Insights from the Afghan field

Security policy in Afghanistan may be powered by sublimated imperial nostalgia, but most of the really valuable practical memories and lessons of empire have long since been forgotten. A review of three recent books on the Taliban
Anatol Lieven
25 October 2010

If books like the ones under review had appeared in 2002, and been read by Western commanders and officials, they might have changed the course of the Afghan War. Even today, should a US administration ever be able to disentangle itself from the Karzai government and nerve itself to open serious negotiations with the Taliban, such works will be indispensable to understanding the people on the other side of the table.

Antonio Giustozzi’s edited volume Decoding the New Taliban: Insights from the Afghan Field is a superb collection of essays by leading researchers, among them Gretchen Peters on the Taliban’s taxing of the opium trade, Thomas Ruttig on the Haqqani network, and Claudio Franco on the Pakistani Taliban.  Empires of Mud: Wars and Warlords in Afghanistan, on the other hand, is Giustozzi’s own study of what has been in effect – God help us – “our” side in Afghanistan: the regional and local commanders whose rule the Taliban overthrew after 1994, and whom the US brought back to power in 2001 under the façade of democracy.

My Life With the Taliban is the memoir of Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, edited by two Kandahar-based western journalists, Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn (and in the interest of disclosure, I should note that I am supervising van Linschoten’s PhD at King’s College London). Zaeef was a member of the Taliban since its founding elements first came together in Kandahar in the early 1980s to fight the Soviets and Communists. Under Taliban rule he was a minister and finally ambassador to Pakistan, before being imprisoned at Guantanamo and elsewhere between 2002 and 2005. He has now made his peace with the Karzai administration, and in his book criticises aspects of Mullah Omar’s leadership; but he undoubtedly remains close to the Taliban in sentiment, and above all absolutely detests the US presence in Afghanistan. 

But the people who shaped Western policy in the first crucial years after the overthrow of the Taliban did not have these books available to them, and knew precious little about Afghanistan. Thus despite the British Empire’s long and bitter history on the Afghan frontier, the British government and military in 2007 were totally unaware of how their military presence in Afghanistan would look to ordinary Pashtuns. As Mullah Zaeef writes (and as British journalists say is a close reflection of Pashtun views in Kandahar and Helmand):

Another strategic mistake [by the US] was to allow the British to return to the south, or Afghanistan in general. The British Empire had fought three wars with Afghanistan, and their main battles were with the Pashtun tribes in southern Afghanistan. They were responsible for the split of the tribal lands, establishing the Durand Line. Whatever the reality might be, British troops in southern Afghanistan, in particular in Helmand, will be measured not only on their current actions but by the history they have, the battles that were fought in the past. The local population has not forgotten, and many believe, neither have the British. Many villages that see heavy fighting and casualties today are the same that did so some ninety years ago…The biggest mistake of American policy makers so far might be their profound lack of understanding of their enemy.

The notion that the British army is in Afghanistan to seek revenge for nineteenth century defeats is of course absolutely grotesque, but that is not the point. The point is that ordinary Afghans do indeed believe this – and the British security establishment ought to have known that they would. That we did not know this is a shattering illustration of the fact that while British policy is in the end powered by sublimated imperial nostalgia, most of the really valuable practical memories and lessons of empire have long since been forgotten.

The ghastly masquerade

The battlefields of Afghanistan are real enough, God knows, for the poor devils who fight and die there; but as so many fatuous statements about Afghanistan suggest, for great sections of Western government, politics, media and public opinion engagement in Afghanistan has been above all one of the largest and most expensive exercises in collective narcissism that the world has ever known, and Afghanistan itself a landscape of the mind, onto which Westerners could project a variety of agendas and fantasies. As Antonio Giustozzi writes, “Every age has its follies; perhaps the folly of our age could be defined as an unmatched ambition to change the world, without even bothering to study it in detail and understand it first.”

It would be nice to pin all the blame for this on Bush, Blair and their supporters, but this tendency spread much more widely and is much more deeply rooted in contemporary Western culture. An enormous range of groups and interests jumped onboard the US intervention in Afghanistan. In the first years after 2001, literally thousands of government departments and contractors, but also high-minded NGOs swarmed around the bloated feast of Western “aid to Afghanistan” – I would say like hagfish or hyenas, but at least those useful scavengers have the grace not to proclaim their righteousness and generosity to the heavens in between mouthfuls. The result has been to entangle Western discussion of Afghanistan in great webs of deceit and self-deceit.

Thus the desire to bring democracy, freedom, “good governance” and an improvement in the status of women to Afghanistan were laudable goals in themselves, but the result has been a ghastly masquerade, involving descriptions of the present Afghan government and political system not one of which corresponds to reality. Meanwhile the equally laudable desire to bring development to Afghanistan has ensnared us in calculations of “progress” which are virtually Soviet in their misrepresentation of the facts and the experience of ordinary Afghans.

European NATO governments have had to tell their populations that their troops are in Afghanistan because Afghanistan is a threat to them – something that Richard Barrett, former head of counter-terrorism at the Secret Intelligence Service, has now declared is “nonsense”. More candid British and European officials and generals have always admitted in private that the only really important reason is to help maintain the alliance with the US because Europeans are incapable of guaranteeing their own defence against a future resurgent Russia, or even the peace of the Balkans. This dependency-driven contribution is publicly called “saving NATO”, and in turn logically justifies Europeans doing the absolute minimum necessary in Afghanistan to keep the US committed to Europe.

The British military is also fighting for the sake of American patronage, to which it attaches an almost sacred importance (while complaining about its patrons all the time). In the British military’s case, however, there is another important motive with no necessary connection to Afghanistan: the maintenance of its own self-image as a fighting force, and the prestige of the military in British public life. This in turn feeds into a wider British obsession with great power status, derived above all from the enduring sense of loss of the empire.

Unlike the Georgian and Victorian builders of that empire, however, their descendants in the British elites have shown little desire to back up their desire for a great national role with personal commitment or sacrifice. This is not of course true of the British Army – but its gallant sacrifices have been made as part of what overall is a profoundly decadent national spectacle. It is not that the British military and their reputation for courage and endurance are unimportant; but if these assets are to be tailored to our real resources and collective national will, then they are assets that can only be used in Europe or in small scale expeditionary operations like Sierra Leone. As Afghanistan has demonstrated, any other large-scale operations demand a degree of commitment of which the British public today is not capable.  

The Obama administration and US military for their part are fighting above all. as a senior officer told me, “not to win, but not to lose”. In other words, not for real victory, which neither they nor anyone else can define, but for anything that can be presented as victory, so as to avoid the humiliation of defeat, the consequent emboldening of all America’s enemies, and – not least – a potential Democratic loss in the next Presidential election. . And the US Republicans are doing just the same in reverse, seeking to turn Afghanistan into a US political battlefield on which the Democrats’ hopes of re-election can be crushed.

Post-colonial caricatures

If in all this Afghanistan itself has often seemed to disappear, it is not surprising that the Taliban have also done so, to be replaced by hateful cartoon figures (to accompany the good cartoon figures of the “democratically-elected Afghan government”, “Afghan civil society” and so on). This process has caused me a certain wry amusement: more than 20 years ago, when I was a Pakistan-based journalist covering the Mujahedin war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, with rare exceptions we also dealt in caricatures.

But then, of course, the guerrillas – in many cases the fathers of today’s Taliban - were the cartoon freedom-fighters and the government in Kabul the caricatured stooges of a foreign occupying power. The Western journalists covering that war were very often admirable for their physical courage, but taken as a whole the picture of Afghanistan that we presented was shocking in its propagandist ignorance of Afghanistan and its failure to present the facts of what was in reality not a simple war of Soviet occupation and resistance, but an Afghan civil war into which the Soviet Union had been dragged by its support for one side. Then as now, most of us were not really interested in Afghanistan itself, or the Afghans themselves. As for much of the wider Western publics, Afghanistan at that time was no more than a Cold War fantasist’s computer game avant la lettre.

All the same, almost nine years after the US intervened in Afghanistan, the shortage of serious books on Afghanistan in general and the Taliban (as opposed to the plethora of books on “terrorism”) is somewhat astonishing – fine works by scholars like Gilles Dorronsoro, journalists like David Loyn, anthropologists like David Edwards and historians like B.D. Hopkins notwithstanding.

The same is true of many other parts of the world. Thus almost 20 years after the fall of the Soviet Union, and despite tens of millions of words written on Georgia by journalists, analysts and propagandists (often one and the same thing) no serious book on post-Soviet Georgia exists – with the result that prior to the Georgian-Russian war of August 2008 the West stumbled towards an alliance with Georgia without the slightest real awareness of what it was getting itself into.

This systemic ignorance marks a difference from the era of European empires, as opposed to the quasi-imperial ventures of today. Thus Edward Said was quite right in arguing that 19th century European ethnographic, historical and cultural studies of Asian peoples were closely related to the drive for European empire over the peoples concerned. However (in large part because of his concentration at bottom on specifically pro-Zionist studies) he missed two features of these studies which are of crucial importance compared to the present and which mean that these works in many cases remain the ultimate empirical foundations of all subsequent studies (like Robert Montagne’s study of the Berbers, for example). 

The first is that it was scholars (or scholar-officials or scholar-soldiers) working in the field, among the peoples they were studying, who carried out the research for these works. This had at least some effect in modifying the fantasies that they could project onto their subjects. The second was that precisely because their research was meant to serve the cause of empire in a very practical way, and was carried out by servants of empire working in situ, it could not divorce itself wholly from facts.

If knowledge is to be effective power, knowledge has to be basically accurate. Ignorance of and indifference to the culture and views of colonised peoples led to mistakes and revolts like the 1857 rebellion which could and did cost colonial scholar-officials their professional reputations and often enough their lives. Niall Ferguson – to take the most famous example of a neo-imperial academic - runs absolutely no risk of either, no matter what he writes about places that he has never visited. His work, like that of the neo-conservatives, is very strictly imperialism as spectator sport.

The hippo and the turtle

Intense study of Afghan society, culture and politics are so important because they are so very different from those of the modern West – though in some cases, not entirely from the West of the Middle Ages. This means not just that our state institutions have found it extremely difficult to engage with Afghan realities, but that it takes an enormous leap of knowledge and imagination for Western officials to apprehend those realities at all, or to design strategies to deal with them.

An allegorical painting of this process might show an attempted marriage between a Western hippopotamus and an Afghan turtle (a turtle because of the remarkable toughness and impermeability of Afghan traditions) – with the interesting, if not entirely aesthetically pleasing twist that the bashful reptile has also been compelled by intense Western pressure to dress itself as a hippo, and the Western hippo-narcisso-pygmalion for a while was even convinced of the reality of this transformation – even as the turtle continued in plain sight to pursue its old turtle-like ways. Or to put it more prosaically, the West created the thin façade of an Afghan state in the image of itself, convinced itself that this flimsy object had real being, and then fell into paroxysms of rage and disappointment when our Afghan allies acted according to the traditions and the realities of their own society, and not according to our precepts.

Thus if you strip out all the guff about Hamid Karzai being “democratically elected”, being committed to “development” and “progress”, and indeed being (in any Western sense) “head of the Afghan government”, what we can see in Karzai is a weak Afghan leader pursuing the immemorial strategy of weak Afghan leaders: that is to say, balancing between powerful local forces, maintaining a general hegemony by playing them off against each other, and managing them as far as possible by the distribution of patronage – including, under the new dispensation, sharing out the heroin trade.

Of these local forces, among the most important over the past generation and especially since 2001 have been those figures loosely grouped by Western comment and reporting under the pejorative heading of “warlords” (in Afghanistan, all leaders of military formations are called kumandan, or “commander”), the subject of Giustozzi’s latest book.

The Soviet Union and the Afghan communists had to deal with them and seek their support. The Mujahedin regime after 1992, and the Northern Alliance which fought the Taliban, largely consisted of warlords. Only the Taliban succeeded in abolishing their power in many areas. Under the Karzai administration and the Americans, warlords have ruled much of Afghanistan. When the West withdraws, it is likely that much of Afghanistan not taken over by the Taliban will be ruled by US-subsidised warlords, though they will probably call themselves generals of some more-or-less fictitious Afghan national state.

One of the narcissistic fictions of which liberals have been guilty over Afghanistan is the belief that the re-emergence of the warlords after 2001 was the product of Bush administration folly or wickedness, and that strong and viable liberal and democratic alternatives existed, on the basis of which it would have been possible to build a strong and progressive Afghan state without a massive and very long-term Western presence.

Folly and wickedness there undoubtedly was, but as Giustozzi’s work on the warlords shows, once the decision had been made not just to overthrow the Taliban but to exclude them from any share in power, the choices available to Washington were limited and unpleasant. Giustozzi’s basic conclusions concerning the nature and future of the state in Afghanistan are grim but convincing. “In the case of Afghanistan,” he writes, “the problem is still state formation more than state building. Gradually I came to think that the formation of a ‘modern’ and ‘diplomatically recognisable’ state in Afghanistan has little chance of succeeding unless it relies on the establishment of an international protectorate, with all the difficulties that come with that. 

Giustozzi’s point about state formation is a crucial one. The West’s approach in Afghanistan has been to try to transfer the structures of fully-developed modern statehood to Afghanistan – and not just that, but accompanied by the trappings at least of a specific form of such statehood: that of modern Western democracy. If, however, as Giustozzi suggests, Afghanistan is at an early stage of state formation, then any parallels (however inexact) in European history would have to be sought not in the recent past but many hundreds of years earlier. Giustozzi draws for some of his insights not on contemporary political science but on the period of Charlemagne.

Some parts of Machiavelli are also a pretty good guide to the realities of warlordism, though the setting of contemporary Afghanistan is far poorer and less developed than that of 16th century central Italy. In Afghanistan as in Italy, at different times warlords have either undermined the state or laid its foundations. As Giustozzi points out, both the mid-18th century creator of “Afghanistan”, Ahmad Shah Abdali, and the late-19th century founder of the modern Afghan state, Emir Abdurrahman, would probably be defined today as “warlords”.  “The warlords of the late 20th century,” he notes, “like the kings of the 18th and 19th centuries, all had to prioritise the primitive accumulation of power, to be attained primarily through both the monopolisation of large-scale violence and the centralisation of patronage.”

Giustozzi’s work is thus an extremely important contribution to the academic literature not just on warlordism but on state formation in general. Its greatest value, however, lies in its magnificently detailed and textured examination of local power in Afghanistan as it has developed since the retreat of the Afghan state after 1979, and its almost total collapse in 1992. As the Afghan state retreated from many areas in the 1980s, a number of factors came together to ensure that – unlike in Vietnam, Algeria and elsewhere - the forces of the anti-communist and anti-Soviet rebellion would not be able to form state-building mass parties led by regular political cadres. Of these factors, two above all were critical: Afghanistan’s deep ethnic, tribal and regional divisions, and the very limited extent to which a sense of the modern state or of modern political mobilisation had penetrated into the mass of the population.

Warlords from the Dark Ages

Thus when I visited parts of Afghanistan controlled by the Mujahedin in the late 1980s, the first thing that struck me was the total disappearance of the state – “with all its works and all its empty promises”, as I wrote at the time – and the fact that neither the Mujahedin nor local Afghan society had made any attempt to recreate its local institutions. What they had restored were local traditional forms of justice, consultation and compromise – but these were derived either from the Pathan code of the pashtunwali or the Shariah, which long predated the state. 

What this experience left me with, and what is strongly reflected in Giustozzi’s work, is that the state as it is now understood – whether in modern democracies or modern authoritarian systems – is not a natural growth that springs up spontaneously in any soil. It needs a long, long process of cultivation. As the Vietminh and other left-wing guerrilla movements demonstrate, this cultivation can well be carried out by anti-state forces, but only if they draw on old local state traditions and also possess an ideology and ideologically-derived party structure which are dedicated to the control and development of the state.

Very little of this was present in most of the Afghan resistance of the 1980s. Instead, a combination of local revolt, the undermining of traditional structures of elite and tribal allegiance and control by the war, and the flood of weapons from the US and its allies produced a situation in which across much of the country, the commanders of local armed rebel forces exercised most local power.

As the war went on, more and more villagers fled either to the cities or across the borders to Pakistan and Afghanistan, and more and more Arab and US money arrived for commanders to pay their men, so more and more Mujahedin fighters ceased to be part-time warriors based in their home villages and became full-time soldiers owing their first loyalty to their commanders. These in turn generally owed formal allegiance to the leaders of Mujahedin parties based in Pakistan (the “seven dwarves”, as even their US sponsors called them in private) who controlled the flow of Arab money and US weaponry, but in effect functioned as independent princes – and could always change their party allegiance if they felt hard done-by.

However, the collapse of central authority led to the development of opium poppy cultivation and the heroin trade, thereby giving local commanders their own source of income – something that remains of great importance today. It is should be noted, moreover, that most commanders had emerged not through hereditary prestige but through a rough and violent form of meritocracy. Men lacking in courage, resolution, ruthlessness and leadership skills have not lasted long as commanders in Afghanistan. Within its own specific – and unpleasant – context, their authority was a natural thing.

After the collapse of the communist government in Kabul in 1992 (due to the defection of warlord-led militias when their Soviet subsidies disappeared), warlords took power across most of Afghanistan. With US backing, the Karzai administration has succeeded in reducing some of their power, but often only in order to replace them with warlords closer to Karzai.

However, it is very important to differentiate in terms of warlordism between the Pashtun and other parts of the country. In 1992-94, except where Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami party exercised control, power was divided among a multitude of petty warlords squabbling among themselves, looting the population and commanding very little support from the local population, at least beyond their immediate clans.

Among the non-Pashtun ethnicities, things were rather different. Warlords might emerge as the de facto leaders of a local ethnic group in its struggles with the Pashtuns and other ethnic rivals. This was true of one of Giustozzi’s principal case studies, General Abdul Rashid Dostum and his Junbesh Uzbek militia (and, I would say, of the late Ahmed Shah Masoud’s leadership of the Panjshiri Tajiks, though for reasons that are not quite clear to me Giustozzi does not consider him to have been a warlord). While they have been far from nationalist leaders in a modern state-building sense, this local ethnic support gave some of the northern warlords a solidity and durability denied to the Pashtun warlords.

In consequence, while the Taliban swept away the latter with remarkable ease after 1994 (to the overwhelming applause of the local Pashtun populations, sickened by their marauding), they had a much harder struggle to conquer the north of the country, and had not wholly succeeded when 9/11 occurred and brought the US down on their heads. With the US unwilling to deploy its own forces, and unable to do so in the timeframe demanded by the Bush administration, the Americans used the warlords of the Northern Alliance as ground forces. Those ground forces then very naturally seized the power abandoned by the Taliban and took the opportunity to dispose of their local rivals and regain control of the reviving heroin trade.

Unwilling to launch new military operations against former US allies in support of a strong central state, the West, in Giustozzi’s words, “busied itself finding as many distractions as possible” in “reconstruction”, “development”, “electoral processes” and so on, which had no chance of ultimately succeeding in the absence of effective state authority.

As Giustozzi points out, however, certain warlords – notably Ismail Khan in Herat – have also played an embryonic state-building role in the areas they control. Should the Afghan central state and army wither again in the aftermath of a US withdrawal, anti-Taliban warlords backed by US arms and money will in effect run small semi-independent statelets or principalities across much of Afghanistan. Nonetheless, they will still owe formal allegiance to some kind of state administered out of Kabul, and may share local power with its representatives or even conceivably with the Taliban.

This brings us to another distorting intellectual shadow being cast over our understanding of Afghanistan (and other societies): that of Max Weber. He famously defined the monopoly of armed force as a key characteristic of the modern state. The fact that most states through history have not fulfilled the criteria of modernity has not stopped Western analysts applying it unquestioningly to Afghanistan, since the modern state is the only kind of state that most of them know or can imagine. They have forgotten that for great parts of human history states have not in fact held monopolies of armed force – and yet have functioned with a degree of efficiency in their circumscribed fields, have co-existed fairly peacefully for long periods with other armed groups on their territory, and have allowed sections of the economy and culture to flourish. Or to put it another way: Afghanistan is often called a “medieval” country as if this were an insult. It would in fact be a compliment – if only it were true. In many respects, Afghanistan is in fact closer to the European Dark Ages than to the European – or Muslim – Middle Ages.

An impenetrable enemy

If our allies in this war are so complicated and unreliable, what of the Taliban? What are the chances of the US being able to split them, and make peace with their “moderate” elements? Can there be a settlement with the movement as a whole, involving the exclusion of at least an open presence of Al Qaeda from areas controlled by the Taliban, and some kind of division of Afghanistan into spheres of influence? Failing that, when the US withdraws, will the Afghan National Army be able to beat them back from the main towns, as it did with Soviet backing in 1989-92? Or will the Taliban sweep to power in the Pashtun areas, or even the whole country?

These are the questions on which the whole future of Afghanistan, and perhaps the political future of the United States will hinge; yet our governments and militaries lack the knowledge of the Taliban that would be necessary to start formulating even tentative answers to them. Having roundly blamed the West for a lack of real interest in the subject, it is only fair to add that another reason for our lack of knowledge is that the Taliban are not at all easy to know. They do not exactly encourage research by journalists and scholars. Exceptionally dedicated journalists like David Loyn and Christian Parenti have managed to interview some of their commanders, and Graeme Smith of the Globe and Mail organised a very interesting opinion survey of several dozen ordinary fighters, but such efforts have been rare and partial. As for the Taliban’s own statements, both their style and content are rhetorical, hortatory and formulaic, making it extremely hard even for Afghans, let alone Westerners to detect whether they might all the same contain the possible seeds of compromise.

This impenetrability is true to an extent even of Mullah Zaeef’s book, by far the most valuable work in translation to have emerged from the Taliban, and which should be on the shelf of every policymaker, analyst or commentator dealing with Afghanistan. It is literally invaluable; yet it must be admitted that it is invaluable in something of the same way that a Sassanian royal declaration would be to a historian of ancient Persia: containing enormous lacunae; damnably hard to follow; and comprehensible only with the help of other sources and scholarly exegesis.

I shudder to think of the work that Linschoten and Kuehn must have had to do in order to make it reasonably logical in terms of structure, reasonably accessible to Western audiences and minimally frank on certain key issues; and even so it contains enormous gaps. A scholar of Afghanistan 3,000 years from now with only this as his source would be hard put to understand 9/11 and the US response, since there is almost no mention of Al Qaeda; would not know where the Taliban got their arms during the 1990s, since there is no mention of Pakistan’s role in supplying them; and would only be able to pick up the role of ethnic tensions in modern Afghan history, and the role of Pashtun feeling in Taliban support, from occasional veiled hints.

Where this book is most valuable is in its evocation of the world of the Taliban: their deep rootedness in the society of rural southern Afghanistan, as worked on by the experience of war, displacement and the Pakistani refugee camps of the 1980s. Mullah Zaeef himself was the son of a small village mullah in rural Kandahar. One passage about his childhood:My younger sister died in Mushan, although I am not sure what she died of. There were so many deaths in the villages in 1971 and 1972, after a drought, and some families lost their entire harvest…”

So much for the paradisiacal portrait of pre-Soviet Afghanistan drawn by Afghan liberals and believed by naïve Westerners. Memories like this help explain the mixture of distrust and indifference with which many ordinary rural Afghans regard their own state. In its entire existence, it has quite simply never done anything good for them or their families. Hence too the willingness to regard either the Taliban (in the Pashtun areas) or some local warlord as a preferable alternative to the state, or at least one that could not be worse.

Contrary to the widespread canard that the Taliban were created (as opposed to supported later) by Pakistan in the mid-1990s, Zaeef records the origins of the movement in a network of local resistance to the Soviets led by local Mullahs in Kandahar province and the Pakistani refugee camps in the early 1990s (and taking their name of course from an institution which as Zaeef points out is almost as old as Islam itself, that of religious students). It is this leadership by a cadre of small local mullahs rather than great tribal chieftains which may give the Taliban their remarkable staying power compared to the Pashtun revolts of the past, which tended to flare up quickly and widely but then sink down again equally quickly after suffering reverses. They are also – it hardly needs saying – extremely tough. Mullah Zaeef describes his comrades suffering wound after wound and yet returning to the fight

After the fall of Kandahar to the Mujahedin in 1992, this network came together again and gained mass support in response to the appalling behaviour of the local Mujahedin commanders. In the southern Pashtun countryside at least, standard Western official language about the Taliban “penetrating” or “infiltrating” local society is therefore misleading. They are local society.

A striking feature of Zaeef’s book is its strong Afghan nationalism (mixed up with Pashtun allegiances which he does not discuss and may not even be fully aware of). This comes out among other ways in his intense loathing of the Pakistani state. He writes: “Pakistan, which plays a key role in Asia, is so famous for its treachery that it is said that they can get milk from a bull. They have two tongues in one mouth and two faces on one head so they can speak everybody’s language; they use everybody, deceive everybody.”

This loathing is partly because of the way in which it handed him to the Americans in 2002, but also no doubt because he shares the bitter resentment that so many Afghans have expressed to me over the years at Pakistan’s attempts to use and dominate them, as well as the humiliations visited on Afghan refugees in Pakistan by Pakistani police and officials.

An interesting point is that in the 1980s, after 9/11 and – to judge by Zaeef’s account – during the Taliban’s rise in the 1990s, this was true even of those Afghans who were gaining the most help from Pakistan. Zaeef describes his own approach to dealing with Pakistani military intelligence, while Taliban ambassador to Islamabad, with the words “I tried to be not so sweet that I would be eaten whole, but not so bitter that I would be spat out.”

Zaeef’s nationalism tends to support the results of Graeme Smith’s survey, which suggest that while the leadership obviously also have an agenda of seizing power in order to create an Islamist regime, by far the most important motivation for ordinary Taliban fighters is not Islamist ideology but to get the US and Western forces out of the country – a desire obviously strengthened enormously by the loss of relatives or neighbours killed by US bombardments.

In Giustozzi’s edited volume, Joanna Nathan writes of the Taliban putting out “an almost solely nationalist message relentlessly spotlighting the poor state of local governance and questioning the motives of foreign ‘invaders’ “.Or as an anti-Taliban Pashtun politician in Pakistan told me, “Our problem is that every Pashtun has been brought up from the cradle to believe that to resist foreign occupation is part of what it is to do Pashto” (i.e. follow the true Pashtun way).  

And indeed, the Taliban leadership’s one non-negotiable demand is the complete withdrawal of Western forces. They say that this must take place before they will negotiate any settlement with the government in Kabul, but clearly there might be some room for compromise here on the basis of a public US commitment to a swift and reasonably rapid timetable for withdrawal.

There are obvious obstacles to a negotiated settlement. A resolution seems quite impossible as long as Karzai remains in power, since his removal would be an essential part of any settlement. A minimum demand would be Taliban control of the south, which would also mean displacing Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali, and other local bosses and warlords who have been backed by both Karzai and the US. Given Afghan history, it is conceivable that a deal could be worked out in which these parties share local power and profit with the Taliban, but this remains highly unlikely.

Would the Taliban leadership and their followers settle for power only in the south, or perhaps in the Pashtun areas as a whole? Unfortunately, it is in the nature of their Pashtun character that the Taliban (including Zaeef) are at their most infuriatingly enigmatic. There are plenty of coded appeals to Pashtun sentiment in their propaganda, but they have never presented themselves as a Pashtun movement – both because they hope to rule all of Afghanistan and perhaps because, like many Pashtun, they see Afghanistan as an essentially Pashtun country. Their support, however, is certainly and overwhelmingly (though not exclusively) concentrated in the Pashtun areas.

Decoding the New Taliban provides a deeper understanding of such issues.  Its essays, drawn from field research conducted in several different provinces, bring out the varied levels of organisation and command and control exercised by the Taliban high command in different parts of the country. These divisions would seem in principle to give the US and the Karzai government a good chance of splitting the Taliban and drawing away its local commanders in some areas. Mullah Zaeef recalls a pattern during and after the Soviet withdrawal, one which which I heard described repeatedly during my travels with the Mujahedin in Afghanistan:

Kandahar’s [Communist] governor at the time, Nur-ul-Haq Ulumi, was handing out truckloads of money to various [Mujahedin] groups, in exchange for which they would conduct staged and pre-announced attacks in which there would be no casualties…Even though the Russians were defeated, the Communists would remain in power by buying off the Mujahedeen. This tactic was extensively funded by the Soviet Union…The fragile alliance between the Taliban and other Kandhari mujahedeen groups began to crumble.

A line in blood 

Could the US and Karzai replicate this Soviet success in splitting the opposition on the ground? The problem, as Giustozzi writes, is that while the Taliban are clearly poorly organised compared to some old-style Communist and nationalist guerrilla movements, they are vastly more united and disciplined than the Mujahedin of the 1980s – and, I would say, than many of the forces supporting Karzai. Giustozzi's conclusions concerning the possibility of breaking off significant parts of the Taliban are gloomy:

The role of the core activists is crucial: it is they who are able to inflict casualties, able to move around as required by the leadership, disciplined enough to take orders and motivated enough to risk their lives…Although local recruits, local commanders without an ideological profile, and mobilised communities make up the bulk of the neo-Taliban insurgency, their strategic importance is very modest. They are “auxiliary insurgents” or even “decoy insurgents” in some cases, and wars (or peaces) are not won by focusing on auxiliaries….Any major political or economic effort targeted at luring away these “auxiliaries” and “decoys” could well end up resembling an attempt to empty the sea with a bucket.

On the other hand, he is also pessimistic about the chances of negotiating successfully with the top Taliban leadership, as long as it is convinced that it is winning and Western will to continue the fight is crumbling. Another central part of US strategy to push back the Taliban and allow the US to withdraw is to strengthen the Afghan National Army, but this risks making negotiations with the Taliban leadership permanently impossible, since no strong army command would ever agree to giving up control of much of the country to the Taliban. Mullah Zaeef describes negotiations between the Taliban and the Ahmed Shah Masoud in 2000, which broke down over Masoud’s inevitable insistence on retaining independent armed forces (albeit as part of an ostensibly united Afghan army) and the Taliban’s refusal to agree to this. Moreover, negotiations with Mullah Omar may well be politically impossible for the Obama administration (at least until the 2012 elections, which it may not survive), given the political advantage the Republicans could derive from this “surrender”.

My own view therefore is that the most likely future may well resemble the past Soviet withdrawal. The US will build up the Afghan army to the point where they think it has a reasonable chance of surviving on its own (albeit with continued and massive US support, including both air power and money to buy off local Taliban commanders), and will then declare victory and withdraw all or most US ground troops. The army will then either hold the Pashtun cities against the Taliban in a series of bloody sieges like that of Jalalabad in 1989, or lose them and retreat to Kabul and the non-Pashtun areas.

This would usher in a long-term civil war along broadly ethnic lines, in which different warlords and militias would be helped by different international backers, including the US, India, Iran, Russia and possibly China, and of course Pakistan for the Taliban. This would be a thoroughly awful future for Afghans, and would draw a line in blood under all the megalomaniac Western hopes of transforming Afghanistan. It has to be said that such an outcome would be largely in tune both with much of America’s record elsewhere in the world, and with Afghanistan’s own modern history.


This essay first appeared in Current Intelligence Magazine on September 6, 2010, and is republished here courtesy of its editors.

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