The degreee of anti-American animosity evident during the recent Koran-burning protests in Afghanistan provides yet another illustration of the abject failure of the U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine, the sine qua non of which is the unconditional support of the local population.
The crisis also highlights the growing influence of the Taliban’s extreme Saudi-inspired religious ideology, a value system that is an affront to traditional Afghan sensibilities. Although the Western presence seems to be fueling the extremism, alternatives bandied about in the press over the past few days represent formulas for perpetual instability.
Afghanistan’s demographic trends bode ill for the future considering most Afghans who do remember what life was like before the onset of Islamic fundamentalism in the 1970s and its progressive expansion during the 1980s, have either migrated or are dead.
With an average life expectancy of 45 in a country with the 8th highest death rate in the world, it isn’t too shocking that not many Afghans remain who can recall when the tribe prevailed over the mosque – when the word of the khan, not the clerics, reigned supreme and a secular-minded monarch sat on the throne.
Just decades ago the khan appointed the village mullah, a decision, of course, that had to be blessed by a local jirga, a sacred gathering of tribal elders. Afghans perceive decisions emanating from the jirga as the most legitimate expression of the people’s will.
This egalitarian structure stands in sharp contrast to the decision-making processes of the authoritarian Taliban, where judgments are handed down by half-literate clerics, many of whom can barely read the Koran let alone effectively interpret it.
Traditional Muslims have indicated to me that the proper way to dispose of a Koran is to actually burn it. Hence, although the intentions of the American troops are still in question, the level of outrage over the incineration of the holy book defies common sense. Not to mention the fact violence as a response to this type of transgression is un-Islamic by any measure.
America’s strategy now hinges upon building an Afghan central army that can prevent the country from being overrun by the Taliban once the U.S. exits. Such an approach is faulty for many reasons not the least of which is that it violates the basic laws of mathematics, as Fareed Zakaria pointed out in The Washington Post earlier this week.
The U.S. is building an Afghan security force to a scale that will require $12 billion a year to maintain – which is 8 times the amount of revenue the Afghan government takes in every year.
But the U.S. strategy is defective not only because it will keep the Afghans mired in debt and forever reliant on foreign donors. It also relies much too heavily on one of the most corrupt government’s in the world – one perceived as illegitimate by a vast majority of Afghans.
And the national army poorly represents the country’s ethnic profile as it is sorely lacking in members from Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns. The central army and police primarily consist of Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras – the same minority groups that led the Northern Alliance in battling the Pashtuns throughout the 1990s.
Hence, as a result, more Pashtuns have been pushed into the arms of the Taliban. Yet, given this fact, Mr. Zakaria puts forth a recommendation that would have tragic consequences:
The north and east — populated by Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras — will stay staunchly opposed to the Taliban. We should support those groups and, more crucially, ally with the neighboring countries that support them. The natural, and historic, allies of the Northern Alliance are India, Iran and Russia; they have permanent interests that will keep them involved in the region.
It must be made clear that the Northern Alliance warlords are just as malicious and have just as much blood on their hands as the Taliban. The U.S. has miscalculated by assuming the enemy of our enemy is our friend. Zakaria also must realize Afghanistan will never see peace until it is beholden to no foreign power and free from external entanglements. Afghanistan must seek neutrality or it risks further exacerbating regional tensions.
The northern warlords killed tens of thousands and committed atrocious human rights violations when they had their day in the sun in the 1990s, a regime so reprehensible it paved the way for the kinder, gentler Taliban to take control of Kabul.
The U.S. also makes the wildly inaccurate assumption that all Pashtuns are loyal to the Taliban, which couldn’t be further from the truth. The Taliban have more in common with Arab and Pakistani extremists than they do with Pashtun tribal society.
In fact, Taliban dominance of the region will be based on the efficacy of their program to de-Pashtunize the Pashtuns, as native Afghan tribal expert Khalil Nouri brilliantly explains in a recent Veterans Today piece.
Both the current American game plan and that prescribed by Zakaria would contribute to the process of de-Pashtunization and would enable Pakistan’s extended expeditionary force, the Taliban, to rise to power once again.
A more reasonable antidote to what ails Afghanistan would be to support a legitimate political solution driven by traditional, moderate and less violent elements within Afghan society before the majority of the population is radicalized.
Michael Hughes is a Washington D.C.-based journalist, a Baloch human rights advocate and a policy analyst for the New World Strategies Coalition – a native Afghan think tank.
For more stories on Afghanistan and Geopolitics go to www.michaelhughesassoc.com