpable.

Was it a portent? It seems likely. At the least, it's striking that precisely where we carried out our first civic action program is where the Taliban became most powerful.

So what should that experience have taught us? That we should learn about the Afghans, their country and their objectives before determining our policy toward them. There is much to be learned, but I will here highlight what I believe are the three crucial issues that will make or break our relationship.

The first issue critical to evaluating US policy is the way the Afghans govern themselves. About four in five Afghans live in the country's 20,000-plus villages. During a 2,000-mile trip around the country by jeep, horseback and plane half a century ago, as well as in later trips, it became clear to me that Afghanistan is really thousands of villages, and each of them, although culturally related to its neighbors, is more or less politically independent and economically autarkic.

This lack of national cohesion thwarted the Russians during their occupation: they won many military victories, and through their civic action programs they actually won over many of the villages, but they could never find or create an organization with which to make peace. Baldly put, no one could surrender the rest. Thus, over the decade of their involvement, the Russians won almost every battle and occupied at one time or another virtually every inch of the country, but they lost about 15,000 soldiers--and the war. When they gave up and left, the Afghans resumed their traditional way of life.

That way of life is embedded in a social code (known in the Pashtun areas as Pashtunwali) that shapes the particular form of Islam they have practiced for centuries and, indeed, that existed long before the coming of Islam. While there are, of course, notable differences in the Pashtun, Hazara, Uzbek and Tajik areas, shared tradition determines how all Afghans govern themselves and react to foreigners.

Among the shared cultural and political forms are town councils (known in the Pashtun areas as jirgas and in the Hazara area as ulus or shuras). The members are not elected but are accorded their status by consensus. These town councils are not, in our sense of the word, institutions; rather, they are "occasions." They come together when pressing issues cannot be resolved by the local headman or respected religious figure. Town councils are the Afghan version of participatory democracy, and when they act they are seen to embody the "way" of their communities.

Pashtunwali demands protection (melmastia) of visitors. Not to protect a guest is so grievous a sin and so blatant a sign of humiliation that a man would rather die than fail. This, of course, has prevented the Afghans from surrendering Osama bin Laden. Inability to reconcile our demands with their customs has been at the heart of our struggle for the past eight years.

As put forth in both the Bush and Obama administrations, our objective is to prevent Al Qaeda from using Afghanistan as a base for attacks on us. We sharpened this objective to the capturing or killing of bin Laden. That is popular with US voters, but even if we could force the Afghans to surrender him, it would alienate the dominant Pashtun community. Thus it would probably increase the danger to us. But it is unnecessary, since a resolution of this dilemma in our favor has been available for years. While Pashtunwali does not permit a protected guest to be surrendered, it allows the host, with honor, to prevent the guest from engaging in actions that endanger the host. In the past, the Taliban virtually imprisoned bin Laden, and they have repeatedly offered--provided we agree to leave their country--to meet our demand that Al Qaeda not be allowed to use Afghanistan as a base. Although setting a withdrawal date would enable us to meet our objective, we have turned down their offers.

The second crucial issue in evaluating our policy is the way the people react to our civic action programs.

Afghanistan is a barren, landlocked country with few resources, and its people have suffered through virtually continuous war for thirty years. Many are wounded or sick, with some even on the brink of starvation. The statistics are appalling: more than one in three subsists on the equivalent of less than 45 cents a day, almost one in two lives below the poverty line and more than one in two preschool children is stunted because of malnutrition. They are the lucky ones; one in five dies before the age of 5. Obviously, the Afghans need help, so we think they should welcome our efforts to aid them. But independent observers have found that they do not. Based on some 400 interviews, a team of Tufts University researchers found that "Afghan perceptions of aid and aid actors are overwhelmingly negative." We must ask why this is.

The reason, I think, is that the Taliban understand from our pronouncements that civic action is a form of warfare. The Russians taught them about civic action long ago, and Gen. David Petraeus specifically proclaimed in his Iraq days, "Money is my most important ammunition in this war." Thus many ordinary citizens see our programs as Petraeus described them--as a method of control or conquest--and so support or at least tolerate the Taliban when they destroy our projects or prevent our aid distribution.

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