Afghanistan's Murky Future

What will happen in Afghanistan?  Having worked in Afghanistan for nearly three years, among the Americans here I am an “old-timer.” It’s not possible to learn these peoples, their nation and their cultures in that time, but I can claim some insight into the future of this devastated country.  There are reasons to hope but also reasons to fear for the future.  Consider some facts.

I can see six key positive indicators.

• The coalition military led by incomparable US forces regularly wipe the floor with al-Qaeda and Taliban forces.  Insurgent losses may not yet exceed replacement levels mainly because local shooters can be hired for $50 a day, a sum well worth risking one’s life for in Afghanistan. 

• Western reconstruction and development efforts are diverse and impressive.  Schools, roads, farms, and other infrastructure are being built or rebuilt.  Foreign technical assistance is broad and generally effective.  Development funds continue to flow from the West. 

• Entrepreneurship and modest investment are emerging. 

• Democracy, political campaigning, and a voting public have become familiar concepts.
• Afghan authorities often foil or capture Islamic terrorists. 

• Increasingly, females are attending school. 

But each is balanced by a key negative: 

• Confidence in democratic processes has waned.  Much of the elected parliament consists of warlords and other thugs who have threatened, intimidated, or bought their way to election. 

• The drug culture is pernicious and includes the highest levels of the political class.  The drug trade is intractable and cannot be altered under current conditions. 

• The rule of law is weak and tenuous.  Terrorists, drug dealers, and other lawbreakers can buy their way out of detention, and some have done so more than once. 

• Security remains static and uncertain, and security forces are suspect.  A recent assassination attempt on the president seems partly an inside job. The recent breakout of 1000 hardened prisoners in Kandahar had to involve collusion. 

• Corruption is pervasive and is part of the fabric of life.  Bribes are necessary to move most actions. 

• “Donor fatigue” is growing.  The flow of enormous sums of development money to Afghanistan cannot continue at current levels.
Comparing the positives to the negatives might lead reasonable people to conclude that the situation in Afghanistan is at least a wash, that more time and persistence can produce a viable nation, that positive conditions outweigh the negative, and that democracy will prevail over anarchy.  Such glass-half-full conclusions would be credible if this same balance of conditions existed in France, Tokyo, or Texas.  But it exists in Afghanistan and cannot be fully assessed without taking into account the culture in which they reside.  And that changes everything.

Afghanistan is Islamic to the core.  A recent decree to behead an Afghan who converted to Christianity met full favor with the man on the street.  In this culture there is little possibility one could conclude that — Islam or no Islam — there is something in that decree that is just wrong.  It is through an Islamic prism that the future must be viewed, because Islam is the one element among the diverse forces in Afghanistan that will not change.  To reduce Islam’s dominance in Afghan life, a brutal and bloody revolution would be required begetting a merciless, secular dictator.  That is unthinkable today: Islam will retain its control over thought and deed.

The affect of Islam is fundamental to the ability of the West to meet our overriding goal: To win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people.  There is one universal and inviolable Islamic truth: What advances Islam is good, and what does not is bad.  This in large part explains why the Afghan people tolerate the Taliban when their very presence can bring down upon them horrific hardship. Without the support of rural Afghans the Taliban in Afghanistan could not survive.  But they do survive, because in the end they espouse the fundamentals of Islam, and thus are not considered malevolent.  Given the primacy of Islamic growth we in the West never will win Afghan hearts or minds. 

What we feel and think finds little resonance with them. 

That leaves only one avenue open for addressing either hearts or minds in Afghanistan, and that is military.  We must defeat the Taliban on the ground, and the people as well as the Taliban must perceive that they are defeated.  Only then can Afghanistan attain a level of public order that will allow even a modest measure of sustainable peace and prosperity. 

The Taliban are reeling militarily, but this is recognized neither in Afghanistan nor the West.  Until this is effectively communicated to the West by the western media it will not be credibly communicated to Afghans.  The western media fails to recognize our overwhelming on-the-ground success, and thus does not report it.  A related problem is the lengthy perilous border Afghanistan shares with anti-western populations.  These provide safe havens and respite for insurgents and allow easy entry for more militants who hate the ideals and culture of the West.  But controlling such borders requires a far heavier military presence than current Western politics will permit. 

Thus we have brewed a formula for failure in Afghanistan:  A western media that will not carry the message of our success to the populations that can influence events and a military policy that insists we fight a half-war that hamstrings the finest fighting forces on earth.

The limitations on our military have produced the precise perceptions encouraged by Osama bin Laden.  His warning to Moslems about the perils of riding a weak horse have struck a nerve in Afghanistan.  This was not the rant of a murderous lunatic but a reasonable articulation by an ardent Islamist.  Osama was predicting that we would lose heart militarily.  And that is the perception that now abounds in Afghanistan.  

Contrary to the facts, Afghans believe that coalition forces will not defeat the Taliban.  The average person, in whose hands the fate of the Taliban ultimately rests, perceives that the West is the weak horse.  Only when the population believes the West is here to stay and here to win will it cease supporting the Taliban.  Afghan allegiance always is with whatever side they believe will win.  The perception that the West will not stay and not win, along with insufficient coalition forces on the ground, combine to prolong and undermine this crucial encounter with radical Islam, our most implacable enemy.  

Yes, this seems a contradiction.  If the primacy of Islam is inviolable, how could Afghans, even perceiving a military victory by the West, ever support the West over the Taliban?  The reason stems from the principle itself in which the end always justifies the means.  If a strong western military presence and a robust reporting of the success of that military combines to demonstrate that al-Qaeda and the Taliban losses are insufferable, we will win Afghan hearts and minds and defeat insurgency.   

Even so, Afghans will continuously look back to see if our strong horse is tiring. Tactics may determine that Afghanistan should now support the West perhaps for a generation and maybe longer, but the struggle will continue, because the end game of advancing Islam will not change.  Our only available strategy for meaningful victory is to protect ourselves by defeating al-Qaeda and the Taliban and hope that over time and changing circumstances Islamic cultures like Afghanistan’s will decide that it serves their interests to accommodate the West. 

Again, we must understand that such accord will stand only until a compelling reason for renewing the struggle presents itself.  That, like it or not, will be the narrative of our time, because Islamic countries revere the primacy principle and now have enormous oil wealth to advance it.  While this may distress peace and progress-oriented westerners, it should also remind us that such strife is neither new nor unusual; it continues the same radical Islam that has besieged the world for fifteen centuries.

If the West does not produce a decisive and recognized military success in Afghanistan, there is little to fall back upon for those who wish the country to have a free and prosperous future.  Afghan culture and history offers scant hope for it. If western forces leave without a clear win, the positive factors listed above will dissolve, and the negatives will multiply dramatically.  Absent western support, a central government cannot hold, as historically one never has. 

Personal trust will not reach much beyond immediate family.  One’s ethnic group and tribe will follow only distantly in allegiance.  And Islam will form the basis for all relationships.  In this orientation there is little likelihood democracy can take root.  And in this orientation one half the population is lost, since women will remain servile in every sense. 

There is little to build upon in Afghanistan if the field is left to the dark forces of Taliban and al-Qaeda, hence the necessity of a western military victory.  For reasons already given it seems the western media along with the Afghan mindset conspire to ensure our military success will fall short in the end.  Thus, the answer to the question posed in the first line:  Afghanistan is destined to become a failed state in the not distant future.       

** The Anonymous Observer has just returned from Afghanistan. The author continues periodically to work directly with Afghan and American security forces and with American foreign assistance specialists in the country.  His ability to work with senior officials on both sides to improve conditions in Afghanistan and his ongoing development efforts would be compromised if he were identified with this. If you’d like to know more, email: