President Barrack Obama’s speech at West Point yesterday, where he outlined the new United States policy on Afghanistan, has drawn conflicting reactions. Almost predictably, Dick Cheney lambasted Obama, saying that setting a deadline for withdrawal for American troops gave a green signal to Al Qaeda and Taliban to sit tight till the soldiers left; and then get back to the business they know best. Others opined that sending 30,000 additional troops was a good idea. After all, the surge worked in Iraq, didn’t it?
And therein lies the catch. The generals and politicians who are framing the strategy in Afghanistan probably reckon that it’s always safer to emulate tactics that have been tried – and worked – in some other theatre of war. In my not-so-humble opinion, this is flawed logic. The Afghans are not Iraqis. This statement, though obvious, may seem superfluous to average Americans. Sure they’re different countries, but they’re all Arabs, aren’t they?
Well actually they are not. The Iraqis and Afghans may share their Islamic faith, but culturally and ethnically, they are quite distinct. The majority of Afghans are Pashtuns and they are culturally distinct from Iraqi Arabs. They even speak a different language. But perhaps the most striking difference between the two groups is mindset; and it has a lot to do with their recent history.
The Iraqis, under Saddam Hussein’s iron rule, were a tightly controlled and regulated people. Yes, they now have a sort of democracy, but it takes time to erase the effects of decades of conditioning. There is still an ingrained respect, even fear, of authority. The Afghans, on the other hand, even though their country was conquered and occupied many times, have always been fiercely independent and individualistic. They have contempt for authority, even if they don’t always display it. Even under the Taliban, it was the women who were subjugated. The men, while paying lip service to their new masters, pretty much continued to do their own thing.
It is this independence and contempt for authority that makes the majority of Afghans virtually ungovernable. Take the present rulers. To the Western mind, Hamid Karzai is a crook who turns a blind eye to widespread corruption and poppy cultivation in his nation. But perhaps he is a realist who realizes that it is the only way he can remain in power. Corruption, in the conventional sense, is not regarded as criminal activity by the average Afghan; it is a legitimate source of income. So is the cultivation of poppies for opium. This attitude was fostered by successive rulers and feudal lords who had neither the means nor the inclination to pay a fair wage to those who served them. The serfs were expected to make ends meet by any means available. Morality was a luxury they could not afford.
President Obama’s timetable for withdrawal of American troops is predicated on the surmise that Afghan soldiers, by then, will be sufficiently trained and equipped to take over security responsibilities. This is a very tall order. The proposed “surge” may indeed be effective in curbing the insurgency – as long as the Americans remain in Afghanistan. Once they depart, it is very likely that things will fall apart. The Afghan troops will make private arrangements with the tribal chiefs or the large landlords, or even the Taliban – whoever offers the best deal. The millions of dollars worth of light weapons they have received from the Americans will quietly disappear; to be used for individual protection or private militias – or even extortion. Some might argue that, having experienced the repressive regime of the Taliban, there is no way ordinary Afghans will allow them back. The reality is that most Afghans don’t really care who nominally rules them. As long as they are left to their own devices – and free to make money any way they can - they are quite content. The women, of course, would be sorely dismayed at the prospect of the Taliban returning, but women have never had much say in that country anyway.
So what can America realistically do? Unfortunately, there appears to be no permanent solution. If they hope to keep the Taliban and Al Qaeda in check, they have to stay in Afghanistan indefinitely. If that is a price the American people are unwilling to pay – and they probably are – the US will probably need to cut its losses in the near future and leave - and redouble their efforts at home to make as sure as they can that the bad guys are kept away from American shores.