Winning: Afghanistan Without The Americans


June 3, 2014: The United States recently announced that it was declaring victory and pulling its troops out of Afghanistan. NATO had already decided to be gone by the end of 2014 and the Americans are now planning to be gone by the end of 2016. There are currently 33,000 American troops in Afghanistan (down from a peak of 100,000) and that will shrink to 10,000 in 2015, 5,000 in 2016 and after that there were be a few hundred trainers and advisors, assisted by several thousand civilian contractors (many of them former military). That “residual forces” has no announced exit date yet.

The U.S. believes it has achieved its goals in Afghanistan and that fifteen years of military activity there is enough. That effort involved nearly 850,000 American military personnel serving there (often for multiple tours) and about one in every 386 getting killed and nine times as many getting wounded. Actually about four percent of Americans serving in Afghanistan were killed, wounded, injured or got seriously sick while there. Afghanistan is not a healthy place for foreigners, or Afghans for that matter. America’s NATO allies (and a few other countries) also sent troops to Afghanistan. That contingent was smaller than the American force and suffered about half the casualties.

Meanwhile outgoing Afghan president Karzai and many Pushtuns want all foreign troops gone by 2015 so the Pushtuns would have a better chance of reestablishing their dominance over all of Afghanistan. The non-Pushtun majority opposes that and wants some of the Americans and other foreign troops to remain. Thus Afghanistan is headed for another civil war and the non-Pushtuns see the United States as an ally to help them win it. 

The Pushtun lost control in 2001 when the Northern Alliance triumphed. The northern Afghan tribes remember well that in September 11, 2001 they were still fighting the Taliban government that had not yet gained control over all of Afghanistan.  The "Northern Alliance" of non-Pushtun tribes was still holding out despite little help from the United States. Russia, however, had been helping and is still see as an ally by the northern tribes. If the U.S. does not stick around to support the northern tribes, the Russians will.

The northern tribes are not asking for a lot of American help. After all in October 2001 the United States sent in a few hundred Special Forces and CIA operators, a hundred million dollars in cash and a few thousand smart bombs to help the Northern Alliance out, and within two months the widely unpopular Taliban were broken and fleeing the country. The Pushtun still resent this and the non-Pushtuns tried to accommodate the Pushtuns after 2001 when a new government was formed. The northern tribes didn't mind Pushtuns getting some of the top jobs in the new government (including the presidency), but were no longer willing to meekly follow the Pushtun lead blindly.

The Pushtun see it differently, claiming (with some truth) that they did most of the fighting against the Russians in the 1980s while many of the northern tribes cut deals with the Russians (as did some Pushtun tribes, something the Pushtuns don't like to talk about). That had more to do with Afghan politics, (the northern and southern tribes disagreed on how to deal with Russia and modernization in the first place) than with anything else. Then came the Taliban (a cynical invention of the Pakistanis, created from Pushtun refugees in Pakistan convinced that a Holy War would bring peace to Afghanistan). Meanwhile, the heroin trade (growing poppies and using a chemical process to turn the sap from these plants into opium and heroin) had moved from Pakistan (where the government saw it as a curse) to Afghanistan. Many of the same tribes that produced the refugees who became the Taliban, also produced the most successful drug lords.

The Pushtun are many things, including well organized and ambitious and Russia has always been a willing ally of the northern tribes because of that. The Taliban today are basically a faction of the Pushtun tribes and the drug trade is basically run by Pushtuns. For most Afghans, the Pushtuns (40 percent of the population) are the enemy and Russia is a neighbor that has more often than not been a useful friend. The Russians are also interested in stopping the Pushtun drug trade and this gives the northern tribes and Russia a common goal to work towards. Expect to see more of Russia in Afghanistan after NATO forces depart.

Afghan army leaders and most of the troops want the Americans to stay, at least to provide air support and help with logistics, training and intelligence collecting. The military, which is largely non-Pustun, fears that without the American assistance they will be more vulnerable to the Taliban and drug gangs, both of whom are dominated by Pushtuns from the south (mainly in Kandahar and Helmand provinces.) President Karzai and his clan are from Kandahar, but the army is largely non-Pushtun (Tajiks, Hazara, Uzbek).

For the last decade it has been fashionable to play down ethnic animosities in Afghanistan. But occasionally a Pushtun leader will appear in the media casually reminding everyone that Pushtuns were “born to rule” or “are the true owners of Afghanistan.” Sometimes these attitudes get into print. In 2012 the government fired four Pushtun academics for publishing a book on the ethnic groups of Afghanistan that described the Hazara as "liars, stubborn, violent and anti-Islamic."  Hazara politicians and non-Pushtuns in general, were enraged. That's because to the Pushtuns anyone who is not Pushtun is "them" and nothing but trouble. Same deal with the northern tribes, who are weakened by their lack of ethnic and tribal unity (the Uzbeks are Turks, the Hazara are Mongols and the Tajiks are, like the Pushtuns, cousins to the Iranians, Pakistanis and northern Indians). Thus no matter how successful the Taliban might be in the south, among their fellow Pushtun (many of them anti-Taliban), they still have to face "them"; the northern tribes, who now have powerful foreign allies, a combination that proved invincible in 2001, and can do so again if called on. Without their American allies, the Pushtun believe they can, as they usually do, intimidate the more numerous and divided non-Pushtuns into compliance with Pushtun domination.

The current Afghan government survives by maintaining some form of good relations between the haughty Pushtuns, and the real majority of Afghanistan (the non-Pushtuns). The Hazara have long been a particular target of Pushtun anger. In part, it's because the Hazara are Shia, while most Afghans are Sunni. Al Qaeda and the Taliban are Sunni radicals, and Sunni radicals consider Shia heretics and in need of killing. The other reason for Hazara hatred is that the Hazara are the descendants of the Mongol conquerors of Afghanistan. The Pushtun do not like to be reminded of what the Mongol invaders did to them. The Pushtuns also have specific reasons for disdaining the Turks and Tajiks often involving feuds that go back centuries.  

Then there is the fact that the Taliban are a minority within the Pushtun minority. There are some Islamic radicals among the other ethnic minorities, but the Pushtuns dominate the Taliban (in terms of leadership and numbers overall). The biggest asset the Taliban have is their alliance with the drug gangs. This is because the Taliban tolerated and taxed the drug gangs in the 1990s, and continued with that policy. This gives the Taliban the cash they need to keep their terror campaign going, but this also associates the Islamic radicals with the hated drug gangs. Most Afghans will hold their nose and take a drug gang or Taliban bribe. Yet in the overall scheme of things, the majority (over 70 percent) of Afghans would prefer to see the Taliban and drug gangs dead and gone. With the foreign troops gone, that kind of civil war situation is likely to develop. Most Afghans believe the “Northern Alliance” would again prevail. Unless, however, the Americans and Russians stayed out and the Pakistanis (who prefer that the Pushtuns be in charge) intervene. Remember, in Afghanistan things can always get worse and usually do.



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