Musings on Afghanistan
The Afghani presidential election held yesterday has been deemed an unprecedented success for the people and the process. Afghani officials claim that 95 percent of polling sites were open while only 300 sites were not operating. Total fatalities associated with election violence came to 26, a signal – according to a Kabul administration spokesperson – that the Taliban had again failed to intimidate the voters.
Despite this success, exactly how the government can build on the outcome to help the populace remains unclear. Customs and cultural go deep; change comes slow, if at all. Foreigners are viewed with suspicion, as are foreign ideas, “principles,” and practices. And on top of these stresses is a country with a large, uneducated, unemployed and unemployable youth, a phalanx that is tired of endemic corruption by officials and bureaucrats, the growing presence of uninvited international military forces with their ideas and customs, and the near total absence of even the most basic technology needed to build a modern state.
Given the lack of familiarity in Washington and other capitals about Afghanistan’s culture and customs and its strong web of interacting tribal and ethnic relations, it seems incomprehensible that both the USSR and the United States, in close succession, became enmeshed in Afghanistan. One could well make a plausible case that both the USSR and the United States – from the start of their respective invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 and 2001 – assumed that the importation of foreign advisors and hi-tech “models” would go far toward modernizing the state structure into a “responsible” international actor.
Only now can the U.S. appreciate just how wrong Washington was about the errors Moscow made in Afghanistan in the 1980s and the same mistakes already replicated to date by the Bush and Obama administrations.
In a May 10, 1988 letter from the Communist Party’s Central Committee to all party adherents, the USSR conceded that it had no idea of Afghanistan’s social, economic, cultural, religion, ethnic, or military status. According to the letter (see the June 2009 Harper’s Magazine, p. 24, “Known Knowns”) what the Soviets knew about Afghanistan was only this: every fighting-age male would immediately take up his rifle and fight any foreign troops that set foot on Afghani soil. Moreover, the “color” of one’s philosophy or beliefs was immaterial, as was the “good intentions” of the alien soldiers or their “warrior ethos.”
The Ignorance of the Soviets in dealing with the power structure in Afghanistan was mirrored by the lack of understanding by the Afghani elite of Soviet motives in taking over the country in 1979. The Central Committee’s letter readily conceded that in large measure the government in Kabul paid little heed to any advice offered by Moscow’s civilian and military representatives. The military structure installed in Kabul was dysfunctional; local resistance groups opposed the “government troops” in rural areas as well as the indiscriminant use of warplanes to attack non-combatants with little or no warning. By February 15, 1989, the last Soviet soldier was gone. All told, the Soviets had suffered 13,210 fatalities, 35,478 more been wounded, and 301 more were missing. Monetarily, the communists were paying 5 billion rubles per month when they departed.
And of the U.S. shortfalls? Fatalities are 794 (with allied losses at 534) and are almost as numerous for the eight months of 2009 as for all fatalities recorded in 2008. More troops will be requested as will more technology for the U.S. soldiers. In fact, expectations are that more reliance more often and for longer periods will be placed on technology to offset the unavailability of troops.
While yesterday’s decision by the voters may give President Hamid Karzai a second term, the Afghani people may decide that the presence of western military forces is no more welcome than were those from the USSR. Public sentiment is growing against the rising deaths and psychological damage to noncombatants caught in the crossfire when foreign forces are subject to insurgent attacks.
P.S. Most Americans have no experience of the traumatic effects of modern war on the psyche of noncombatants. But using a video/sound tape, CNN demonstrated the difference between the volume of exploding munitions and small arms bullets from Afghani and U.S. forces that come under fire from snipers. The government soldiers fire bursts of semi-automatic rifle ammunition as they move to cover. U.S. troops search the terrain until they see the rifle flashes, at which time bombs, missiles, and artillery hit the identified point while American ground troops pour in heavy machine gun fire. The insurgent position is obliterated visually and the noise is like white noise, sustained and prolonged. Unfortunately, it is possible that the Taliban fighters escaped the U.S. firestorm and are back at their workplace or home where they carry on with life.