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.
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.
It’s a good thing that those snapshots of starving Afghans were taken in refugee camps in Quetta; you have to work hard to find hunger here. That’s good too, since Afghans aren’t getting any of that much vaunted food aid, unless they pay top afghani for it at the market.
Feed people out of bags covered with your flag and they’ll love you, the theory goes. But based on this precept, no one in Afghanistan has any cause to even like you.
Even our military contribution isn’t earning the U.S. any IOUs. “We appreciate the bombs you dropped on the Taliban,” a veteran Alliance commander named Amin (many Afghans use only one name) told me. “But you bombed airports and roads that we need to run the country. And my men are dying because they have old Russian weapons and you Americans won’t fully support us.”
What do you want from America?
“Go home and leave us alone.”
The principal goal of this adventure in imperialistic vengeance, it seems obvious, should be to install a friendly government in Kabul. But we’re winning neither hearts nor minds among either the commoners or the leadership of the current regime apparent.
“How can you talk of imposing that old king on us?” Amin snaps. “Even my father doesn’t remember who he is.”
A bolder nation-building objective, to reshape medieval Afghanistan from a land of donkeys lugging bundles of sticks into something resembling modernity—i.e., us—has actually moved further away since the beginning of the bombing. Along with the demise of Talibanism’s more unusual strictures against kites, pigeons, and women, has come a reversion to the pre-nation-state feudalism that prevailed the last time this regime ran things, from 1992 to 1996.
When a Swedish cameraman was murdered in a Taloqan push-in robbery, journalists asked their liaison at Foreign Ministry to advise them as to which authorities would handle the investigation. “There will be no investigation,” came the perfunctory reply.
“But a crime has been committed,” a Portuguese television editor insisted. “Where do Afghans go to report crimes?”
“They go home. Nowhere.”
The system of governance espoused by anarchokids on St. Marks Place is in full effect here beyond Thunderdome. “You can kill anyone you want, provided they don’t have any friends,” my translator Jovid assured me. “Nothing will happen.”
Thus it’s no surprise that Afghanistan has become a gangland paradise. Sign up for service with a local warlord and see the world. You’ll die young whether or not you join, but at least your friends will kill your killer if you do.
Americans, mostly of the right and the post-9-11 squishy left, want Afghanistan and its jihad boys out of their hair. For the most part, the barn door has long remained open—tens of thousands of jihad grads are everywhere from Alabama to Alberta, and camps remain operational in Pakistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and elsewhere. But even assuming that the locals are mistaken about Osama having packed up for a new cave on the Pakistani side of the Kashmiri Line of Control, closing the Taliban Club isn’t likely to put an end to Islamic extremism here. For one thing, the Northern Alliance itself remains a hotbed of Muslim fundamentalism—with few exceptions, women remain out of sight and out of work, Sharia law still enforces stoning as punishment, and America is still viewed as a blank-check endorser of Israeli war crimes and Saudi corruption. And for all of America’s talk of dropping as many yellow food packs—I haven’t seen a single one, by the way—as bombs, Bush Deux is already losing interest in this accursed buffer state just as his father did after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.
“Next target: Saddam,” reads a handwritten sign on a derelict Soviet tank outside a “secret” American base south of the Uzbek border. “It would take billions of dollars to even begin rebuilding this country,” an American officer who refused to give his name noted while his driver worked on a flat tire. “Billions of dollars and many, many years. We don’t have that kind of attention span. Bombing Iraq will be a lot sexier than teaching Afghans how to read.”
And so we’ve lost this war, not because they’re good or we’re not, but because of who we are. The American Empire can’t spend the bodies or the time or the cash to fix this crazyass place, because in the final analysis, election-year W. was right—we’re not nation builders. Guys who once called themselves Talibs switch to something called the Northern Alliance, and we call this a victory. We know it isn’t so, but like Nixon’s peace with honor, it’ll have to do.
Both the Russians and the English lost everything to Afghanistan, but it doesn’t have to end that way for us. After all, the same thing happened to us in Vietnam, our first Afghanistan, but we survived it. True, our economy was never the same. Undeniably, it replaced an American Century with postmodern alienation and ironic detachment. But if those estimates are correct and this war is costing a mere billion bucks a month, we ought to tally our dead, write up our losses, and count ourselves lucky to still be called a superpower.
“Taliban Family Values: Vice Steps Out of the Closet in Afghanistan” by Ted Rall
“Gimme Danger: Drearily Awaiting Death on the Front Line” by Ted Rall
“Mujahideen Come Home: Things Change—and Remain the Same—in Post-Taliban Jalalabad” by Michael Kamber
“Talking Jihad: Three Views of One War” by Michael Kamber
“The Forgotten Refugees: Stranded for Decades, 2 Million Afghan Refugees Struggle to Survive in Pakistan” by Michael Kamber
“After the Taliban: Could a Coalition Government Withstand Afghan Rivalries?” by Michael Kamber
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on December 11, 2001