Afghanistan in Perspective: Americans Wonder If Their Longest War Was Worth It
Late at night in the summer of 2007 a group of elders with white beards and traditional Afghan clothing including flowing robes (referred to as a “man dress” by American soldiers) gathered around a fire to speak with American military officers. The senior officer present, U.S. Army Lt Col Smith*, started to try a piece of roasted lamb when an old man sitting next to him leaned over and asked him a question. Tall and lanky, Lt Col Smith wore glasses which made him look more like a college professor than an Army officer. Having survived a direct hit by an improvised explosive device on a Humvee he was riding in, he knew the dangers of war all too well, giving an edge to his otherwise boyish demeanor. The interpreter quickly translated the question into English: “he wants to know why you have come to Afghanistan.”
Western Afghanistan is a remote area; the 800 miles to Kabul, the Afghan capital (pronounced cobble) is so bereft of roads and filled with rugged terrain a trip by land might as well be a trip to the moon. When asked about their number one enemy in Afghanistan, many U.S. military members answered “terrain.” In the dusty wind swept plains of western Afghanistan, known as Farah which in Persian means restless winds, television is rare, internet access is non-existent, and most people get their news from Persian language radio stations broadcast from neighboring Iran. The turbaned man who’d asked the question did not read newspapers, and he knew nothing of 9/11. He simply did know why Americans had come to Afghanistan.
As Lt Col Smith explained, Al Qaeda had killed thousands of Americans in New York and Washington D.C. on September 11th, 2001. Those attacks had been planned from Afghanistan, and the planners where still here. He and his men were here to kill them.
The old man’s eyes lit up and he nodded knowingly before saying rapidly in Pashtu, forcing the interpreter to keep up “Ah! So you’re here for badal.” Then he just shrugged before casually adding “Well, that’s certainly your right.” The war in Afghanistan could’ve been much more straightforward. Americans could simply have told Afghans we were in their country to destroy Al Qaeda, and once that was done we would leave. Afghans would’ve understood that, and after a time, the world would likely have forgotten.
They may not have liked it, and inevitably some would have resisted with force of arms anyway, but that explanation would’ve made more sense to Afghans than the one we ended up offering. Nation building to Afghans sounded like conquest, and that sparked a fierce resistance. So instead we became bogged down in a nation building project which never had a chance for success. If that sounds like hindsight being 20/20, maybe it is. But the corruption and incompetence with which the nation building effort was undertaken only fed Afghan’s suspicion, driving them into the arms of the Taliban. If we’d taken the time to understand badal we would’ve known that. But we didn’t want to be bothered with things like learning about a culture different from our own, we had a democratic nation to build.
Badal is a Pashtun concept that means revenge. Afghanistan contains a number of different ethnic groups, with the Pashtuns being the most numerous. The martial prowess of the Pashtun people is legendary; the disastrous British retreat from Kabul in 1842 is a memorable example because Pashtun fighters slaughtered every member of the British expedition except one. According to Pashtun legend they left one survivor so he could tell the story of slaughter in order to spread fear among the British. Five years earlier the Afghans warned the British “we are content with discord, we are content with alarms, we are content with blood; but we will never be content with a foreign master.”
The importance of badal can be difficult for westerners to fully grasp. Afghanistan doesn’t have a formal justice system; courthouses, judges, and lawyers are things most Afghans outside the capital have never seen. There are police, but Afghans are more afraid of the police than the Taliban, because the police are notoriously corrupt and brutal. Law and order as it is understood in the United States and Europe doesn’t exist in rural Afghanistan, which is 95% of a country the size of Texas. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t any rules. There are rules in Afghanistan, and breaking them can be deadly.
Journalist Sarah Chayes recounted how members of a local Pashtun tribe were sent with her as security while she was on assignment in Afghanistan. Though her security escorts were well-armed and capable fighters, “their mere presence silently threatened the vengeance of their entire tribe should any harm befall them.” Badal is a social norm that performs one of the functions of a legal code by promising punishment for murder. Without courts and the institutions of government, Afghans have no choice but to try to perform the functions of the state themselves. Afghanistan is unlike any land most Americans have encountered, yet we ignored the reality on the ground there in favor of our own assumptions. At the highest levels of our government, the ground truth in Afghanistan, when it was noticed at all, was regarded as a mere nuisance to be quickly swept beneath American stratagems.
Colonel G.K. Herring put his finger squarely on the central contradiction present at the heart of American strategy in Afghanistan in the days after 9/11. Our first objective, to destroy Al Qaeda, made sense in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks. But the second objective planted the seeds of trouble which continue to grow to this day: “In addition, the Bush administration sought to demonstrate that the United States was not at war with the Afghan people or the Islamic religion.” But at the same time: “Statements from (Bush) administration officials made it clear that they saw little distinction between al Qaeda, who had planned and executed the terrorist attacks, and the Taliban, who supported the terrorists’ activities.” Aristotle predicted the outcome: “a small mistake in the beginning is a great one in the end.” So it would be with American strategy in Afghanistan.
In reality the distinctions between Al Qaeda and the Taliban were enormous, and that distinction is precisely the one we needed to make. The Taliban (there are many Taliban, not just one, and the factions often fight each other, a war they will likely resume rather quickly once the US is gone) are primarily opium dealers with some religious fanatics mixed in, and their only interest is in running things in Afghanistan. The outside world means almost nothing to them. By contrast Al Qaeda had a global mission to eject the US from the Middle East and topple regimes it believed to be apostates. The Taliban cared next to nothing about any of that. In fact the two groups never liked each other. But in the heat of the moment after 9/11, anger guided our decisions instead of reason. If Afghans in 2001 could’ve peaked into life in the United States they would likely have understood the prevailing American sentiment. Collectively, we felt the desire for revenge. Though most Americans didn’t know the word badal, they felt the desire to achieve it.
Yet, for all the failures at nation building and the tremendous loss of blood and treasure, by some counts upwards of six trillion dollars and thousands of lives lost, the U.S. military was successful in finding and eliminating those who planned the 9/11 attacks. Those who planned or helped carry out those attacks are now dead or in prison. We could have accomplished that objective far sooner and at much less cost if we’d just been honest about what we wanted from the beginning. We accomplished our real mission, we just failed to turn fantasies about a democratic Afghanistan into reality. Perhaps someday Afghanistan will have peace and stability, maybe even democracy. But for that to happen, it will have to be an effort led by Afghans, not Americans. The US military can do a lot of things, but it can never be a substitute for the people who live in Afghanistan, or anywhere else.
*Name changed at the request of the individual