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A recent and ill-conceived letter to a conservative magazine suggests that we take a moment to review American involvement in its war in Afghanistan and to dispel a few pernicious errors.

The author of the letter, a former British politician, dusts off every mistake and canard produced by his country since they were roundly thrashed by the Afghans in 1841 (they were clobbered again in 1878 and either lost or earned a draw in 1919, but most of us put them at 0 for 3).

You have heard the palaver before: Afghans are warlike savages never happier than when slitting one another’s throats; they have never been subdued, occupied or defeated (choose two or more options); Afghanistan is the graveyard of empires; they never had a “real” country, only a sort of daemonic Disneyland of internecine warfare, corruption and the cruel oppression of women; these fiends in human form will blow us to bits and then torture to death any poor sods misfortunate enough to survive the blast; so, we had better cut and run ek dum super juldee hai (Anglo-Indian Hindi-English for bloody fast). This is historically inaccurate, plus incorrect and meaningless in a modern setting, but it is a venerable and effective excuse for three-time losers and so it gets trotted out generation after generation, like great-grandad’s soup-stained cummerbund long overdue for dry-cleaning or replacement.

A century or more of upper-class Britons began to be fed this malarkey in the 19th Century by their popular children’s novelist G. A. Henty, who wrote blood-and-thunder epics with titles rather like “Pig-Sticking Moslem Fanatics with General ‘Bobs’ Roberts,” or “Slaughtering Uppity Black Kaffirs for Queen & Country.” The novels are largely forgotten, thank God, but the propaganda survives and the letter-writer captures some of the content while choosing not to replicate the crass language.

First let us retire some historical mistakes. Afghanistan was occupied many times in its long history: to recall but a few, the Achaemenid Persians, then for a few centuries by the Alexandrian Greeks, then Scythians, then for a few centuries more by the Asian Kushans, then by the Huns, then the Muslim Arabs followed by Genghis Khan’s Mongols, then for a few hundred years by the Turks, then the Mughals, the British, the Soviets and so on. Most of them stayed for several generations or longer, intermarried, often made some good art and architecture and left a linguistic and cultural stamp on Afghanistan that still survives, sometimes thousands of years later. The American incursion, partly bungled and but a decade old, nonetheless leaves easily-identifiable, positive elements that may well last for centuries (of which more later). When interlopers bring a good idea, the inquisitive, open-minded Afghans usually keep it.

Rather than being the so-called graveyard of empires, Afghanistan may be better described as the crown-jewel of empires and Afghans keep up reciprocal love-affairs with many of their former occupiers or the accomplices, especially the Turks and the Indians. Afghanistan remains tolerant of Pakistanis (despite their government waging an undeclared war against Afghans and NATO), with the Arabs through their shared faith, and on-and-off with the rather superior and oftentimes meddlesome Persians. They lost touch with the Kushans only because the Kushans ceased to exist, preferring to relax and submerge into the Afghan gene-pool: you can examine royal portraits on 2,000-year-old Kushan coins in Kabul’s antiques market, and then look up over the counter at the identical faces of some Afghan shopkeepers. Many Turkish words can be found in modern Afghan languages. There are still small communities speaking old Koranic Arabic some 1200 years after they invaded, and about 20% of modern Afghans descend from guys who fell off of Genghis Khan’s bus 800 years ago. They all get along pretty well, too: graveyard of empires, my eye! The only two empires given the bum’s rush were the British and the Soviets, and (“Surprise, surprise,” as Gomer Pyle used to say) the two countries that keep repeating the old canards about savagery in the graveyard of empires are the Brits and the Russians. Alexander listened to Afghans, even married one, and ensured that his Greeks cooperated with Afghans: the superior Brits and Russians did not. Whether America expands cooperation or just talks about it remains to be seen.

The two losing teams tell us, ad nauseum, that Afghanistan was never a ‘real’ country with a ‘real government.’ Afghan national unification began in the 18th Century and concluded at the end of the 19th more or less consistent with Germany, Italy and the United States (Remember those chaps with tomahawks and first-class suntans? The Massacre of Wounded Knee was in 1890). In the 20th Century, apart from atrocities associated with the Soviet invasion, Afghans had three leaders shot or slain. During the same century, Americans tried for four presidents but shot three – McKinley, Kennedy and Reagan, coming close with Ford. During the ‘Sixties and ‘Seventies, Afghans wondered why multitudes of Western hippies wandered about shoeless and drugged when their home countries were so educated and rich, but the visitors rarely suffered except in traffic accidents or more commonly by self-administered over-doses. Afghans made them tea and sold them carpets.

Afghan government, always kept small intentionally to let diverse communities govern themselves, was fairly effective. Their first post offices opened in about 1867. Their first government cabinet, on the same ministerial structure that most countries use today, began in 1880. From the 1950s through the 1970s, says a retired US diplomat friend, Afghans were the only people to be given US work or study visas whenever they wanted “because they were lawful people, they love their country and they always went home as promised.” Friends of mine recall seeing, in the 1970s, 150 prisoners walking for two days from a small local clink to the prison in the nearest large city, accompanied by only two unarmed policemen – could it happen in modern America?

The 40-year reign of King Zahir Shah ignored education and infrastructure, which still grieves many Afghans, and so he was deposed by his more activist, nationalist cousin. Then came a bloodthirsty communist coup in 1978 and the decade-long Soviet invasion in late 1979 in which a million people were killed and another million had arms or legs blown off – Afghan casualties were higher on a percentile basis than what Russia suffered in her Great Patriotic War. Then came about five years of horrendous misrule by the radical Islamist mujahideen who, once bankrolled by the US and partly run by the Pakistan intelligence agencies, eclipsed the moderate factions whom the Afghans loved and respected. Then came another six years of Taliban and more violent civil war: in a country where 80% make their livings from agriculture, farm productivity fell by 3% compounded year after year over three decades, and half of their livestock perished.

In the 1970s, Afghan factories manufactured sports clothes sold to America, their cut flowers graced the tables of Europe, they commanded 20% of the world market for raisins and there was even a winery in Kabul, run by an Italian using world-famous grapes from the verdant Shomali Valley with its climate identical to Chile and Southern California. That all stopped with the Soviet invasion, and so did the off-farm jobs on which rural Afghans, with their postage-stamp-sized farms, depended.

Afghans always loved Americans with special fervour. Dignitaries still show me old, black-and-white photos of them as, say, gangly kids playing basketball with some long-dead Peace Corps volunteer. “Do American people know Mister Tom?” one asks, unaware of Tom’s last name but presuming that he was as famous across America as he was in that little Afghan town: “He taught me English and basketball on his days off. You must know Mister Tom. Everyone knew Mister Tom. He was such a great man.” I always get a lump in my throat.

Their love was not always reciprocated. Back in the 1950s, the Afghan government begged US President Eisenhower to train their army and police under the anti-communist CENTO treaty, but America said that Afghanistan was outside of their sphere of influence, thus driving them into the arms of the Soviet Union. In the 1950s and 1960s, the massive USAID development scheme in Helmand did good things but achieved less than 30% of its goals due to poor contracting with greedy US firms and almost no cooperation with the Afghan government.

When the Americans invaded and drove the Taliban from power in 2001, Afghans welcomed them with open arms. Even though the Americans had built up the radical Islamists (many of whom became Taliban) and deserted Afghanistan in the early 1990s when the Soviet Empire collapsed, Afghans beamed as they told me, “It doesn’t matter! Our friends came back to us! The Americans are back!” Although Afghans tend not to like foreign invaders especially after the British and Soviets, between 80 and 90% insisted that this time was different. Ever thirsty for knowledge, they wanted their American big-brothers beside them so that they could learn and grow. Today, that number remains around two-thirds, which is surprising given what happened since.

Still tending to disbelieve their own eyes a decade after ‘liberation,’ Afghans are slowly coming to see just how dysfunctional, incompetent and aloof their rich, technologically-gifted, American brothers can be.

If you want to know what 30 years of war can do to a country, merely imagine if your own community closed the schools for a generation, shut down government, laid off the cops, then took every schoolyard dope-dealer, ex-con, town drunk, local bully, ideologue and teenaged hooligan and gave him a Kalashnikov. Fortunately, the strongly-traditionalist Afghans remain devoted to their rather gentle interpretation of Islam, and enjoy extensive systems of mutual support through extended families and tribes. Philosophical by nature, accustomed to poverty and a hard life, this may explain their widespread support for America as a least-worst option.

US government agencies returned to Afghanistan 2001 with the primary goal of spending any budget fast so that it grew larger in the next fiscal year. They contracted their development work to American ‘Beltway Bandit’ consultancies that take 80% or more in profits, but which hire the same bureaucrats who contracted them once those officials retire. They refused to cooperate with the wounded and struggling Afghan government, going so far as to ban Afghan government officials from even entering some US-funded development project offices. Stuck inside their massive fortress-embassy, with little professional and no social contact with Afghans, they still sneer at the local people, disparage their abilities, ignore their traditions and culture, and puff up one another’s egos saying that only Americans can get a job done: in 2005, a US ambassador elsewhere said that the Kabul diplomatic mission attracted the worst US diplomats in the world apart from Baghdad. By 2006, USAID had no records of where it had worked in Afghanistan, what it had accomplished or how many Afghans it had helped. Work was here neglected, there duplicated, never adhering to a bigger plan much less to an Afghan-made plan, and work was rarely monitored but the money got spent. Oh, how it got spent: US$ 321 billion and rising, or about 50% more than a total defence budget in the Reagan era.

Much went toward supposedly building Afghan government capacity deep inside ministries, working with often listless Afghan bureaucrats disincentivised by $50-a-month salaries on which they could not feed a family, so they punched the time clock and went off to moonlighting jobs in a bazaar. The US initially refused to build the needed, highly-visible, labour-intensive and hence politically-valuable road-works that Hamid Karzai demanded on his appointment as president, telling him that Afghanistan must become a debt-slave to the World Bank in order to get infrastructure built “like every other developing country” and that American money, hiring over-priced American contracting firms, would mostly be repatriated back to America.

Meanwhile NATO forts called PRTs (Provincial Reconstruction Teams), and their army-manned agricultural counterparts called ADTs (Agricultural Development Teams), put many locally-trusted national and international NGOs (development agencies) out of business by commissioning whatever the local NATO colonel thought was needed, often ignoring laws, international treaties and any cooperation with the Afghans trying to build their government and establish prioritised programmes. American intelligence agencies keep renting local warlords whom Afghans want to see replaced by government, and US transport contractors routinely paid bribes to the same Taliban who killed NATO troops. Pakistan, whose military shelters Al Qaeda and Taliban officials and keeps several of its generals on the Taliban ruling council, wages an undeclared war against Afghanistan, America and NATO, while American taxpayers support grants to the self-same Pakistan military in hope that they will somehow see the error of their ways.

American security guards – often little more than contract killers – manning the doors to President Karzai’s office in 2002-2003, dressed like extras in Mel Gibson’s “Road Warrior,” dripping with tattoos and daggers, often shirtless and appallingly rude. Innocent families dressed conservatively were jerked violently from their cars and the women were felt-up by US soldiers wearing no more than their underwear briefs in the summer heat. CIA men or their contract-killers running truckloads of booze pulled guns and threatened to kill polite Afghan officials requesting legal documentation. Other Afghan officials, asking for paperwork at airports, routinely had American soldiers stick pistols in their faces: “these people are here to teach us rule of law,” an elderly civil servant told me sourly. In perhaps thousands of cases, innocent families had their homes ransacked and looted and their women molested by US soldiers acting on paid tip-offs from local low-lifes who had some personal axe to grind, or who falsified information fearing that without providing weekly tips some other scoundrel would get their job. After every abomination, incompetent and dishonest US officials would deny that it happened, prolonging the news story until proof was undeniable and they had to issue a grovelling apology too late to do any good. In the north in 2006, and maybe still, women paid monthly bribes to crooked local officials lest they unfairly denounce one’s husband or sons as insurgents, whereupon they were taken way for torture by the Americans. Meanwhile the insurgency metastasized across half of the country. All this did little to impress Afghans despite some genuine US achievements.

For more on this topic see Part Two: Afghanistan in Perspective

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Published: Dec 17, 2010
Author
Stephen Masty
Stephen Masty (1954-2015) was a Senior Contributor to The Imaginative Conservative. He was a journalist, a development expert, and a speechwriter for three US presidents, British royalty and heads of government in Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. He spent most of his adulthood working in South Asia including Afghanistan, and he was a writer, poet and artist in Kathmandu.
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