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Afghanistan: a new Vietnam or a new Iraq?

Guest post by Søren Schmidt, PhD and Researcher at The Danish Institute for International Studies (DIIS).

Afghanistan– a new Vietnam or a new Iraq?

Lecture for The Danish Societ for Central Asia, University of Copenhagen, November 10, 2009.

  1. Introduction. We have now been in Afghanistan for eight years. The government seems to be weaker than ever and Taliban stronger than ever. The more soldiers the West sends to the country, the worse it goes. What is the problem and how can we understand what is happening? I will try to answer on two levels. My comments are on the general, long-term level. Although it is important to see the general picture, this does not mean that from this we can deduce what should be done in concrete terms in the present situation. First, I will try to outline what I see as the problem in Afghanistan, and then use the two historical narratives – the surge in Iraq and experience from Vietnam – to try to understand the strategic situation in which we find ourselves.
  2. What is the problem? We are in Afghanistan because of Al Qaeda and 9-11. International terrorism is a security problem for us, which requires us to act. We invaded Afghanistan to destroy Al Qaeda. In the meantime, a so-called mission creep has occurred, and the originally simple goals have expanded into helping Afghanistan’s government, which we helped to power in 2001, gain control of the country in order to prevent Al Qaeda from returning. In short: nation building. This is where the problems start. Because Afghanistan, like all other third-world countries, is engaged in its own historical state- and nation-building process, which involves determining how to organize the country and how to divide power. This process has developed into a regular civil war – as in so many other places – between the city-based political coalition based, on one side, on the northern alliance of the country’s ethnic minorities and selected warlords and based on the narcotics economy, and on the other, a religious extremist Pashtun movement, which is also in alliance with selected warlords and partly financed by narcotics, and whose political programme is to establish an Islamic state with Shari’a as the law of the land. We know that Afghanistan will never become stable without a local partner with sufficient legitimacy and political influence to govern the state. While it is difficult to see who are the good guys and who are the bad guys, it is not difficult to see that we are siding with the losing side, which in addition to lack of support in the south is now also in trouble with large segments of its support among the Tajik minority group. So this is the problem: We want to contribute to stability, but we need a local partner to work with who can unite the country. Instead of contributing to reconciliation between the two sides in the civil war, we have instead become part of it.
  3. Iraq. Can we turn developments around as we did in Iraq with the ’surge’, when we became allies with Sunni-Islamist groups in Anbar Province to fight against Al Qaeda? Can we become allies in a similar way with local Pashtun militia groups in the fight against Taliban? While Al Qaeda were foreigners that ravaged Anbar, Talibans are Pashtuns who had not only ravaged but have built up a real alternative social system that provides law enforcement and an ombudsman system to ensure against abuse of power. Before we see concrete evidence that it is possible to fight Taliban in this way, I think it wise to be sceptic regarding this strategy. Another important difference between Iraq and Afghanistan is that in the Iraqi civil war, we sided with a strong Shia-Islamist coalition with roots in Iraq, since 60 percent of the population are Shiites, and with a well functioning patron-client network base and a loyal militia that received uniforms and could function as the national security force – and on top of that had support from the neighbouring country, Iran. We have no reason for any optimism regarding the Karzai government’s ability to emulate Malik on any of these points. As already stated, Karzai has a very narrow power base; in addition to the old warlords, whose behaviour was the direct cause of the birth of Taliban, he does not have a similar patron-client network, and he receives no support from the neighbouring country, Pakistan. Rather, just the opposite!
  4. Is it then Vietnam that provides a frame of reference for understanding the strategic situation? After he retired, the former American defence minister, Robert McNamara, characterized the Vietnam War as a great misunderstanding, which over two million Vietnamese and 58,000 American soldiers died for. The Vietnamese nationalists believed that USA was an imperialist power, which like France wanted to dominate and exploit their country. USA, on the other hand, considered Vietnam to be part of the communist block, and it was therefore necessary to stop communism in Vietnam as part of the global fight against communism. None of this was correct according to McNamara. The conflict in Vietnam was a civil war. We sided with the weakest side; and the strongest side was not fighting on behalf of world communism but for Vietnamese nationalism. Their alliance with China was tactical, not strategic, which became obvious when South Vietnam collapsed in 1975 and USA withdrew. Already in 1978, war broke out between communist Vietnam and communist Cambodia (an example moreover of a successful humanitarian intervention), and the year after between communist Vietnam and communist China. Is what we are witnessing today also a mutual misunderstanding? Taliban (and Al Qaeda) consider us imperialists who will repress their national Islamic culture, while we consider them to be the frontline for a global Islamist movement that wants to defeat us and destroy our way of life. I think that to a great extent this is the case. While we fight Taliban, because they are allied with Al Qaeda, Taliban, it seems, is mainly allied with Al Qaeda, because we have turned both into our enemies. Gulbuddin Hikmatyar said recently: “Taliban government came to end in Afghanistan due to the wrong strategy of Al Qaeda”, indicating that they have different interests and, having learned from their experience, is likely to act differently today in relation to Al Qaeda.
  5. Conclusion. The mixture of nationalistic and international terrorism is a dangerous cocktail that needs to be unmixed, if we wish to protect our real interest – which is to fight the latter. If we examine the relationship between the two variables – our military intervention in Muslim countries, and the strength of nationalistic and international terror movements – we find a causality that goes both ways. The more we strengthen our military presence in the Muslim countries, the better we can fight them. Unfortunately, I believe the opposite relationship is even stronger: the greater our military presence in Muslim countries, the stronger the terror movements become and the more we weaken those on whose behalf we intervene. The net effect is therefore negative. This understanding ought to form the basis for our long-term strategy. The really difficulty lies in combining this with the short-term necessity to combat international terrorism and make sure that the pursuit of the long-term strategy does not, here and now, cause the presently low-intensity civil war to become red-hot.