Every once and a while, we find that one of the comments posted on this blog is deserved of its own blog entry. This is one such occasion. The commenter, Andrew, responded to our recent blog post on Afghanistan. Andrew did two tours of duty in Afghanistan with the US Army. He presents some interesting perspective for those of us who look at the situation from afar.
I am Andrew. My father is a frequent reader of this blog and had me read your post and the article from the BBC. Your post is very informative and the fact that you have no comments yet on this particular link is disturbing. As a two-time Afghanistan veteran and history buff, I know it is a dynamic region where cultural diversity, history, and a unique location in the world have afforded it the unique position of a crossroads for invading forces.
First made infamous during the march of Alexander the Great’s military on it’s way to conquest in India, Afghanistan has been host to invasion for countless generations. The problems were have now in Afghanistan stem from the Soviet invasion, true, but the root of the trouble is seeded from the failed invasion of the British. The degree of the failure is apparent not only from the Enfield rifles the locals sell to American Soldiers in country, but from the tribes that were simply cut off by the pen of British statesmen creating modern Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan. Tribes that have been in the same region for thousands of years and watched Macedonian’s cross the mountains were separated by a line drawn in the sand by a foreign dignitary. This makes it extraordinarily difficult to deal with since tribal authority, especially in the remote trouble areas of the Afghan border regions (Ghazni, Khandahar, Helmand, etc), is seen as a higher authority than the national government. A Pashtu is a Pashtu. The border makes no difference and yet, to us, it is a huge problem. We can not even deal with the same family to catch Osama due to the Afghan/Pak border and modern views of sovereignty. Yet, the locals could care less since it has been their land far before the British, let alone the United States, ever arrived. Al Qaeda hides right across the border. In case news reports have not made that clear, they are staying with the same tribes that live in familiar Afghan towns.
Their cultural history also teaches us that they are extremely fond of the “Arab” due to their religious connection through Islam. Modern scholars have realized this but Arabs are seen as the true followers and original worshippers of Islam and the later adopters of this religion are enthralled, and thus easily manipulated, by them.
Their history and culture, which is heavily tribal in nature, also calls into question the effectiveness of payoffs and rewards for information. Sure, some Afghans are willing to accept a few hundred dollars for information. However, for the capture of Osama, as odd as this may sound, it would be far more beneficial to offer a farmer some sheep, land, and a guarantee of future prosperity for his family than it would be to hand him millions. He would understand the land offer and be able to understand it much more than a few million greenbacks.
To divert quickly onto another topic of history that is applicable, we should review Pompey the Great and his conquest of the pirates. He understood their mentality, fought when needed, converted when possible, and cleared the Roman world of them quickly. Counter insurgency at it’s best, circa 60BC.
Afghanistan has an assortment of problems. A lack of leadership in government (Karzai is called the Mayor of Kabul by many locals), a terrible infrastructure, and, of course, another war. Without understanding what makes them tick, what makes their culture unique, and what their history is, we will fail just like the Soviets and British before us. It is sad to say, but so few men in the military feel this way.