Thursday, January 19, 2012

Book Review: 'Wars Of Afghanistan,' Imperial Fecklessness & Pakistani Evil

Pakistan bankrolled the Taliban, who destroyed the Buddhas of Banyan
There is an old Afghan folk tale that portrays a foreigner balancing two connected trays attached to the handheld weighing device used in South Asian bazaaars. The foreigner carefully loads one tray and then the other with frogs. Just as he puts the last few frogs on one tray and then the other, some frogs on the first tray hop off. As the foreigner returns those frogs to the tray, frogs on the second tray hop off or attempt to jump to the other tray. Before long, all of the frogs are in motion, moving in one direction or another, and the foreigner gives up.

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In 53 B.C., marching through Syria toward Afghanistan, the Roman general Marcus Licinius Crassus found Parthian general Spahbodh Surena blocking his way. Their armies clashed at the Battle of Carrhae, which while little known was one of the decisive battles of world history.

The Persian-speaking Parthians were probably ancestors of today's Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, and the 10,000 mounted archers under Surena's command annihilated the 35,000-man Roman army, the worst defeat since Hannibal crushed the Roman army at Cannae in 216 B.C. The West would not appear again at Afghanistan's doorstep until the 19th century when Britain launched two invasions from its bases in India.

The British would twice repeat the blunders of the Romans just as the Soviets would a century later, and in the wake of the 9/11 attacks a U.S.-led NATO coalition, as well. Each time the pattern was the same, as Peter Tomsen puts it: "Hubristic justifications, initial success, gradually widening Afghan resistance, stalemate, and withdrawal."

This story is told to powerful and powerfully detailed effect by Thomsen, U.S. ambassador and specially envoy to Afghanistan from 1989 to 1992, in The Wars of Afghanistan: Messianic Terrorism, Tribal Conflicts, and the Failures of Great Powers. Then there is the reality that virtually every Pakistani government in recent decades has worked to undermine efforts to build popular governments in Afghanistan while bankrolling the Taliban and giving Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda cadre safe haven, all the while receiving tens of billions of dollars in aid from a U.S. government aware of this evil dynamic but seemingly impotent to do anything about it.

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A constant in the tumultuous history of Afghanistan is that while its peoples -- the frogs in the folk tale -- were ferocious warriors, they were as woefully inept at governing a thousand years ago as they are today, as well as willing victims of foreign intervention. Exacerbating this situation is the tribal nature of Afghanistan, which has made it difficult to centralize power despite the pride that Afghans feel for their country.

The British failure to twice conquer Afghanistan amidst the Great Game, the strategic rivalry between the British and Russian empires for supremacy in Central Asia, has been an oft told tale in both history texts and fiction, including Rudyard Kipling's Kim.

Less well known is the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, which followed a communist coup a year earlier, and this takes up nearly 400 of the 912 pages of The Wars of Afghanistan.

Two post-World War II geopolitical developments made the invasion all but inevitable: Britain's withdrawal from the subcontinent in 1947, which removed the main deterrent to Soviet penetration, and the advent of the Cold War.

Stalin had ignored the Third World. But after the Soviet dictator died in 1953, U.S.-Soviet global competition expanded and Afghanistan, which had preferred American aid, became the first Third World country to accept large-scale Soviet aid because Washington was rapidly becoming a close ally of Pakistan. This would be the first of many American miscalculations in the years to come.

Soviet aid prior to the invasion totaled in the hundreds of millions of dollars and included construction of highways and a tunnel that years later would sustain the weight of heavy vehicles, including tanks, during Moscow's invasion.

By 1977, the Soviets were deeply disturbed that a liberalized Afghanistan was drifting from the Soviet orbit while receiving increasingly more U.S. infrastructure and educational aid. The final rupture came when Afghan President Daoud told Soviet Premier Brezhnev that their partnership "must remain the partnership of equals" and walked out of the Kremlin hall were they had been meeting.

Daoud was shot dead within hours of the start of the April 1978 coup led by pro-communist Afghan army forces, ushering in the catastrophic 14-year communist era.

The Soviet Union plunged into Afghanistan paying little attention to the disasters suffered by previous invaders.

"It was ignorant of Afghan society, overconfident in the ability of a mighty empire to impose its will on Afghanistan, and failed to appreciate the cost of capturing the strategic center square on the Eurasian chessboard," write Tomsen. "Soviet military power had compelled other neighbors in Eastern Europe and Mongolia to do Moscow's bidding. Certainly Afghanistan would not be a bigger challenge."

This situation was exacerbated because of the vastly different historical, cultural and religious legacies that separated Russians and Afghans, notably the Russian acquiescence to central rule and the Afghan opposition to it. Additionally, the Afghan communists had little grasp of Marxism and Leninism, which along with an uprising in western Afghanistan forced Moscow's hand and prompted an invasion in December 1979 and a military takeover.

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The Soviet invasion occurred five weeks after a seminal event, the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by Islamist dissidents. Among those later arrested was the half brother of Osama bin Laden, and many historians believe that the path to the 9/11 attacks began with this Islamic "awakening" in Saudi Arabia, which fanned growing resentment to the Western presence in the Muslim holy land.

Afghan Muslims revere the holy land, while Saudi Arabia had been a valuable partner in the nine-year effort to drive out the Soviet Army, having provided half of the funding for the CIA's covert weapons program.

The Saudi royal family and other donors contributed billions of dollars for the Afghan jihad and were firmly in bed with the ISI, the feared Pakistani intelligence agency that worked ceaselessly to undermine U.S.-led efforts to install a popularly backed, Mujahidin-led central government with a semblance of democracy. It was the Mujahidin, after all, who had thrown off the Soviet yoke.

Tomsen writes that the Reagan, first Bush and Clinton administrations blew hot and cold on the importance of Afghanistan, believing the situation there to be a leftover of the Cold War, and this combined with chronic infighting between the State Department and CIA meant that its barely articulated goals for the country would never be realized.

In fact, when the American embassy reopened in Kabul, the Afghani capital, in 1992 after being shuttered for three years, locating and repatriating Soviet POWs as part of the U.S.-Soviet rapprochement and not the growing threat of Muslim extremism and soaring narcotics production was the number one priority.

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Tomsen returns time and again to the unholy alliance between Pakistan's ISI, Afghan extremists of all stripes, Al Qaeda and the Taliban that continues to this day.

He notes that in the years before the 9/11 attacks many thousands of international jihadists poured into Pakistan to be trained at ISI-managed paramilitary camps financed by Saudi Arabian interests, while the ISI handpicked Mullah Mohammed Omar to lead the Taliban, which had conquered most of Afghanistan by the late 1990s and welcomed Bin Laden back into the country with open arms.

Three months after arriving in the country, the Al Qaeda leader issued his first formal warnings about targeting Americans, a threat first made good on with the bombings of two U.S. embassies in East Africa in May 1998.

The Clinton administration ordered cruise missile attacks on Bin Laden's compound in Afghanistan, but Tomsen says the ISI tipped him off in advance and the only people to be killed were low-level Al Qaeda operatives. Subsequent CIA efforts to take out the terrorist leader in operations based in Pakistan required ISI assistance and went nowhere.

Only once in the years before 9/11 did the U.S. warn Pakistan that it could be designated as a state sponsoring terrorism -- in 1993 -- while in a follow-up action the State Department, at its delusional worst, meekly declared that Pakistan had taken a number of steps to respond to American concerns.

In the wake of the attacks, the U.S. repeatedly chided the Pakistani government while continuing to provide foreign aid despite credible proof that Islamabad had known of the attacks in advance but did nothing to warn Washington.

Washington's misunderstanding of Pakistan's motives in Afghanistan and of the Afghan environment were staggering . . . ," Tomsen writes. "The attempts by American presidents, diplomats, and intelligence officers to convince Pakistan and the Taliban to turn over Bin Laden were naive and doomed from the start. Tethering Washington's Afghan policy to Pakistan was a mistake that reaped dire consequences."

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By 2008, the last year of the Bush administration, the quick successes achieved when the U.S.-led NATO coalition broke the back of the Taliban following the 9/11 attacks were a distant memory. The Taliban were resurgent, there was a stalemate on the ever shifting battlefield because of continuing Pakistani aid to insurgents and interference with Afghan affairs, and minimal reconstruction of a ravaged nation was underway because U.S. policy was yet again adrift.

It is to Tomsen's credit that although he served several Republican administrations, he is unstintingly critical of the Bush administration for talking the talk but never walking the walk when it came to a decisive military victory and nation building, which Bush initially opposed and then supported, but in word only.

The primary reason, of course, was the Iraq war, which siphoned off troops, materiel and money with a commensurate loss of focus and interest, as well as a willful blindness in the White House to the duplicity and Pakistan and the ISI. A few lonely Republican voices in Congress knew better but they were ignored. It also did not help that the government of Afghan President Karzai was deeply corrupt.

Finally, the U.S. repeated the mistakes of the Soviets and British by fundamentally misunderstanding that the periods during which Afghanistan was comparatively tranquil were when the central government respected the community-based nature of Afghan society and as a result the communities did not turn against the center.

Pervez Musharraf, the duplicitous Pakistani prime minister, fell from power two months before Barack Obama was elected, and although the Bush administration never appeared to decipher his double game, there at last was an opening for a new direction in U.S. policy.

Tomsen notes that Obama has taken a tougher line as president and the administration's recent breakthrough with the Taliban, which has agreed to enter into talks to end the war, would seem to be promising.

But so long as Pakistan continues to conduct its proxy war while nurturing the radical Islamic infrastructure, there is little hope of change even after the death of Osama bin Laden absent a commitment by the U.S. to stop issuing blank checks or barring a regional shift of power way from Pakistan. And while the author of the most excellent Wars of Afghanistan stops short of saying so, the ongoing drawdown of U.S. troops is overdue.

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