Last week, I attended some sessions of a conference on irregular warfare. Although it was entirely unclassified, I am not permitted specifically to identify any of the participants (their names, in any case, are not famous), but I can talk about what I learned, both from academics, and especially from several individuals who have spent a lot of time on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, and who bring other kinds of expertise and experience to bear on the problems there. I am going to talk today about the situation in Afghanistan--a truly tragic situation, and one in which the United States, I fear, is destined to remain involved for some time, and probably without any particularly good result.
The United States is in Afghanistan now to prevent the Taliban from once again taking power in at least a great deal of that country. The Taliban, unlike Al Queda, has never declared any particular designs upon the United States or even, as I understand it, on Israel, but the Taliban regime in the late 1990s allowed Al Queda to establish itself in Afghanistan. More importantly, after the United States initially drove the Taliban out of Afghanistan in 2002, the organization began growing inside nuclear-armed Pakistan, which had previously supported the Taliban regime in Kabul and which may indeed like to see its return there even now. As I have argued before, American policy seems to have created a kind of reverse domino effect: our involvement in Afghanistan, a very poor region of no intrinsic value, has now helped lead to a Taliban threat to Pakistan, a nuclear power.
During the last few years, the Taliban, which appeared to have been completely eclipsed around 2004 in Afghanistan, has retaken large parts of the country. What I heard at the conference was truly tragic. On the one hand, I was very reliably informed by some one in whom I have complete trust, the Taliban is extremely unpopular in Afghanistan. It consists of militant ideologues determined to regulate every aspect of the people's lives, and therefore arouses resentment. In a fair, free and unfettered election, the Taliban would stand no chance.
That, unfortunately, is only half the story. Unfortunately, the rest of Afghanistan is divided into tribes and factions, most of them at least as interested in monetary gain as in coping with the Taliban or uniting among themselves. The Karzai regime, which is certain to be re-elected shortly, is hopelessly corrupt, partly because of the large amounts of U.S. cash of which it disposes. The Taliban, in short, are the most determined, unified, and best organized group inside the country, and thus would be the clear favorites, again, in a civil war. They have established control over much of the countryside mainly in two ways: first, by sheer intimidation, and second, by dispensing justice, something which the national government, despite all our assistance, has not been able to do in much of the country.
It is the great illusion of Americans that just causes triumph because of their virtue--although history repeatedly shows the contrary. What I have said about the Taliban applied just as clearly to the Bolsheviks in Russia in 1917-22, or the Chinese Communists in 1945-9, or the Viet Cong, or, for that matter, the Nazis in Germany from 1930 to 1933. (The latter case, ironically, is different because elections did play a key role in bringing the Nazis to power, too, and superior electoral mobilization was one of their main assets.) The victory of those revolutionary movements invariably meant short-run disaster for their countries, even though China and Vietnam managed to get themselves on entirely different paths within a few decades and are now doing remarkably well. Some of these movements won in part by taking advantage of existing injustices, but their victories owed far more to organization, ruthless intimidation, and military effectiveness. Although it has become unfashionable to say so, the genius of the Anglo-American world was to have established stable local and national political institutions, including law courts, by the early 18th century, allowing their people, from that time on, to live in relative peace. This is what much of the world has never managed to do.
The United States in Iraq, and now in Afghanistan, has set about drastically accelerating the process of history by trying to create modern institutions on the spot. In both countries cadres of westerners have been dispatched to train police forces, criminal justice personnel, and the military. As in South Vietnam, all this seems to be based upon an unspoken assumption that the local populations will naturally accept what we have to offer. In fact, in my opinion, the opposite is true. In a situation of civil war, is a body of uniformed men trained by a culturally alien foreign power really likely to prevail against determined local opposition? Is it indeed not more likely to be discredited by its association with foreigners? Let us be clear: what we are doing is very, very different from what British and French imperialists did in places like India, Vietnam, and much of Africa. There they themselves created and administered new modern institutions and ran them, in some cases for decades (Egypt) or even centuries (India.) That, especially in India, allowed such institutions to grow real roots and survive the end of colonialism. But the United States obviously lacks both the resources and the will to do anything like that in Iraq, which as about 25 million people, or Afghanistan, which has 40 million. (South Vietnam in 1965, by the way, had about 15 million people.)
Another irony emerged during the conference. When the modern history of Europe began to be written about 150 years ago, it tended to idealize the growth of the centralized, modern state, based on a body of written laws, the entity that had put an end to the traditional societies of the Middle Ages. In the Middle East we have encountered two huge ironies. In Iraq we began by trying to create such a state (albeit with a strongly neoconservative political orientation) from the top down. That project failed disastrously, and the security gains of the last two years occurred because we began working with traditional institutions, the Sunni tribes, whom the Green Zone bureaucrats had initially been ordered to shun. The most modern institution ever to have ruled Iraq, indeed, was the Ba'ath party, under which, I venture to say, the country was far more unified, albeit by brutal means, than it had ever been before or is likely to be again. Certainly Iraq was never more secular than under the Ba'athists. (William Kristol, assuring Terri Gross in 2003 that there would be civil war there because Iraq "has always been pretty secular," didn't realize to whom the credit ws due.) In fact, third world modernization has often taken place in opposition to the West. One conference participant actually suggested that today, one of the most modern populations in the Middle East lives in Mullah-ruled Iran, and suggested, not entirely humorously, that we might do better to let Islamists get into power and give the people a couple of generations to modernize in response to them.
Today the Times has long stories about the movement of the Marines into Helmand province, where the Taliban are strong and the people fear, not without reason, that the arrival of the Marines will bring death and destruction. (Despite all the talk about counterinsurgency, the military is still focused primarily on firepower even now, even though our new commander in Afghanistan has finally put real restrictions on air strikes.) Let us hope that our new offensive will be a replay of the French Challe offensive in Algeria in 1959, which was sufficiently successful militarily to give de Gaulle the excuse to pull out. Late in the conference some of my colleagues and I got into a discussion of why we are in Afghanistan, anyway. None of thought that it had enough intrinsic interest to keep us there, but one argued that we were in Afghanistan to keep the Taliban from getting its hands on Pakistani nuclear weapons. I dissented. The Taliban is now considerably closer to that goal than they were in 2002, and in any case, trying to recreate a country of 40 million people seems an awfully inefficient way of securing about 100 nuclear weapons. Let us hope we find a way out.