What to read about Afghanistan

Koran, Kalashnikov, and Laptop:

The Neo-Taliban Insurgency in Afghanistan 2002-2007

Descent into Chaos:

The U.S. and the Disaster in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia

The Taliban and the Crisis of Afghanistan

Organizations at War in Afghanistan and Beyond

Bleeding Afghanistan:

Washington, Warlords, and the Propaganda of Silence

AFTER THE initial U.S. victory in Afghanistan, the serious problems facing the U.S.-NATO occupation were shuffled behind the curtain as the Bush administration worked to sell its war in Iraq. Only recently, two and a half years into a major Taliban resurgence, has much begun to be reported about the conflict.

A major escalation of U.S. intervention is in the works, a point that both the incoming and outgoing administrations are agreed on. A new crop of scholarly and academic studies document how and why things have shifted against the occupiers. Unfortunately, what is sorely lacking from most of these studies is a framework that sees the U.S. drive for regional dominance—including the occupation of Afghanistan itself—as the principal problem facing the people of Central Asia. Nevertheless, several books provide useful content.

Descent Into Chaos
The most important recent book on Afghanistan is by 30-year veteran Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid. In the aftermath of the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, Rashid’s 2000 book The Taliban went to the top of the New York Times bestseller list almost overnight.

In the new book, Descent into Chaos, Rashid is at his best when he describes great power machinations across the entire landmass. He gives excellent insight into the competition for influence within Afghanistan itself, as the U.S., India, Iran, and Russia have all courted anti-Taliban warlord proxies. Rashid adroitly covers the attempts by these powers to get a leg up on each other in the broader region—explaining how U.S. acceptance of India’s nuclear program was directed against rising Chinese influence in Central Asia, and how Uzbekistan relied upon Chinese and Russian backing when asking the U.S. to vacate its bases on Uzbekistani territory. 

These maneuvers in regional politics explain why, despite being allied to the United States, Pakistan’s Interservices Intelligence (ISI) continues to give material support to the Taliban. Fear of an Afghanistan dominated by Iran, or even worse from their standpoint, by arch-rival India, has led Pakistan to implement what Rashid calls a “two-tiered policy” of overt aid to the U.S. in its “war on terror” and covert aid to the Taliban, which has longstanding connections to the ISI and the Pakistani military.

For Rashid, the Pakistani government, not the horror of foreign occupation, is the font of instability in Afghanistan. His solution to the problems facing Afghanistan is thus more of the same, only a lot more of it—more development schemes targeted to serve military objectives, more money, more troops. The idea that a larger military presence will create more grievances, and more grist for the Taliban’s mill, gets little attention. But British-Pakistani leftist Tariq Ali seems more on-target when he wrote recently that it is the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan that is destabilizing Pakistan, not the reverse. As long as U.S.-NATO forces are raining bombs on and kicking in the doors of ordinary Afghans, resistance to foreign occupation can only increase—and with it opposition to the U.S.-allied regime in Pakistan.

To his credit, Rashid does not pretend that U.S. intervention in the region is benign. He is calling for a shift toward humanitarian imperialism, one that begins to work in the interests of Afghans. He holds out the hope for such a fundamental shift—without any explanation why it would take place—because he explicitly assumes that the people of Afghanistan cannot repair their own country.

Despite its glaring problems, Rashid’s book must be read for two reasons. First, it gives a great account of what has happened over the last decade in this poorly-covered region, although the whys are often distorted. Second, his solutions correspond very closely with the foreign policy articulated by Barack Obama, and thus shed light on what to expect from the presumptive next president.

A Contrary View on Pakistan
For a less Pakistan-centric view of the problems facing Afghanistan, Abdulkader H. Sinno offers a scholarly alternative in his Organizations at War in Afghanistan and Abroad. Sinno advocates a closer look at the Pashto-speaking population that gave rise to the Taliban:

Even accepting Ahmed Rashid’s powerful thesis that almost reverses the agency relationship between the Taliban and Pakistan—the Taliban had a lock on Pakistani support because of their strong ties to many powerful Pakistani constituencies—does not spare us from having to look at intra-Pashtun dynamics to explain the rise of the Taliban.

Sinno’s chapter titled “The Rise of the Taliban, 1994-2001” (also published nearly verbatim in The Taliban and the Crisis of Afghanistan) gives a quite helpful account of just these dynamics, while convincingly demonstrating that the Taliban had a lot more going for it than just Pakistani support and petro-dollars from the Gulf monarchies. For example, he states:

The scale of donations given to the Taliban was also far from enough to dwarf their rivals…. Rashid…estimates Pakistani support to the Taliban in 1997–98 at a fairly modest $30 million. It is hard to argue that the Taliban bought their way to power on $30 million a year when the [Russian-backed] Najib regime only managed to defend itself with ten times this amount every month.

Since the Taliban and the Najib regime were fighting the same enemies, Sinno’s argument must be taken seriously, particularly since “while Pakistan funded the Taliban, its rivals were actively backed by Iran, Russia and India—the situation was hardly lopsided.” 

Sharing neither Rashid’s Pakistan-phobia nor his pro-Western sympathies, Sinno’s analysis of the prospects for the occupation come much closer to reality. Sinno, in addition to devoting space to explaining the lack of initial resistance to the occupation, explodes the idea that somehow the occupation will be stabilized. He notes that “while the unruly U.S. backed coalition could unravel for any number of reasons, the Taliban are not under the pressure of deadlines or domestic politics.”

The rest of the book is not as useful. Sinno’s main objective is to showcase a highly abstract theory of how different organizations involved in armed conflict fare on the basis of two criteria—whether they are centralized or decentralized, and whether they have what he calls a “safe haven.” His excellent analysis of events in Afghanistan is used to elucidate this, but the organizational theory doesn’t add much.

The Taliban and The Crisis of Afghanistan

The Taliban and The Crisis of Afghanistan is another academic volume, a collection of essays drawn from a 2004 conference at Stanford University. It features contributions from a range of figures, from Sinno to the book’s co-editor Amin Tarzi, the Director of Middle East Studies at the Marine Corps College. The book provides plenty of backstory for today’s occupation—while taking a “neutral” tone toward the conflict.

Most contributors bemoan the failure of the U.S. to impose a strong state apparatus capable of defeating the Taliban without overt outside aid, military or otherwise. An example from the epilogue:

Rather than construct a viable state that would gain legitimacy among a wide variety of Afghan social groups, Karzai’s backers undermined his authority by depriving him of a proper treasury and by continuing to wield military power through punitive expeditions that turned communities against the post-Taliban government but failed to provide security.

Along the same lines, a chapter titled “Moderate Taliban” points out that “continued American and NATO military operations, including house-to-house searches and lethal aerial bombardment, hardened a number of Pashtun communities against Karzai, a figure whom they regard as a puppet of foreigners.” In his Organizations at War, Sinno explains the problem by highlighting the contradiction at the heart of the occupation: “Ethnic politics and the practices of counter-insurgency…are in opposition to practices of nation building.” The occupiers’ reliance on ethnically-based warlord militias as muscle has consistently undermined the attempts to centralize power in Kabul. For this reason, the ­dominant strategy of warlord-CIA rule in the countryside appears to no longer be tenable.

Other Recent Coverage
An excellent recent publication is Koran, Kalashnikov and the Laptop. Antonio Giustozzi presents a wealth of information, much of it based on firsthand field research. Unhampered by attempts to justify the occupation, Giustozzi also treats U.S. and NATO statistics with a healthy degree of skepticism. As an account of the military situation in Afghanistan up to May 2007, this book is peerless.

Giustozzi covers particularly relevant developments of the resistance, such as the innovation of paying farmers per attack on U.S. forces: “This seems a rational attitude considering what the cost would be, both in financial and operational terms, of maintaining teams of trained and committed guerrillas around an enemy base all the time.” Call it a neoliberal approach to resistance, but this example illustrates a number of things. For one, the Taliban are able to operate with impunity in rural areas. Otherwise, they would not be able to hire even the most needy farmers to attack occupying troops. For another, the occupation must have virtually no support in the countryside, as otherwise the ad hoc guerrillas would be denounced to the occupiers. And finally, lack of control over the countryside is a sign that the occupation is failing.

Giustozzi also explains Taliban strategy in terms of the available military hardware—the “Kalashnikov” of the title. The country is awash with millions of rifles and grenade launchers, but “[b]y the standards of the early twenty-first century, these are quite obsolete weapons when the enemy being confronted is a state-of-the-art Western army, the more so since the ammunition available was mostly standard.” Failure to secure armor-piercing munitions, for example, has contributed to the inability of resistance fighters to inflict casualties at anywhere near the rate they suffer them.

Giustozzi explains many Taliban tactics in terms of their deficiencies compared to the overwhelming firepower—particularly in the form of air power—possessed by their adversaries. As a result, “[t]he Taliban never succeeded in taking any objective defended by foreign troops, or inflicting large casualties on the foreigners.”

By early 2008, the Taliban’s growth, combined with the war’s technological asymmetry, produced a situation where the Taliban were able to expand their control in the villages, but unable to dislodge the occupation. The situation has shifted in recent months. For example, in late June, the Taliban used car bombs to break into a Kandahar prison, freeing hundreds of Taliban prisoners. Moreover, the attack that killed ten French soldiers in July—just dozens of miles from Kabul—demonstrates both the Taliban’s expanding territorial reach and its growing ability to inflict ­casualties.

Bleeding Afghanistan
Sonali Kolhatkar and James Ingalls’ Bleeding Afghanistan does an excellent job of refuting the “failed state” label: “A better term would be ‘destroyed state,’ which points to the wrecked condition of the country, but also to the responsibilities of outsiders.” As committed antiwar activists, the analysis of Kolhatkar and Ingalls has none of the scholarly or neutral tone of the other titles reviewed here. This helps make it a superior resource for activists, despite its being slightly dated.

The chapter titled “A Client ‘Democracy’” is brilliant, explaining in detail the sordid maneuvers the U.S. employed to shape the post-Taliban regime. It also gives short biographies of the unsavoury characters involved in this process, accurately referring to Hamid Karzai as a puppet and to the first U.S. envoy, Zalmay Khalizad, as a viceroy. In fact, the depiction of Karzai in these pages is the polar opposite of the complimentary one that appears in Descent into Chaos.

The book is excellent, including a refreshing call for reparations for the Afghan people. But there’s one important caveat: It equivocates on the need for an immediate end to the occupation, arguing that “[t]he occupation of all foreign troops should end, but only after disarmament is complete and Afghans feel safe in their country [authors’ emphasis].” The problem with this argument is that it is the foreign occupiers who are to do the disarming—and not because they are there to ensure that ordinary Afghans can control their own destinies.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Issue contents

Top story