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Afghanistan: The Way to Peace

Books reviewed

Friday 12 April 2013, by siawi3


A basic question raised by these books is what the Afghan experience of the past decade can tell us about the United States and its Western allies when they “go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”

..Central to the problem is the number of forces and persons involved. A short and by no means exhaustive list of these includes, on the anti-Taliban side: the US government and military (which of course have their own serious differences); the Karzai presidency and clan, and their immediate allies; non-Pashtun warlords and other leaders opposed to the Taliban; and Westernized Afghan officials and NGOfigures in Kabul.
Among the armed opposition, the list includes the Taliban under Mullah Omar (which also has potentially serious internal divisions); the Haqqani network; the Hizb-e-Islami of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar; the remnants of al-Qaeda in the region; the Pakistani Taliban; and anti-Indian terrorist groups based in Pakistan, some now in rebellion against the Pakistani state, others still allied to it. Then there are the other nations involved: Pakistan, and above all the Pakistani military and military intelligence service, India, Iran, China, and Russia.
Each of these distrusts all the others, including, not least, their own ostensible allies. By the same token, all fear any peace negotiations in which they are not included.

Afghanistan from the Cold War Through the War on Terror
by Barnett R. Rubin
Talibanistan: Negotiating the Borders Between Terror, Politics, and Religion
edited by Peter Bergen with Katherine Tiedemann
Fountainhead of Jihad: The Haqqani Nexus, 1973–2012
by Vahid Brown and Don Rassler
Reviewed by Anatol Lieven
A very strange idea has spread in the Western media concerning Afghanistan: that the US military is withdrawing from the country next year, and that the present Afghan war has therefore entered into an “endgame.” The use of these phrases reflects a degree of unconscious wishful thinking that amounts to collective self-delusion.
In fact, according a treaty signed by the United States and the Karzai administration, US military bases, aircraft, special forces, and advisers will remain in Afghanistan at least until the treaty expires in 2024. These US forces will be tasked with targeting remaining elements of al-Qaeda and other international terrorist groups operating from Afghanistan and Pakistan; but equally importantly, they will be there to prop up the existing Afghan state against overthrow by the Taliban. The advisers will continue to train the Afghan security forces. So whatever happens in Afghanistan after next year, the United States military will be in the middle of it—unless of course it is forced to evacuate in a hurry.
As to the use of the word “endgame,” this might be appropriate if next year, upon the departure of US ground forces, the entire Afghan population, overcome with sorrow at the loss of their beloved allies, rolls over and dies on the spot. The struggle for power in Afghanistan will not “end” and US policymakers should not, as in the past, hop away from a swamp they’ve done much to create.
Two major new books, together with a number of lesser works, are crucial to an understanding of Afghanistan, the flaws of the Western project there, the enemies that we are facing, and therefore of possible future policies. Barnett Rubin, senior adviser to the US special representative for Pakistan and Afghanistan in the first Obama term, has been consistently among the wisest and most sensible of US expert voices on Afghanistan. His book Afghanistan from the Cold War Through the War on Terror is a compilation of his essays and briefing papers over the years, framed by passages looking back at the sweep of Afghan history and the US involvement there since 1979.
Peter Bergen is a former journalist and long-standing commentator and writer on the region now working at the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C.1 He has edited and introduces Talibanistan, a frequently brilliant collection of essays by different experts on the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, including an analysis of the extent to which their past links with al-Qaeda represent an enduring threat to the West, and of how far a peace settlement with them may be possible. Rubin’s and Bergen’s works should be read in conjunction with a fascinatingly detailed new book by Vahid Brown and Don Rassler on the Haqqani network, the insurgent group led by Mawlawi Jalaluddin Haqqani and his son, which operates on both sides of the Afghan–Pakistani border. Its title, Fountainhead of Jihad, is the name of a magazine published by the Haqqanis.
Brown and Rassler bring out the deep roots of the Haqqanis in the history and culture of this region, on both sides of the Durand Line, which was drawn up in 1893 by the British to mark the border between India (later Pakistan) and Afghanistan. As far as the locals are concerned it has always been largely theoretical. In the words of Jalaluddin Haqqani himself, “Our tribes are settled on both sides of the Durand line since ages. Our houses are divided on both sides of the border. Both sides are my home.” Brown and Rassler point out that from this point of view, all the US invasion of 2001 managed to do was “force this [Haqqani] nexus a few dozen kilometers east.”
The authors situate the identity and policies of the Haqqanis with respect to three powerful local traditions: first comes an ancient fight for local tribal autonomy against attempts to impose outside state power. This led the Haqqanis in 1999 and 2000 to clash with Taliban attempts to impose their own version of centralized Afghan rule. Next is a history of revolt in the name of Islam, orchestrated by local religious figures. Finally, there is the region’s long-standing role (in the phrase of the anthropologist James C. Scott) as the location for “shatter zones,” remote, usually mountainous areas that have not been fully penetrated and controlled by states, and that serve as refuges for a variety of fugitives and outlaws from elsewhere, who often create in these regions their own new communities. The refuge given to al-Qaeda can be seen as part of this tradition, as well as reflecting ideological affinities and material benefits.
Brown and Rassler see the very close relationship between the Haqqanis and Pakistani military intelligence, dating back to the 1990s, not as the Haqqanis acting as Pakistani agents, but rather as a pragmatic alliance with practical benefits for both sides..

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