Posted by: Christian | March 26, 2009

Saving Afghanistan (yet again) by Robert Kaplan

Please, no more articles or policy papers titled “Saving Afghanistan.” It’s really getting confusing. Seriously, google “Saving Afghanistan” and check the first few pages of returns. Anyways, it is the content that truly matters, so let’s get to it:

“Saving Afghanistan” by Robert Kaplan, The Atlantic, March 24, 2009. Online.

Whoops! Wrong picture:

The basic message is that this will be long and hard. But the details were just a little of the mark. So let the whinging begin. First excerpt:

…the military situation in Afghanistan is not nearly as dire as the one in Iraq on the eve of the surge in late 2006. Civilian casualties, despite rising 40 percent since 2007, are still 16 times lower than in pre-surge Iraq. Even today, with Iraq clearly on the mend and out of the news, it still accounts for twice as many civilian casualties as Afghanistan.

Yay for quantitative analysis. It has just shown the the situation in Afghanistan is “not nearly as dire” as Iraq in 2006, based on civilian casualties. Using a single quantitative variable across two different case studies is a rather bad start. Check Cordesman’s number crunching (i.e., this pdf ) to see how “dire” things in Afghanistan based on all the trackable variables across a long period.

Despite the disappointment with the American-led coalition, fewer than ten percent of the Afghan population support the Taliban, according to recent polling; neither do the Taliban and the other anti-government insurgents have a unifying or charismatic leader. There is no Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh, or even a Muqtada al-Sadr. While resilient—that is, able to quickly replace leaders who are killed—the Taliban are not resurgent as news reports have claimed.

No Ho here:

No unifying leader? Well, that’s what makes the insurgency strong. Cf. Sinno, and overcentralized movements that die with their leaders. And they are not resurgent? Check Cordesman above. I would say they are both resilient and resurgent.

The capital of Kabul has never been in danger of falling, notwithstanding periodic, spectacular attacks that energize the world media, such as those against the Indian Embassy and the Serena Hotel in Kabul, as well as the one on February 11 in which three ministries were targeted. In fact, that last attack was seen as a victory for the government because the ministries were quickly retaken by the Afghan army and police with little help from the NATO coalition.

Kabul is not in danger of falling? If urban enclaves of relative stability are a measure of success, then communist-era President Najibullah was a military genius. Still, it didn’t work out for him. Nor for Amanullah. Nor for…etc..

Not Kaplan’s first go-around:

More excerpts:

As American commanders repeatedly told me and three other reporters during a week of travel, a Taliban victory is not only not inevitable, “it is not even probable.”

Fantastic news… The kind that Public Affairs Officers love to relay from high-ranking commanders to the public.

Finally, the Americans, in spite of all the reports of civilian casualties from air strikes, are still the most popular outsider in the eyes of Afghans, says Christopher Alexander of the United Nations office in Kabul.

Did Chris Alexander really say this? Because polling shows India, Iran and Germany are liked better (pdf). And the long-term trend of Afghans’ opinion towards the US, from the same source (probably worth noting?):

On the other hand, the raw material for modern nationhood in Afghanistan is much weaker than what exists in in Iraq. Literacy rates in the Pushtun belt of the south and east that has seen most of the serious fighting is under ten percent, with women’s literacy hovering near zero in many places. Starting with the 1979 Soviet invasion, 30 years of warfare have decimated traditional structures of authority and the human capital here: there are little or no skill sets among the population for the most basic administrative tasks. Afghanistan exhibits the same stage of human development as the poorest sub-Saharan African countries. .

Destruction of traditional authority structures is one of the paths to nationhood (i.e., the state), not a happy path, but one that many historians (i.e., modernists) are fond of pointing out [though I am not in full agreement on that]. And conflict as a shared tragedy has actually reinforced the idea of a nation among Afghans over the last thirty years.

Indeed, the government of President Hamid Karzai is weak, corrupt, and tribal to the core, with members of his family such as Ahmad Wali Karzai complicit in the drug trade. Karzai governs through his own Popolzai tribe of the Pushtun ethnic group, even as many positions in his government are manned by ethnic Tajiks from the north,…

One of those many non-tribal exceptions that are so numerous they form the rule:

Is it tribal or is it not? What’s with the “even as” qualifier? Are all the exceptions actually more the rule than the exception? Discounting non-Pashtuns (a significant “discount”) such as the governor of Balkh above still leaves many, many non-Popolzai Pashtuns in positions of power, united by common/self-interests and pragmatism.

Karzai has also permitted former mujahidin commanders such as Ismael Khan, Rasul Sayyaf, and Mohammed Fahim to emerge as corrupt oligarchs.

Really? All of these guys have become progressively weaker over time. Their informal power is still considerable (two of these were de facto fired from their jobs), but I argue they are weaker now than they have ever been. I’m not in total disagreement, I just don’t see these guys as products of Karzai permitting them. They just did so and Karzai could do nothing.

The ustad himself, back in the day:

There is of course corruption much closer to home that Karzai has enabled…

The result is that despite Karzai’s own royal Pushtun lineage and his dependence on blood relations rather than institutions, he is increasingly disliked by his fellow Pushtuns.

Karzai doesn’t have that many blood relatives… He relies a great deal on non-kin as stated above.

The Taliban, in this sense, are merely the latest incarnation of Pushtun nationalism on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

They most certainly are not a product of nationalism. Afghan Mellat, Daoud and Khalq are good examples of nationalism.

Afghanistan Mellat:

The Taliban are a rather complex product that has nationalism infused in the smallest dose.

But just as the central government is weak, so are the insurgents. The Taliban are just one of many anti-government syndicates that fight often at cross purposes with each other. In the south stretching from the Pakistani border town of Quetta to Kandahar are the Taliban-proper. In the southeast, stretching from Pakistani Waziristan into Khost, Gardez, and unto Kabul itself is the network run by former Afghan mujahidin leader Jalaluddin Haqqani. In the east is the HIG, or Hezb-i-Islami Gulbuddin, run by another former mujahidin fighter against the Soviets, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

The insurgents are weak because there are multiple groups? I really fail to follow. A similar situation didn’t really help the Soviets. And the insurgents today are far nicer to each other than the old days of Hizb versus Jamiat versus etc… The insurgents are weak in the sense that they couldn’t form a coherent government tomorrow, but as insurgents they are quite strong despite not having a unified command system.

And these represent only a few of the groups operating here, not to mention the insurgent factions inside Pakistan, which are more ideological than the ones in Afghanistan, owing to the more ideological nature of Pakistani Islam.

The ideological nature of “Pakistani Islam?” Which “Pakistani” Islam would this be? Or is there some generalizable “Pakistani Islam” whose definition has eluded scholars? Is Pakistan full of Brother Qutbs and Afghanistan full of quietist twirling Sufis straight out of the Turkish Ministry of Tourism website?

The rugged, utterly porous Afghanistan-Pakistan border is recognized by neither side, but is instead an informal line demarcated by the British in 1893.

Not recognized by locals and various Afghan governments? Sure, but most definitely by many governments of Pakistan.

Nice work Durand. Good job:

In the south and east, the radical Islamist insurgency is itself a reassertion of the concept of Pushtunistan on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

Quit hanging out with Afghan Mellat. Nobody firing an RPG at the moment is fighting for Pashtunistan. In fact, Islamists would reject the idea of fighting for an ethnically defined state. And most of the insurgency is not “Islamist.” The above passage is beyond problematic.

Western Afghanistan is coming under the political and economic domination of Iran, which supplies the city of Herat with electricity, even as the Iranian rial is the main currency in circulation. The Iranians are sending arms and military trainers into this part of Afghanistan. While the Shiite Iranians are against a takeover of Afghanistan by the Sunni extremist Taliban, they also want to keep Afghanistan weak, and to bleed the Americans as much as they can. (The Spanish contingent of several hundred NATO troops in western Badghis province—in the heart of Afghani Greater Iran—practically never leaves its base.

“Afghani Greater Iran?” Iranian electricity and currency in Herat does not equal “domination.” The above passage is just a wee bit of an exaggeration. Iran is no angel here. But whatever problem Iran is is outweighed many, many times over by elements of society and government in Pakistan. So lets not lose focus.

And yet set against this whole legacy is another tendency, equally as compelling. Throughout the mid-part of the 20th century, Afghanistan had a credible central government under King Zahir Shah that boasted many accomplishments from eradicating malaria to overseeing the construction of a ring road uniting the major cities. Following the chaos of the early- and mid-1990s that came with the collapse of the Soviet puppet regime of Mohammed Najibullah, Afghans yearned so much for a central government that they initially welcomed the tyranny of the Taliban.

Uh huh. The “credible” central government (mostly Daoud’s doing) had to put down numerous revolts and then went begging to the Soviets and Americans rentier state-style to build nice things for the cities (including that ring road). And that central government didn’t get too far out of the provincial capitals. As for malaria, it was reduced by destroying wetlands and turning it into irrigated farmland. For that “accomplishment” you may want to, for example, credit the Spin Zar company up in Kunduz.

Nice ring road! Ochen Khorosho!

And must we go over this yet again? Many, many Afghans did not welcome the Taliban.

And today, all polls indicate that Afghans want strong national leadership emanating from Kabul. Indeed, there is a hue and cry for roads, wells, culverts, dams, and other infrastructure that can help with farming. The problem is that decades of strife, in which central authority went from monarchy to communism, to anarchy, to theocracy, to enfeebled democracy, have left tribal affiliations as the only constant.

Kaplan just said that traditional authority structures were eroded. Now they are a constant?

Helping the Taliban are hundreds of millions of dollars in annual profits siphoned off from a $4 billion opium trade, making the Taliban, in effect, narco-terrorists akin to those in Latin America.

And the state? What is its role in the narcotics sector? And PS: The Taliban is not FARC.

The American military is leading an effort to establish the Afghan equivalents of West Point and the National Defense University, in addition to basic training and advanced combat schools, a noncommissioned officer academy, an officer candidate school, and a counterinsurgency academy. There are also plans to dramatically scale up the number of police and to increase the size of the Afghan National Army Air Corps from 35 to 128 planes by 2016. This budding military complex promises to suck away the country’s very limited, literate elite, leaving comparatively fewer educated Afghans to be recruited for civilian jobs in business and government.

There is a danger of the military stealing the educated elite? I highly doubt that. That blame lays with NGOs, the business sector and the various foreign contractors.

While the coalition builds an army from the top down, they hope to improve security in the countryside from the bottom up through the Afghan Public Protection Program or AP3. As described by American Brig. Gen. Mark Milley, the AP3 recruits, trains, and arms locals across tribal and ethnic lines, making them answerable to provincial governors who are, in turn, appointed by the democratically elected president. A pilot AP3 is being developed in Wardak province, which guards the southwestern gates of Kabul. Wardak’s governor, Mohammed Fe’dai, speaks fluent English, is pro-American, and has a background in the professional world of non-governmental organizations or NGOs. He is one of a group of governors with whom the Americans are working, in effect, to circumvent total reliance on Karzai.

A pro-American governor? That’s good news. And it’s nice to hear that I can start using “AP3” to refer to a militia that is being used to circumvent Karai ….through a Karzai appointee who can be removed by Karzai with little constitutional fuss. But did I not hear that Hanif Atmar will be managing this little militia experiment? Is he not on board with Karzai? And really, I’m glad that a former NGO professional is (according to Kaplan) running a militia. Everybody else gets to, why not somebody from the NGO community? And finally, Kaplan talks of circumventing the central government, while earlier in his article he spoke of the importance of a “credible central government.” How does the circumvention reconcile with the supposed yearning for this central government?

Certainly, the can-do spirit of the American, British, Canadian, and other soldiers here is infectious, even as the gargantuan size of the operation, with its attendant planes, helicopters, up-armored Humvees, and massively fortified bases is simply stunning.

Is this some verbalization of a WWII propaganda poster? Well, the gargantuan part is sorta right:

The stakes are vast. An Afghanistan that can inch its way back to the modest and fragile stability of the mid-20th century will leverage Pakistan back toward normalcy, in addition to becoming a conduit for energy pipelines that promise to unite oil- and natural gas-rich Central Asia with the Indian Ocean—thus linking India and Pakistan in a peaceful system of commerce. But an Afghanistan that crumbles into granular ethnic and tribal elements will bring down Pakistan, too, in addition to enlarging Iran’s new and unconventional terrorist empire.

Bomb, bomb, bomb,…bomb bomb Iran? Keep beating that drum Kaplan (while ignoring Pakistan in this article). As for those pipelines…

At the moment, American military officials tell journalists that the situation is much better than is being reported, even as they wear body armor and move in mini-convoys when they travel from one base in Kabul to another.

PAOs and commanders: your source for completely unbiased assessments that are completely contradicted by numerous reports based on quantitative and qualitative analysis (including their own).

“This is not easy sh*t,” says one American Army colonel. “But what’s the alternative?” That’s why American Brig. Gen. John Nicholson, Jr. says that what is required is “strategic patience.” […] But does the home front have the stomach for it? Our reaction to the fighting about to unfold this summer will speak volumes.

The home front? Hey, that’s us! Now if only our pundits could write coherent articles.


  1. […] of all Nathan directs us to a line-by-line critique of Kaplan’s latest dispatch from Ghosts of Alexander. The critique doesn’t really offer much counter evidence to Kaplan’s article; it is […]

  2. Good summary. Poor Kaplan is too infatuated with the military effort IMO, and this article has the negative hallmarks of his fanboy book “Imperial Grunts”.

    In terms of looking at the status and health of the insurgents I would suggest that from their point of view the center of gravity (Schwerpunkt) is the Western coalition, NATO in particular. They surely realize that their objective is to look for the weak hinges in the coalition and hit at them as much as they can (with the limitations of their operational reach of course) as well as keeping a sustained long-term military effort alive. Winning by not losing is as valid here as it has always been.

    One might argue that the center of gravity is the Afghan population for them, but their support is very limited and relies largely on coercion so winning popular support is not a viable strategy.

  3. Good response Christian. Most of the public analyses are bad. I address Obama’s new strategy at my blog:

  4. Recently, Mr. Kaplan wrote in the New York Times: “our military finds itself in the sort of situation that was mighty familiar to empires like that of ancient Rome and 19th-century Britain: struggling in a far-off corner of the world to exact revenge, to put down the fires of rebellion, and to restore civilized order. Meanwhile, other rising and resurgent powers wait patiently in the wings, free-riding on the public good we offer. This is exactly how an empire declines, by allowing others to take advantage of its own exertions.” His analysis, unfortunately, is true. He does not offer any solution, and neither do I. But the fact is: a solution must be found in Afghanistan!

  5. Regarding Ernesto’s final exhortation, do not fear: solutions are always found. The question is, “are they to our liking or not?”.

    The only way we can effect the outcome of any situation – like the war for peoples’ perceptions in Afghanistan – is by learning as much as we can, ourselves, about the situation and expressing that knowledge to others. Truths travel electronically from person to person and, in this way, perceptions are changed.

    Westerners, especially Americans, need to learn the value of time. We do not live forever and committing to a 30-40 year goal is what is needed. Once the West realizes that it can’t expect the rest of the world to automatically “fall in line behind” us, we can begin to more effectively and efficiently shape the political situation as we might wish it to be.

    We need patience. We are going to teach the Islamic world the value of modernization and the Islamic world is going to teach us the value of commitment. It should be a fair trade if everyone keeps his eye on the ball.


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