Ben Anderson did his filming between 2007 and the present in Afghanistan. He presents a picture of a country in free-fall, of a West in denial, and of a war that the Allies have given up on.
Unintentionally, the main take-home message of this film is how silly that “war between the wars” now looks. Remember this? Iraq as “bad war of choice” versus Afghanistan, the “good war of necessity”. People sickened of the complexity of Iraq but they did not reckon with the hyper-complexity of Afghanistan. Sorting through the Shi’ites, Sunni Arabs, and Kurds was a doddle next to reading the intentions and histories of the Uzbeks, Tajiks, Hazara, and Pashtuns. Moreover, it should have taken no great reading of history to understand that Afghanistan was a) much less strategically important than Iraq; and b) capable of a much more limited outcome than Iraq.
Afghanistan might boast of itself as the “graveyard of Empires” but this is actually wrong in both directions.
First, Afghanistan has actually submitted to Imperial designs. It is true that Britain’s first engagement ended in fiasco but her second operation was much more successful securing from Afghanistan what Britain wanted: control of Afghanistan’s foreign policy and a commitment by Kabul to stay out of the affairs of British India. Even the third and final contest at the end of the Great War was ambiguous: Britain re-affirmed the Durand Line it had (rather incautiously) drawn through the Pashtun areas, while ceding Afghanistan its sovereignty.
Which is the second way this boast is hollow: whatever success Afghanistan has had in repelling invaders—when outside powers have not driven invaders out—is because Imperial powers only ventured there by necessity; the only thing Afghanistan has ever had is territory. Its very backwardness, paradoxically, is what made it so difficult to govern—and outsiders so reluctant to try. It was no great skill of its people that it was not subjugated. Where more advanced States could have their government decapitated and an outside power could rule through the remnants of the institutions and the elite, Afghanistan never had any of this.
That said, it is a myth that Afghanistan has never had a functioning government of any kind: the dynasty established in the mid-19th century functioned quite well until the Communist coup in 1973. That destructive regime, in combination with demographic change that has strengthened the regressive Pashtuns in the south at the expense of the more advanced (Persian-related) forces in the north, and completed by the merciless conquest of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union in 1979 and the bitter ten-year guerrilla war to get the Red Army out, destroyed the remaining elements of government and made the place the bandit country we now know it as.
Neither Afghanistan nor Iraq are nations, but Iraq at least had a history of being a State. Centralised—often too much so—Iraq was “the land between the two rivers” (Mesopotamia); it had a history of commerce going back 10,000 years and oil money to keep its communities invested in a unitary State. Afghanistan has no resources; the country is broken down into tribes and warlords who have never owed allegiance a central capital. Overturning this set-up and creating a new one is probably more difficult than simply starting from scratch. Yet this is the war Obama and his supporters bet on—cynically, as we now know.
It might also be said that this time around the Afghans are convinced that we owe them for the abandonment after the Soviets were out—which I agree with—and have a president who is “not interested in assuming the burdens” of governing his country. Not quite the ultra-nationalist “lion” is it? Or a people unaccommodating to foreigners in their midst. Indeed, as the film makes clear, this dependency is a great problem. Trying to get the Afghans to assume the responsibility for their own military operations—to act as if the Allies are not present—is proving near-impossible. Add to that the terrible lack of weaponry—President Obama will not supply two-dozen MANPADS to the Syrian rebellion despite al-Qaeda and Hizballah already having 6,000 for fear that some will end up in extremist hands, so he’s not leaving sophisticated missiles or armoured Humvees in range of the Taliban—and it is a recipe for the Armed Forces to collapse the moment we leave.
The stealing is so bad that Kabul has cut off the fuel allowance of the south—about a million dollars-worth of gasoline had gone missing, taken by the police. As one soldier puts it: it will not be a lack of combat capabilities but logistics that puts-paid to this army that has been stood-up at such great expense. A simple lack of education is also a huge problem: there’s no paper trail, no expertise; the former lends itself to corruption and the latter hinders any effort to develop a modern military.
The army is ethnically riven: the Pashtuns of the south are barely present. For the Pashtuns—who believe Afghanistan is theirs and who have a plurality (though nobody has a majority)—this is a Tajik government, and the composition of the Army, overwhelmingly Tajik and Uzebek, drawn from the Northern Alliance, lends some credence to this. It’s one thing to revere Ahmad Shah Massoud; it’s quite another to have pictures of Gen. Dostum in jeep windows, a warlord as brutal as the day is long but who was anti-Taliban. This “national army” is almost as foreign in the south of Afghanistan as Western soldiers are, Anderson points out.
The worst is that for every decent, well-trained Afghan officer there is a corrupt shake-down artist with a sideline in some horrific trade—quite often the selling and molestation of young boys. Pederasty has a long history in Afghanistan, especially the Pashtun South. A common saying in this area is that “women are for children, boys are for pleasure“; how, after all, “could one feel desire to be with a woman, who God has made unclean, when one could be with a man, who is clean?” Yet this area was the basis of support for the Taliban, whose learned discussion on homosexuality was whether the method of execution should be toppling a wall on them or hurling from a high building (though not so high that it kills them) and then stoning them to death on landing. (They went with the former.) This is the thicket into which we waded and tried to find our way. The American Marine forced to work with such people expresses a decent revulsion, and only a relativist could react otherwise.
Credit this much to Anderson: while presenting the complete disconnect between Western policy-makers and what is put in place on the ground, compared with what is needed and sustainable, he does not stoop to anti-Americanism, or its close cousin, attacks on her troops. The U.S. Military is shown as it is: decent, professional, and skilful.
Far and away the most likeable character is U.S. Marine Major Bill Steuber. Courteous, honest to a fault, and emotionally invested in the success of his mission, Maj. Steuber is doing a heroic job in Afghanistan. But there is something darkly comic about the situation of this dedicated man. He lays the groundwork for a self-sustaining Afghan military, tries desperately to curb the corruption and the drug-taking, and to get some infrastructure in place, and yet every day he is beset by calamity; some fresh hell presents itself. It’s like a very, very black episode of Fawlty Towers: a Sisyphean struggle but one where the boulder-pushers are now calling it quits.
The most depressing thing is that the U.S. has now given up on defeating the Taliban insurgency. They use that glib phrase: “There is no military solution”. Success has been redefined, as Anderson so brilliantly summarises, from extirpating the Taliban to simply handing over to Afghan security forces.
It is said that 90% of the country is under the control of the government’s forces. Without even venturing into that other 10%, this leaves out the woeful condition of these troops. Ethnic composition aside, Anderson films an Afghan security brigade during the simple task of filling up sand bags—and they are falling asleep because of the drugs they have taken. Smoking cannabis is considered quite normal. Competent commanders can be removed in favour of people barely out of puberty if the right bribe is paid. As to the human rights and legal aspects: shall we just say the Afghans are a bit sketchy. And eternally there is the threat of “green-on-blue” attacks. We might be preparing to call this victory but nobody will be fooled.
Anderson’s case is mostly factual and he makes a very convincing case that the West should see this through. He is much less convincing that the reason Afghanistan has gone wrong is because Iraq “distracted” the West: America’s own doctrines make provision for fighting two wars at once and these are really very small wars in the grand scheme of things with very low casualties. Anderson exculpates those who should have been focussing on Afghanistan while all this was going wrong. Worse, he exculpates a President who has, as on so much else, chosen the worst possible policy in Afghanistan: internally contradictory and unconcerned with achieving victory.
The soft-Left and the “realist” Right who imagine Afghanistan can be abandoned without consequences were wrong the last time and will be even more wrong this time. Afghanistan might not have the strategic value of Iraq but the effect of defeat—or what could be passed off as defeat—would be devastating.
In the telling of the holy warriors, it was they who drove out the Soviet Union, and its collapse so soon after was taken by them as their victory. As Osama bin Laden made clear, the Islamic militants believe the Soviet Union was the more deadly and dangerous of the two superpowers but “[d]ealing with the pampered and effeminate Americans will be easy“. The Americans fled from Vietnam, Lebanon, and Somalia because they could not take casualties. They had struck at Saddam Hussein enough to drive him out of Kuwait but had not had the nerve to finish the job. Al-Qaeda struck repeatedly through the 1990s—the World Trade Centre attack in 1993, the 1995 attack on the military building in Saudi Arabia, Khobar Towers in 1996, the African Embassy bombings in 1998, and the U.S.S. Cole attack in 2000. In all this time there were angry words and missiles lobbed at empty camps in Afghanistan. A “paper tiger,” bin Laden called the Americans. “Hit them and they will run,” he repeatedly intoned to his followers. This weakness emboldened the jihadists and ended in soot and ruin on American soil on Sept. 11, 2001. The firm reaction to this had shocked the jihadists. But those victories have been whittled down. The withdrawal from Iraq has been catastrophic; the Fertile Crescent is ablaze and al-Qaeda has its largest ever base on the border with a NATO member that borders the borderless European Union with easy pass to America. To now withdraw from Afghanistan would complete the picture: the jihadists would claim to have been right all along and their ranks would swell.
Afghanistan is another example of the truth that in these matters one has to be prepared to stay forever—and such a preparedness will usually ensure you don’t have to. If it is believed you are determined to see it through come-what-may, then the people make their long-term arrangements with you: they don’t make them with the warlords and the neighbouring States who by geography will be always be there. In short, you don’t demoralise your friends and embolden your enemies as President Obama’s strategy has consistently done with its attempted “peace and reconciliation” with the Taliban—an offer to allow Pakistan’s proxies a foothold in Afghanistan they had been unable to take on the field of battle. Those talks collapsed but the clear move for the exits has convinced everyone they have to make post-American arrangements, which has even pushed some Afghans into Iran’s arms.
It did not have to be this way. A relatively large force could be sustained indefinitely at little political price. But as Anderson points out, instead we are leaving a situation of corruption, chaos, and warlordism that is eerily similar to that which made the Taliban acceptable in the first place (and is doing the same for ISIS now). Harsh it might be, but shari’a is a kind of order, and years of lawlessness and civil war can make people yearn simply for stability. With Pakistan behind them, the Taliban will certainly come back to the fore in the south. There are groups now powerful enough in the north that it would be quite surprising if the Taliban could retake the major cities like Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif. But the Taliban never controlled all of the State the last time and they still managed to host those who flew airplanes into buildings 7,000 miles away. To imagine, buoyed by victory, that the zealots who retake this land will leave us alone if only we leave them is to show truly how little has been learned in ten years.