Thursday, April 29, 2010

Descent into Chaos

On NATO deployment:

... the list of caveats about what countries would and would not do grew to the size of a telephone directory. ... The Germans had the most bizarre list of caveats. Their troops could not operate after dark; Afghan soldiers could not travel on German helicopters; and an ambulance had to accompany every patrol, thereby making it impossible to conduct foot patrols in the mountains. ... To Western and Afghan aid workers on the ground, these NATO troops acted like scared rabbits rather than professional soldiers. Aid workers cynically commented that the first ones into a dangerous region were the aid agencies, followed by the UN and other international organizations while the last ones in were the heavily armed NATO soldiers, who were then disallowed from protecting any of the above.

To be fair, Rashid points out that it was mainly the politicians back home who constrained the soldiers and disproportionate lives were lost by the Americans, British, and Canadians in the NATO deployments in Afghanistan.

This book was a good follow up from Steve Coll's Ghost Wars but not as riveting perhaps because the author keeps interjecting with his opinion. In any case, it was extremely interesting to view the Afghan war/conflict/counter-insurgency, whatever it should be called from a non-American perspective. That Afghanistan could be viewed as a strategic geo-political struggle between India and Pakistan never entered my mind. Of course, it is this view that drives the ISI support for the Taliban. I don't envy the Pakistani government - whose attempt to juggle the balance between support for Islamists/Taliban and the U.S. and Pakistani secularists make them appear haphazard, half hearted and erratic.

All the twists and double crosses that the Pakistani military, Musharraf, the CIA, and the White House play with one another would be a great movie plot if it weren't so real and tragic. I am sympathetic to the constant assertion that if the US and NATO had focused more on securing Afghanistan (rather than hunting for al-Qaeda) and disarming the warlords the outcome would have been different. However, I am not convinved that this would really occur. The U.S. has a history of being a naive interloper in all the countries that it chose to interlope in and if it had devoted more arms and money to the development and security of Afghanistan I think the failures would just have been greater. The corruption and the waste would have been more visible, and the backlash just as great. It would probably have been drawn into an ethnic and tribal score-settling in an even larger scale that it is now.

There is a myth that if a Marshall Plan of sorts had been implemented, Afghanistan would have lifted itself out of the current crisis. I am unconvinced that throwing money at Afghanistan would have solved the problem. The crisis has its roots in tribalism and ethnic differences. Hamid Karzai is not Konrad Adenauer. Germany had functioning institutions before Hitler, Afghanistan has not functioned properly in more than a generation. It has nothing to fall back on except warlordism and tribalism.

In all, the book brings to light all the problems that are still current in Afghanistan and the frustration of the author is evident. It will take a generation to solve even a fraction of the problems. I agree that the Iraq war cost America some opportunities in Afghanistan but I am not fully convinced that Afghans would have been better off with more American hands on board.

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