Afghanistan; Graveyard of Western Policy Wonks (but certainly NOT the graveyard of empires)

I had posted an earlier blog post with the somewhat tongue in cheek title “America’s brilliant strategy in Afghanistan”. This was basically a note (and an audio version of the same) from Major Amin, arguing that strategically a US exit was a brilliant move as it ensured that this tar baby is now the problem of Pakistan, China, Russia and Iran (and to some extent, India), and not an expensive American headache. The thought is strategically sound (if very cynical and cold blooded), but I have some doubts about whether the US is consciously trying to do this (they may indeed end up doing this, and could even emerge stronger, with their rivals weaker, as a result, but that may not have been the conscious intention).  Anyway, here, in no particular order, are my random thoughts on this topic:

  1. There are no grounds for thinking that the same damn  people who created the disaster and were wrong about it at every step for 20 years are now suddenly these Machiavellian geniuses who will trap Pakistan and its patron China (not to mention Russia and Iran) in Afghanistan. It is far more likely that the geniuses are still dreaming of “engagement”, only now instead of engaging with Musharraf and the anti-Taliban Afghans, they will engage with General Bajwa and the Taliban. These geniuses will now sell new kool aid about how the new government they have helped to install will ensure security and crackdown on alqaeda and whatever bogeyman the Americans are now supposed to be scared of. And of course, to do this the new “anti-terror allies” will need aid (part of which will be stolen by corrupt Americans at step one, the rest to be stolen locally by these new allies, with a small trickle making it to starving afghans). Meanwhile, these new allies, not new to the game themselves, will make sure a steady supply of “alqaeda number threes” are handed over to be housed in Guantanomo or wherever. They will also make sure there are enough terror incidents and threats to keep the show going forever. We will of course get mucho dinero from the EU as well, since that is the only way refugees can be kept out of fortress Europe (or at least, this is the line that will be sold on TV). Now, this may NOT come to pass fully like this because Western powers are still democracies, there will be debate and the best laid plans of mice and thinktankers may be thwarted by bad publicity and “aid fatigue”, but NOT by their own planning. In short, the US and the West may indeed end up leaving the tar baby to less gentle caretakers, but they will do so unwillingly and in spite of themselves, NOT because this (sensible) plan is what they have opted for now that the first (nonsensical) grand strategic plan has failed and they have well and truly lost the war.
  2. The failure in any case is not a failure of Democrats or Republicans, it is a systemic failure of the entire postmodern Western establishment. And the systemic failure starts from the vast gap that exists between Western civ and the rest of the world. For better AND for worse, the West has moved very far from where most humans were a century ago. Leaving aside all questions of whether this is good, bad or ugly, or whether this is sustainable or not, the fact remains that at this point in time the average ivy league educated “analyst” is bound within so many layers of WEIRD assumptions and habits that he or she (maybe especially she, since she will not have hormonal access to the patriarchal and macho world of men outside the West; though this is by no means a general rule; some Western women can also know men AND women and their quirks very well) has no framework for even beginning to see what is going on. Garbage in, garbage out is always true, but it is also worth remembering that there CAN be a machine that converts good information into garbage. If the software is faulty, then non-garbage going in will also become garbage on the way out. This should not be forgotten. 
  3. Some people say that Western corporate capitalism has become so powerful that it has now eaten through whatever older human paradigms were operating (and are still operating at some level) in Western societies. If this is indeed the case then the questions become all about who profits and who loses? but the twist here is that the usual Lefty answers are also mostly propaganda. War is profitable, but so is peace. Peace is actually MORE profitable for more corporations than war is. But if war profits alone were (and are) driving policy choices, then the issue becomes one of how SOME corporations and individuals (who DO profit from war) have managed to capture institutions to such an extent that their profits drove policy to invade Afghanistan? and their profits will determine what comes next? People have strong opinions on this, but I find that most of the opinions turn out to be emotional outbursts or propaganda on close examination. There is almost certainly SOMETHING to this angle of attack, but I still think, not as much as advertised; because I think they make money when they get the chance, but getting the chance was not something they planned in detail.. eg, “corporations” (who would that even be?)  did not blow up the towers just so they could go to war. Other human concerns (race, religion, identity, national interest, individual madness, individual desire to do good, plain stupidity, error, chance, etc) are still driving us.
  4. The whole notion of “non-state actors” is a huge red herring. There ARE non-state actors, and states usually defeat them. They are mostly a police issue, not a military issue. A really serious insurgency (Vietcong, Taliban, Kashmir, etc etc) needs overt or covert state support. Conversely, the really cost-effective counter (provided you have the conventional forces to have such an option) is to confront the states supporting them. The notion that the USA is helpless in front of some ragtag gang of Islamist mujahids is just bullshit. At some point, the US could be up against sponsors that the US cannot go to war with (China, Russia) and would then have to settle for other measures, but to fail to get countries such as Afghanistan, Iran or Pakistan to change their behavior (short of being under the a full Chinese or Russian umbrella) is a choice, not a given.
  5. The Taliban are going to rule all of Afghanistan now because the US chose to give them the country (whether as part of some Machiavellian scheme or just because Khalilzad and Trump were idiots), but they will not do so in some mythical “inclusive” or “moderate” fashion. They will not last long if they do anything that stupid, and they are not stupid. Their asabiya comes from Islam and their core supporters are committed to a very jihadist and harsh version of Islam. They can certainly be smart enough to act moderate or to include non-taliban in their govt because of considerations of realpolitik and their fighters have enough discipline and their ISI minders have enough influence that this can be done. But just as the Chinese communists included many non-communists in their national reconciliation councils or whatever, but never lost sight of the need for unity of command and clear authority over all aspects of national life, so will the Taliban. if they dont, they will fall quicker than expected. That said, they will not enjoy a free run. There will be many groups trying to undermine them. There will be criminals There will be smugglers. There will be local warlords. They will have to be harsh, they WILL be harsh, but they still wont enjoy enough tranquility to start giving out mining concessions to Shenyang Mining corporation number five or whatever. The US may eventually get out of the region (with think tankers kicking and screaming about “failure of engagement” all the way) and then will be able to enjoy the show from a safe distance. But with so many intelligence agencies and agents operating at every level, peace is not likely. Neither is it likely that the Taliban regime (even if it stabilizes) will totally eliminate all the various terrorists who are still holed up in Afghanistan. Ideologically, they cannot. Practically they cannot.
  6. There will be massive economic disruption in Afghanistan very very soon. The whole place was running on American taxpayer money (and smaller contributions from the EU and others). Even though the think-tankers will try their level best to keep the manna flowing, it is not likely to reach even a tenth of the levels achieved in the corrupt war years. Neither China nor Russia believe in throwing money into tar pits. So who will pay? The afghan people will pay, by moving abroad (mostly to Pakistan and Iran, luckier ones further West), by living on less, by selling what drugs they can (though most of that profit goes to middlemen and smugglers, not to the growers). Pakistan will pay what it can, which is not a lot. There is no way there can be a sudden turnaround and prosperity and mining contracts raining down on Kabul. None.
  7. But can there be a longer term recovery? Can China do what the USA could not? build a viable Afghan state? I doubt it. I doubt that they will even try. At best, they will give some money to Pakistan to have a go, but it will not be American level cash, it will be strictly “cash on delivery”. Can Pakistan deliver them a functioning Afghanistan? Our entire past record suggests we cannot. For the sake of the Afghan people, I hope I am wrong.
  8. India mostly gets to sit tight and hope that their “balakot deterrence” still holds after Pakistan has so decisively defeated the great Satan. It could. We will see. Mostly, I think India comes out of this relatively OK. Their main issue is whether this will embolden Pakistan to restart the kashmir Jihad. It may. It may not.
  9. Major Amin has also raised another interesting question: this one for Pakistani think tankers who think they have won some grand victory by defeating the USA. His thought is “what if our boys actually succeed”?  ie what if the Taliban.  actually stabilize their government and become a viable state? The think tankers in Pakistan maybe missing the possibility that these “grains of sand” (the Afghans) could come together to form a solid mass at some point. And at that point, they will start thinking about strategic depth in Pakistan. After all, if Islamic zeal is what gave them victory, then why not export that zeal to Pakistan? and who better to do it than Afghans? I believe the crucial point here is that Pakistanis (especially our Punjabi and Mohajir elites) have this misconception that just because they (through no great gifts of their own) are inheritors of the Sikh conquests and the administrative machinery and mercenary army of the Raj, they are somehow eternally meant to lord it over the Afghans. This is NOT how any Afghan (Leftist, Rightist, whatever) sees themselves. They are down and out right now because the Sikhs drove them out of the trans-Indus districts and the British created a modernish state in the region that is much more sophisticated and capable than the Afghan state (which was not very advanced to begin with, and whatever it was, we managed to utterly destroy in the first CIA Jihad in the 1980s). But this is not some sort of eternal historic truth. A truly stable Afghanistan will want those districts back and will export true Islam to Pakistan as the means with which to get their way. The current arrangement, with Pakistani officers issuing (or at least, trying to issue) orders to Afghans is only because the Taliban lack many things that only a modernish state can supply and we are that supplier. Let them get settled in, and they will start to look East. We cannot afford to let them win in the way Sethi sahib thinks we want (and hope to).
  10. From the last post: Some people have asked if this was not inevitable. I think it was not. I think there was a slim chance in 2002 to make it work. But it involved two very difficult (but doable) things; 1. A more competent American occupation and transition. and 2. Pakistan decisively switching sides and abandoning Jihad in Kashmir and Afghanistan (since the one is our justification for the second, both had to go). 1 in retrospect seems near impossible. 2 may have been more doable than 1,  So putting the primary blame on Pakistan may be a bit unfair now. (Until a week ago, I might have blamed Pakistan first; though i saw the American effort as hugely corruption ridden and frequently incompetent, even I had not idea HOW incompetent it was. THAT effort was never going to succeed. Though it did not have to end in giving the country to the Taliban. It could still have ended with the US leaving a pro-US govt behind, who would likely have held on to some areas if given some money and support. Anyway, after what we have seen of american incompetence and cynical abandonment of friends, I think 1 (US incompetence and strategic and tactical blindness) is the more important reason this failed. Without Pakistan the Taliban could not have retaken the country. Without US incompetence, neither could have won their respective victories.

See the older post for more random thoughts and predictions.

Sethi sahib’s optimistic takes are here:

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Omar Ali

I am a physician interested in obesity and insulin resistance, and in particular in the genetics and epigenetics of obesity As a blogger, I am more interested in history, Islam, India, the ideology of Pakistan, and whatever catches my fancy. My opinions can change.

21 thoughts on “Afghanistan; Graveyard of Western Policy Wonks (but certainly NOT the graveyard of empires)”

  1. Every time Omar bhai u remind me why I found the blog in the first place. Each word , gold. ?

  2. Najam Sethi a few years ago:

    “Today, the 60-year old Mr. Sethi is embroiled in a very personal war against ultraconservative elements in the Muslim nation, who object to the anti-Taliban bias his newspapers display.”

    Now making convenient noises he used to hide in his home fearing Taliban retribution. This chameleon exemplifies the Pakistani liberals, Mandela for thee, Jinnah for me.

    Spewing new bullshit about this pipeline – that mine – that corridor, just like he did for CPEC.

    Typical Punjabi Arora uncle type talk, selling cosmetics and ladies under-garments from a 10ft by 10ft shop in a by-lane and giving value trading and investment advice.

    Mungeri-laal ke haseen sapne…

  3. This is a great summary of the Afghan situation, as always you’ve conveyed a ton of information and nuance without sacrificing brevity. Maza aagaya Omar bhai!

    You posit that American incompetence, aided by Pakistani scheming led to the quick collapse and TB takeover. There are other points of view did example in the Indian RW space that say that the quick collapse of the Afghan army without shots fired or battles fought in many places points to a deal between the Ghani govt and the TB behind the scenes to subvert both the US and Pakistan, to ensure that Pak doesn’t get to call the shots any more as they would have done if there was a more protracted struggle. Abhijit Iyer Mitra is one such analyst who sticks by this view, I frankly think it’s cope in the face of having his (and others) predictions utterly fall to pieces. The conspiracy theories are endless, this is after all the fog of war that we’re in and maximising information ambiguity serves the interests of multiple parties so I only expect the situation to get muddier and muddier.

    1. “ There are other points of view did example in the Indian RW space that say that the quick collapse of the Afghan army without shots fired or battles fought in many places points to a deal between the Ghani govt and the TB “

      There is a reason for this. Despite what they say, Indian RW had grudging admiration for pathans fighting ability and they can’t come around the fact that afghans couldn’t/didn’t fight and just gave up. Hence the conspiracy theory.

  4. Each one of these points is worthy of its own post.

    Point #2 is important. I actually didn’t really get it prior to reading your stuff as I am probably too western and caught up in western culture wars.

    Come to think of it the West has the most advanced civilization in the history of humanity, to the point where the conservatives are advocating for the use of bimodal gender pronouns and liberals are advocating for multimodal diffuse pronoun culture.

    Violence is so low that concerns about safety are starting to centre around emotional trauma rather than physical trauma.

    Truely remarkable. But also taken for granted by Western people.

    So it is not reasonable to expect the most privileged elite class of people from the West (the ruling classes) to be able to relate to pre-industrial societies (all south asian countries in my view).

    1. Especially in the last few years after the fall of ISIS , when the western world is hardly touched by terrorism, focus has shifted to “probable terrorism” like white nationalism and trying to counter issues which south Asians would laugh at.

      First world problems.

  5. ……hope that their “balakot deterrence” still holds after Pakistan has so decisively defeated the great Satan….

    The last two years in Kashmir after Balakot have been the quietest ever in the last thirty years. Pin drop silence – in terms of attacks, CFVs, incidents. Dhanoa, the jolly Punjabi, did a fine job.

    The new geopolitical dynamic will reveal itself as soon as any wild Adil Dar materializes. A good casus belli will not be wasted by the Modi Govt.

  6. Omar just great.

    Some other opinions.

    The US has lost its idealism, i.e. Democracy, Human Rights etc over the last 15+ years.. Or more the amoral kleptocrats and their henchman like Obomba are running the show.

    Like Christianity and Civilize the Savages, Democracy, Human Rights are just smoke and mirrors to loot from the invaded country. However, to loot natural resources takes time and investment, and no guarantees of very profitable returns* (Libya instant return, the 140 tonnes of Gold was whisked away.

    For the kleptocrat mentality (MIC and Wall Street) the looting of natural resources is too long a time frame. So someone figured out, much easier to steal from US public.
    a) Start a war,
    b) Fund with debt
    c) Skim huge percentage on weapons, development programs.
    d) Make sure casualties are low so public wont be against war.

    The brits were much better with their colonialism. Created a brown nose class to keep the natives in check. Built infrastructure, eg railways and “exported” natural resources back to Britain. However, that took a good hundred years.

    So now US public has 22 trillion in External Debt, 127% Debt/GDP and crumbling infrastructure.

    *Much easier to support some kleptocratic dictatorship and get the goodies for a song.

  7. Open question: anyone know if the Taliban (both the leaders and the foot soldiers) is entirely Pathan or do they have some Tajiks and Uzbeks and others too (I’m guessing no Hazara.)

  8. Omar, excellenmt articles.

    I would add one more thing. People like Taliban , Pakistani army, etc, whatever one may think of them from a liberal or a moral point of view are heirs to much older islamic, Hindu, Iranian, Turkic civilization and cultures. they have seen empires come and go. They have an innate cleverness and tactfulness which US armies or army of analysts can’t match or can’t even fathom. The US presumptions about Europe or even East Asia don’t work in this part of the world

  9. I conjecture that the Gulf Arab states are powerful players in whatever is unfolding. Taliban’s PR office is based out of a Gulf state and that is also where they hold most of their international talks. A Sunni dominated Afghanistan flanking Iran and heavily dependent on the Arabs for money and diplomacy would suit the Arabs very well. Especially since Shia Iraq is under heavy Iranian influence.

    It is very possible that the Taliban 2.0 are beholden to the Gulf states. They need money desperately, and only the Gulf states can provide that.

    1. The gulf states dont have the money of yore. Nor would they pin prick Iran to that extent, considering US seems to now abandon Middle East and leave the security of the gulf states to their own devices.

  10. US has killed democracy or hopes of it in Afg and Pakistan. Afghanistan no chance of democracy for the foreseeable future . Now that Pakistani military/ISI have decisively won in Afg, that will make them very credible in ordianry Pakistani eyes, and make military driven politics legitimate. Pakistan army relies on success to cement it’s legitamcy over civilians.In 71 Pak army lost and there was a democratic interlude. When Pakistani army loses , Democracy in pakistan will be strengthened. When the army loses, Democracy will be strengthened.

    US did not mind throwing under the bus a democratically elected govt in Afghanistan and handed it over to medievel mullacracy with 21st century equipemt.

    US involvement in South Asia has been highly counter-productive


    Andrew small. The person who understands CPEC the best.

    “ The same question marks apply to the Taliban’s guarantees of security. Beijing previously thought it had guarantees in provinces where the Taliban were the de facto power, but there were still attacks on Chinese workers. China isn’t naïve enough to think that Taliban control of Afghanistan magically transforms a country that has been at war for decades into a place where they can comfortably do business. Their investments can still be threatened by local grievances, an assortment of jihadi groups, foreign intelligence services, guns for hire, factional divisions, and a host of other factors, even in circumstances where the Taliban are largely able to maintain order. Recent attacks in Pakistan have only magnified that sense of concern. For the major investments that will only yield returns after many years, they will also want to be confident that the Taliban government is stable enough to merit these long-term bets. So, on all three counts—the Uyghur question, the security question, and the political stability question—China will want to bide its time before it is sufficiently confident for the big state-owned enterprises to move in seriously on the ground, whatever they agree to on paper.“

  12. i just want to say I made the original comparison to pakistan / India partittion with american civil war

    1. I must say, I have also made this observation. In fact I would go one step ahead and compare the remnant to be equivalent to the southern whites in the US. Former elites, defeated in war but leveraging democracy for the benefit of the tiny sliver of the minority population.

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