Afghanistan. The Graveyard of Empires. Here are four commonly held myths about a place that if anything bears out the one universal human truth: that politics makes for strange bedfellows.
FOUR MYTHS ABOUT AFGHANISTAN
4. The CIA created Al Qaida and the Taliban in the 1980s.
False. Unlike the British and French intelligence services, which had a much broader portfolio of Afghan freedom fighters they maintained direct relationships with such as Ahmed Shah Massoud, the CIA chose to instead funnel hundreds of millions of dollars, eventually matched by the Saudis, directly to the Pakistani Inter-Service Intelligence Agency (ISI) during the Reagan Administration. This strategy was part of CIA Director William Casey’s global re-imagining of the CIA as an agency back in the business of swashbuckling first and asking questions later (see also “Iran Contra Affair”). The policy was indeed short-sighted, as it allowed the Pakistanis to play kingmaker in what was even in the 1980s certain to be an unstable future Afghanistan. In keeping with the ancient wisdom “the more things your enemy has to worry about, the better,” the Pakistanis embarked on a strategy of “Strategic Depth” vis a vis India – one which entails an unstable Afghanistan which can always be relied upon to produce destabilizing elements such as refugees and their close kin, Islamist insurgents. This concept guides Pakistani policy towards Afghanistan to the present day.
Further hundreds of millions of dollars came from private Saudi donations, even during Mujahedin fundraisers which closely resembled Jerry Lewis telethons. Combined with his personal fortune, this was how a little known Saudi named Osama bin Laden found himself mixed up in the fight to expel the Soviets from Afghanistan. You see, young Mr. bin Laden was too proud and too ideologically consistent to accept money from the CIA. Not that they were even offering, because all of that money was being funneled directly towards the Pakistani equivalent of the CIA.
The Taliban, on the other hand, didn’t even exist until 1994. It emerged as a sort of draconian Islamist vigilante movement in Kandahar in response to the brutality and excess visited upon Afghanistan by the warlords in the civil war that followed the collapse of Najibullah’s communist government in 1992. The very same warlords – Rashid Dostum, Gulbiddin Hekmatyar, Jalalludin Haqqani – who had been the indirect beneficiaries of CIA interest in the 1980s via the ISI. The Taliban did not win the attention of Pakistan until a few years later, having demonstrated broad if hesitant popular appeal and a credible ability to secure the route for a proposed UNOCAL natural gas pipeline running from Turkmenistan to Karachi.
3. Afghanistan has always been an unstable war zone.
False. While the word Afghanistan translates from archaic Persian as “land of the unruly,” Afghanistan has enjoyed several historic periods of stability. Most notable of these was during the reign of Pashtun warrior king Ahmed Shah Duranni in the 18th century, with one period as recent as monarch Mohammed Zahir Shah’s reign for much of the 20th century and communist ruler Muhammed Dauod Khan’s in the pre-invasion 1970s (the whole point of “Kite Runner” is that there was once a time when it was legal to fly kites in Kabul). Hell, the famed Hippie Trail of the 1960s and early 70s terminated in Herat’s opium district.
The code behind these periods of relative stability seems to be linked by one common thread: an acknowledgement that Afghanistan is a place of constantly shifting loyalties, where one faction must be just powerful enough to play the deciding hand in any disputes, but not powerful enough to get any big ideas. Rival outside powers that can be played against one another seem to also be a good mixer – but again, just so long as they don’t get any big ideas. Particularly relevant to solving the riddle of Afghanistan circa 2013 is a study of the relative “golden age” which existed prior to the Soviet invasion in 1979, a time in which Afghanistan masterfully played the superpowers against one another in pursuit of foreign investment and expertise.
2. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan as part of a strategic thrust towards the Persian Gulf.
False. This might be the least known and most historically significant myth of all. It’s the one that lead the Carter Administration to begin supporting the Mujaheddin in the first place through a “death by a thousand cuts” strategy that was later discarded by the Reagan team in favor of a much more cinematic “payback for Vietnam” plan. On the heels of the OPEC oil shock of 1973 and collapse of an erstwhile U.S. ally in Iran, the U.S. understandably read the Soviet push into Afghanistan as the first stage in a broader push towards the holy grail of geopolitics: the vast oil reserves of the Persian Gulf. The thinking went the Brezhnev had simply invoked his very own “Brezhnev Doctrine,” which stated the USSR’s inherent right to intervene in the affairs of any socialist state, in Afghanistan as a means of shoring its position in the region before embarking on an audacious strategy of espionage or even outright invasion in Iran.
The problem is that documents declassified after the collapse of the Soviet Union paint a much different picture. It turns out that the Soviet concerns with the region where not that different from those of the U.S.: namely, containing the spread of the Islamic revolution from Iran. The Soviets saw Nur Mhuammed Taraki, their man in Kabul, as pushing Westernization too hard, to the point that he was antagonizing the hill folk. When he was deposed and executed by Hafizullah Amin in 1979, they felt that circumstances demanded the stabilizing hand of big brother Moscow to reset things to a more…stable…order of affairs.
They would be in and out by Christmas, so they thought. Just like they had been in Prague and Budapest.
1. The Taliban is the most powerful insurgent group in Afghanistan.
False. The Taliban is the enemy the U.S. led coalition in Afghanistan loves to hate. And why wouldn’t they? The Taliban’s hatred of women and modernity provides one of recent history’s most compelling good vs. bad story narratives. The problem is that any informed veteran of the Afghan conflict of recent years (say, 2009 onward) can tell you that a very unexpected plot twist has turned this narrative on its head.
A very strange plot twist indeed: you see, when you hear the brass and the Pentagon’s civilian leadership tell you that the Taliban’s back has been broken, and that they may even want to be a part of a future coalition government, they’re actually right. But how could this be? Afghanistan is supposed to be the Graveyard of Empires? The answer lies in the deepest, darkest, secret of America’s Afghan War. The bed that we made, so to speak, in the 1980s when we enabled Pakistani intelligence to decide Afghanistan’s fate: that from the time Al Qaida was effectively expelled from Afghanistan in November, 2001, we have effectively been fighting a proxy war against a Senate-ratified Major Non-NATO Ally called “Pakistan.”
The Pakistanis are smart. The know their beef is with India, and they know that the best meal ticket the have is a continuance of their Cold War-legacy alliance with the United States and the billions of dollars in military aid that comes with it. This is why they tell us they need state-of-the-art fighter jets to fight the Taliban. They also know that the United States is notoriously fickle, and will inevitably lose interest in Central Asia. When the attention of the U.S. shifts elsewhere, however, Pakistan will still view its nextdoor neighbor India as an existential threat whose time and energy can be occupied by an unstable Afghanistan. What better win-win outcome is there for the U.S. and Pakistan both than for Pakistan to cut the Taliban off from the spigot, claiming a joint victory over extremism with the U.S., and simultaneously placing the crown it has removed from Mullah Omar’s head onto someone else’s?
That seems to be exactly what has happened. The most powerful insurgent group in Afghanistan today is the Haqqani Network, which has maintained links with Pakistani Intelligence since the 1970s. To its credit, the Obama administration has condemned Pakistan for lending sanctuary to the Haqqani group. But it has also set a clearly defined 2014 deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country.
The bottom line is this: don’t be too surprised if in 2015, you find yourself watching Rand Paul and Chris Christie square off for a chance at facing Hillary Clinton while a Karzai-Taliban coalition government is fighting back an offensive by the Haqqani Network with the help of U.S. special forces and airpower.
Politics does indeed make for strange bedfellows.