Recently, I came across a blog that recommended what to read about Afghanistan: a Kissinger op-ed, speeches of McCain and Spanta… But if you only read one thing about Afghanistan, it said enthusiastically, don’t miss the testimony of Marin Strmecki…
before the US Senate’s Armed Services Committee under any circumstances who – according to the blogger – worked on the issue for 20 years, including in the Pentagon from 2003 to 2005. To read click here.
That sounded interesting enough.
I did it and read the whole thing. First, I was very happy to see that someone actually argued against revising US goals in Afghanistan downwards and for ‘hardening’ Afghanistan against the insurgency by sustainable state-building and aligning the USA ‘with popular aspirations for reform’. Strmecki also contradicted some of the oldest but nevertheless insurmountable and wrong myths about Afghanistan – like that it never had been properly governed. Indeed, it has been but just not in our Western way. We often forget that our kind of nation-states are historical exceptions. Indeed, if you compare today’s Afghanistan or that of the Taleban with the Afghanistan of before 1973, those days of a weak central government ruling the provinces by proxy (i.e. maliks and a few police man with wooden rifles) but mainly letting them in peace and the jirgas solve most of their own small problems sound like a model to pursue.
On the other hand, Marin Strmecki also repeats some myths that are equally long-lived and wrong. This includes that Afghanistan’s system of functioning governance collapsed with the communist coup in 1978 (no, it didn’t – it started when the King’s government wasn’t able to respond to drought-caused famine in the early 1970s, a factor that contributed to the success of Daud’s 1973 coup) and that the 2001 Afghanistan in Bonn included ‘all anti-Taleban factions’ (no, it didn’t – a joint delegation of tribal resistance fighters, the pro-democratic underground inside Afghanistan and civil society elements even was banned from participating a few days beforehand after having been invited initially). But this is not the issue here.
My issue is an obvious misreading of the blogger about what Strmecki actually said in his speech. While he simply says that between 2003 and 2005, coalition forces in Afghanistan already followed the population security-based approach that currently is heralded as new by the Obama administration, the blogger, Christian Brose, broadens this to: ‘The precedent for what we need to do in Afghanistan in 2009 and beyond is what we were doing in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005, under the country team leadership of Amb. Zalmay Khalilzad and Gen. Dave Barno.’ You can find his blog here.
With this I disagree in the sharpest way. Not only that Brose mixes the military and the political side of it. But also it would be a disaster to repeat what was done on the political side. Amb. Khalilzad was the driving force behind THE mistake committed in the post-Taleban period that basically and fundamentally undermined the – possible! – emergence of a stable Afghanistan by bringing in the warlords again and allowing them unrestricted access to the new institutions – unrestricted in the sense that despite the signed and sealed commitment to disarm their militias they were allowed to keep their weapons after the Taleban regime was pushed out with their help. This gave them the upper hand in the political competitions to follow.
Those warlords (the leaders of the armed factions of the civil wars that started in 1978, now turned into political ‘party’ leaders; some call them ‘Jihadi leaders’ today) and their chaotic brutal misrule between 1992 and 1996 were the reason that the Taleban ever were able to successfully present themselves as liberators in the eyes of the Afghans. Because it were the Taleban who collected the weapons of the local commanders that looted and robbed and raped and were not controlled by that non-government of the Islamic State of Afghanistan. And there the warlords were again – organizing a new field day for what was so prematurely called ‘Taleban remnants’ then (also by Khalilzad). Once again, history started to repeat itself.
It was called the ‘big tent’ approach (see: Loya Jirga). The hook was: There were two tents when the Emergency Loya Jirga was convened in mid-2002 in Kabul. A big one in which a travesty of democracy was orchestrated in the very moment in history when Afghans thought that after two and a half decades of tyrannical regimes they finally could take their destiny in their own hands, through an institution they all believed in, and thought that they were supported in this by the West and the powerful USA. (How many Afghan colleagues I heard say: ‘Communism has failed us. Islam has failed us – twice, with the mujahedin and Taleban regimes. If democracy also fails us, then what?’)
Then, the spooks of the Afghan intelligence service – still in the hands of the faction dominating the interim administration under Karzai – were let in to intimidate delegates who believed they could speak out. (One who did had to seek asylum at the UN office.) And then the 32 provincial governors – most of them warlords in persona or their sub-commanders and not entitled by law to be elected into the Loya Jirga. This law was made to prevent the warlords taking over what was called the Bonn process, i.e. the post-2001 political institution building. But the law was ignored – as every so often in later years, up to the question of the date of the forthcoming presidential election.
In a joint effort, Khalilzad, the interim head of state and my boss in the UN Afghanistan mission imposed on the Independent Loya Jirga Commission of the day (to which I was seconded by the UN) that Karzai would appoint some 50 extra Loya Jirga members. This way the governors got in, were accommodated in the dormitories of their provincial delegations to the Loya Jirga and started to work immediately. What they told them was basically: Sure you can make use of your democratic right of free choice. But don’t forget that you have to return home after the Loya Jirga.
I still remember the disbelief in the eyes of the Afghan commissioners who asked: How can you, the UN, do this to us? We thought you were on our side! (We also thought that.)
Meanwhile, in the second small tent adjacent to the Loya Jirga one, with restricted access, Khalilzad arm-twisted those delegates who still did not want to vote for Karzai.
That’s how was lost what we today try to regain so desperately: the hearts and minds of Afghans who had trusted us, were betrayed and rendered back into the hands of those they had learned to fear.
It was like a chain reaction. With the money brought in by the Alpha Teams the warlords who had been kicked out of the country by the Taleban or were fighting an almost lost battle in some mountain valleys bought back the lost weapons and men. This gave them the power to reoccupy the areas they had controlled before the Taleban had disarmed them. From there, they captured the parliament and most of the provincial councils because in 2005 many Afghans voted with a gun held to their head. Not in the polling stations but beforehand, during house visits by local armed men who offered the choice between a Quran and a gun. Sometimes the Quran was replaced by money. Their status as US allies also counted a lot as prestige is an important factor in Afghan society.
Re-empowered militarily and politically, the warlords expanded the realms of their power into the economy. With their Alpha Team seed capital they took over that part of the economy that matters in Afghanistan, the poppy and heroin business. With the profits from this they expanded into what remains of the licit economy: import of luxury goods, cars, spare parts, fuel and cooking gas, real estate often by occupying government-owned land (ask who are the owners of all these ugly new wedding halls and shopping malls in Kabul and of the narcotecture palaces that have sprung up between Zaranj, Lashkargah and Kunduz). Additionally, they now use the advantage of dominating the institutions and therefore their easy access to donors to monopolise the contracts handed out by our aid agencies, often bringing in their own mock ‘NGOs’ and construction companies as subcontractors.
Basically, the warlords were allowed to take over not only the ‘new’ democratic institutions (remember, we were still in the days of the Broader Middle East Initiative and Afghanistan with its ‘most progressive’ constitution in the whole region was to become a beacon of democracy) but virtually everything else that mattered in the country.
Who thinks that today’s insurgents fight because of money or stubborn Pashtun conservatism misses an important set of motives: disgust over corruption as well as disempowerment, exclusion and harassment when you complained – and the West’s tacit approval of it.
Khalilzad’s viceroy years in Afghanistan offer a lesson to learn – but not to repeat.
From Berlin with Love (in fact, it is Kabul, currently)
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020