How We Lost Afghanistan

Fighting Terror on $1 Billion a Month

DASHT-E QALEH, AFGHANISTAN—We've lost this war. So how much will it cost?

In 1842, the First Afghan War ended with an infamous retreat across the Hindu Kush that cost between 10,000 and 15,000 Brits and their camp followers their lives. One guy, a Dr. Brydon, survived the Afghans to tell the tale upon his return to a remote outpost of the raj's Northwest Frontier province. Eventually a retaliatory expedition returned to slaughter the instigators of their humiliation, but this later victory accomplished nothing. Losing this desolate international leftover inspired testy sepoys to rise up against their supposed betters, sparking a chain of events that ultimately led to Indian independence, decimated the empire, and reduced England to a European backwater offering neither steady employment nor edible food to its pasty citizenry.

Ditto for the Russians. After the Great Communist Hope took on the U.S. in a decade-long proxy war between slightly different shades of fanatics, the Soviet Union left half its military equipment, economy, and prestige on the ash heap of history. Blame Gorby and Chernobyl if you want, but the USSR's disintegration into mafia banditry owes more to Stinger-shootin' moojes than Berliners dying to shop on the west side.

What do Afghans want from America? "Go home and leave us alone," one Alliance commander replied.
Photograph by Michael Kamber
What do Afghans want from America? "Go home and leave us alone," one Alliance commander replied.

Now a Third Afghan War is wrapping up its final act around Kandahar, and a laughable band of charlatans has lobbied in Bonn, Germany, for the right to rule the unruly. Somehow, if the Bushalopes and the Annanites are to be believed, a New Democratic Afghanistan will be cobbled together from the Hekmatyars and Dostums and Rabbanis, all united under the banner of an 87-year-old king who owes more to Fellini than to Shah Mohammed. And get this: After the Afghan parliament gets together, the burkas will come off, the Fairway will open up next to the main gate of the Kabul bazaar, and that Internet-famous Unocal pipeline project, dormant for far too long, will begin sucking Kazakh crude out from under the Caspian and into the Pakistani port of Karachi. Next mission: bombing Iraq into capitalism.

The networks aired maps turning from Taliban red to Northern Alliance blue, but here on the ground, as people who prefer to remain anywhere-but like to say, no such thing occurred. Dasht-e Qaleh and Taloqan and Kunduz all "fell," but 99 percent of the conquerors were Taliban troops who shed their beards and turbans and picked up Shah Masood's hip hat for a buck. There were, before September 11, a mere 6000 to 20,000 Northern Alliance soldiers holding the eastern portion of Takhar province and the extremely mountainous Badakhshan and Wakhan corridor, an inland peninsula created as a buffer zone between imperial Russia and British India during the 19th century.

When your taxpayer-funded $75,000 bombs began pounding frontline Taliban positions and the not-so-occasional farming village, the age-old Afghan tradition of ideological flexibility and self-preservation led thousands of Taliban to cross the lines to "defect." "I am so sorry," a Taliban commander cried in the welcoming arms of his Northern Alliance counterpart a day before Kunduz "fell." "We are brothers and should not have fought."

Finally, a rare truth in a land of lies—both men had fought together in the Taliban and before that against the Soviets. The vast majority of "Northern Alliance" fighters now were Taliban a few weeks ago; welcome to the first fashion war of the new millennium.

There are two ways to consider the success of War on Terror, Part One. The first is as an act of retribution against the Taliban for tolerating and supporting Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network (never mind that Al Qaeda is bigger in Pakistan than in Afghanistan or that it is merely one of hundreds of extremist Islamist organizations that trained in Afghanistan). In this view Afghanistan is a source of instability throughout Central Asia and, by extension, for Western oil interests and the West itself. September 11 was merely the latest manifestation of the dangerous extremist phenomenon. Angry Afghans aren't angry at anything America has done, say Rumsfeld and Powell; they're perpetually ornery motherfuckers who have to be kept under lock and key so that the civilized world can get down to the business of the 21st century, which will be one hell of a business if we can ever convince people to stop selling off their mutual funds.

Then there's the liberal, free-market, interventionist approach, which sees the geopolitical collision zone between Central and South Asia as intrinsically doomed by a variety of factors: a strategic location, an absence of natural resources, and far too many guns and mines left over from the '80s. Marshall-Plan the joint, these NGO types say. Build roads, schools, and Virgin Megastores and damn if all of those Uzbeks, Pashtuns, and Tajiks don't simply drop their AKs in favor of Burger King uniforms. And just like that, Americans will be able to shed their fears of 767s cruising through their office towers.

Cooler heads, those who own books by both Rudyard Kipling and Ahmed Rashid, know that Lonely Planet offers the best advice on the best time to visit Afghanistan: "Don't go." But nothing is more certain than this: You can no more control the Afghans than you can help them.

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