Once upon a time, not too long ago, there would have been a solution for Afghanistan, one that had a realistic chance of success. “Success” would have meant a stabilization of the modest gains made during the first three of the post-war years (2002-2004), and the “solution” would have looked roughly as follows: a highly focused international agenda for development that takes local preferences seriously and prioritizes micro-level economic recovery and public health interventions over laudable but utterly unrealistic “all-in-one” notions of human development, ignorant of inherent tensions between traditional and modern constituencies; basic democratization from below (Roland Paris was right yet even more emphasis needs to be put on the local dimension); and a pragmatic regional strategy of political accommodation of all radical stakeholders, not just those in the Northern Alliance, both within the country and around its borders.
But in a tragic parallel to the botched interventions in Iraq and East Timor, a tiny piece of newly independent soil misunderstood and misgoverned by the United Nations following the aftermath of its secession from Indonesia, it came otherwise. Under pressure to show results of hurried efforts, the development industry kept complicitly silent when Afghanistan, too, was declared a success story early on. “Afghan women shed their burqas” was one among thousands of captions epitomizing the hope of international observers for the country. The acute crisis in Iraq overshadowed a looming crisis in Afghanistan and zapped away critical resources, glossing over “increasing frustration and anger from a population which once saw the international intervention in Afghanistan as a source of hope.” Today, even those few female members of the Afghan Lower House who had been declared role models and examples of a new Afghanistan advocate for a complete and immediate withdrawal of U.S. military forces.
Too late did international strongmen stationed in Kabul realize that the discussion of whether or not the Taliban should be brought into the realm of a political settlement was a smokescreen behind which the sitting Afghan president was crafting his very own patronage politics. Today, “there is no solution for Afghanistan without a solution for Pakistan,” writes Robert Kaplan (hardly the reincarnation of a dove) in The Atlantic. “There is no solution for Afghanistan without Iran,” adds an EU think tank. All the while, Afghans keep dying, and with them an increasing number of foreign soldiers.
In the wake of President Obama’s much-awaited decision to further increase the presence of U.S. troops in the country, we are being assured that Afghanistan is not the new Vietnam [one is tempted to add that in the long run, this would almost amount to a positive scenario]. “Unlike Vietnam, we are joined by a broad coalition of 43 nations that recognizes the legitimacy of our action,” the President points out. “Unlike Vietnam, we are not facing a broad-based popular insurgency. And most importantly, unlike Vietnam, the American people were viciously attacked from Afghanistan, and remain a target for those same extremists who are plotting along its border.” Clearly no one envies Obama’s position, inherited from an incompetent and unwilling previous administration. But his audacity of hope for Afghanistan is tragically misguided.
What matters much more than similarities or differences between the old and new Vietnam scenarios is the West’s overconfidence in the power of policies, which in turn is conditioned on the creation and maintenance of a military ‘safe zone’ for development. This approach of militarily enforced human progress already failed once, just that the United States in that case happened to support stasis against change. Indeed, to suggest that Afghanistan has followed a historical path distinct from Vietnam’s ignores that not even thirty years ago, modernism and socialism in Afghan politics were one and the same. City-based leftist progressive parties were pitted against rural conservative interests which received heavy backing by the Reagan administration, carving out faultlines of conflict that underpin today’s radicalized landscape. The failure of the Afghan communist experiment did not mean the triumph of pseudo-democratic capitalism but the victory of revisionism.
The international mission in Afghanistan will not fail because of a lack of a broad coalition. It will fail, and in the course of its failure many more will fall, because external forces and the international development industry’s policy machinery are too far removed from the history and reality of Afghan lives. To Afghans in Khost, Kunduz and Kandahar, the fact that “the American people were viciously attacked from Afghanistan” must sound cynical at best. In the short run, it may well serve to justify sending even more troops. But Afghanistan’s domestic problems, created and exacerbated by the international “community” prior, during and after the reign of the Taliban, will outlast any officially declared deadline for peace.