Afghanistan is the politically correct battlefield. Even the Germans and the French have sent troops, though not for combat assignments. Casualties seem to stay in media-acceptable limits. Deadly fighting tends to be reported as boutique battles. Barack Obama, in an effort to show he’s not against all wars, suggests he would send the needed additional two to three more American brigades. Except that Afghan wars never really end.
Ben Mcintyre, of the London Times, certainly one of the most knowledgeable of the journalists who have covered Afghanistan, has written: “The Afghans fought tirelessly among themselves, but when a foreign invader threatened, they united to drive him out. Even Alexander’s hold had been fleeting, Macedonian, Mogul, Persian, Russian, British and Soviet armies all tried, and failed, to control the Afghan tribes.”
Afghanistan has been for centuries, and remains so today, a nation built on tribalism. The figures differ but the academic consensus is that the Pushtun (aka, Pashtun, Pathan, etc.) are calculated at 42% to 36 % of the population, with the Tajik at 27% to 34%, depending on whether one accepts the CIA World Factbook figures or an unofficial compilation of past census figures, respectively.
In any case the Pushtun are the dominant tribe and the Tajik follow closely. Hazara and Uzbeks close in with about 10% each and another 13% accounts for groupings of smaller tribes. To emphasize the complexities, one must note there are approximately 60 Pushtun tribes divided into 400 sub-tribes.
The Durrani tribal federation of Pushtuns has been dominant since the 1700s, well before the British arrived. President Hamid Karzai is from the Popolzai clan of Durrani, whose two other main clans are the Barakzai and Alikojai. These three groups were favored for leadership by NATO after the Taliban were routed. Naturally, all the non-Durranis have resented the situation and the Western sponsors ever since; thus providing a convenient and ready supply of dissident fighters, with and without Taliban connections.
The Alikojai, headed by its warlord, Dad Mohammad Khan, has been battling the previously Taliban-favored sub-tribe, the Itzhakzai, in the area of the Sangin poppy-growing region of Helmand Province. Keeping track of current and traditional animosities and alliances is a continuing anthropological task for British and Canadian field intelligence, which has operational responsibility for that provincial sector.
SIX MONTHS AGAO President Hamid Karzai stunned everyone by supporting the concept of not sending more foreign troops into his country. He told the German newspaper Die Welt: “More than anything else we need help to rebuild our human capital and our institutions, our army, our police force, our administrative structure, our judiciary, and so on.”
This brought a very positive response from the Germans because they hadn’t wanted to send their troops to Afghanistan in the first place. At the moment the German Army contingent of 3,500 is assigned happily in the extremely quiet north patrolling the comparatively friendly, if barren, territory.
The French have committed to avoid battle contact by assuming the training command in and around Kabul. They had a very good spec ops force of 200 pulled out in December 2006 because they were taking casualties. The Brits and Canadians, along with the Americans, Dutch, Poles, Danes and Aussies, have done the heavy lifting in the south and east. So much for the equitable distribution of the NATO command.
Karzai’s goal of “rebuilding institutions” would be fine if there had been a history of a modern administrative structure before the Taliban other than the Soviet-constructed communist bureaucracy. What Karzai may have been talking about is what the Economist referred to as “the ancient code of tribal behavior known as Pushtunwali.” This is the rule of conduct that is the ethical guide for Pushtun life.
This code is enforced by councils of tribal elders in negotiation, creating a policing mechanism known as arbakai. As fascinating as such a cultural structure may be, it really can’t be conceived of as a foundation for a modern state. How much relevance outside of Pushtun society it may have is also questionable.
The central government in Kabul knows full well that its effective dominion does not extend far beyond the reach of its principal weapons — guns and money. Vying now for the same form of power is the resurgent Taliban and ever present drug network — sometimes, as in the southern provinces, intermingled.
WHEN THE U.S.-LED FORCES first went into Afghanistan, the reasonable concept was to hammer the Taliban and al Qaeda forces into the mountains of the south and east against the anvil of Pakistan. The role of Pakistan was essential then and remains so today. Unfortunately, Pakistan was not a committed “anvil” in the earlier time and certainly isn’t now. In reality it was and continues to be a sanctuary for the Taliban and al Qaeda.
There is one difference now that didn’t exist pre-2001: al Qaeda does not need Afghanistan as a home base. Osama bin Laden’s organization has grown in sophistication and covert structure. It really doesn’t need or desire mountain training grounds cross border in Afghanistan; it is well supported and protected in all manners on the Pakistani side.
Perhaps the essential political military lesson of Afghanistan is best learned by accepting the fact that Afghan tribes will not fit into a modern framework. Making our national strategic plans with that firmly in mind may be what the noble Hamid Karzai, the great Pushtun leader of the Popolzai clan of the Durrani tribal federation, fluent speaker of English, French, Pushto, Farsi, Dari, Urdu, Hindi has been trying to tell us. Or maybe he’s just trying to stay alive and in power. In any case, in some form or other, Afghani wars, small and large, will go on no matter outside involvement.