Updated: Aug 21, 2021
The U.S. Shouldn't Be Playing The Great Game In Central Asia
The Afs don't have much of a national identity or any real societal cohesion-- at least not that I saw when I was there, in any case. But the two times I was in Afghanistan, it was between wars. I think when they get invaded, the national identity and societal cohesion comes to the fore. I wouldn't expect the U.S. to learn from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union, not even about the Afs who took part in bukashi matches where they used the corpses of young Russian recruits instead of goats. But why not learn from the British experience? In fact, their exit from their first attempt at an occupation-- part of the Great Game-- was far messier than the nightmare the U.S. is going through now.
The first of the three Anglo-Afghan wars started in 1839 and ended in 1842. Let's skip to the end and the rather graceless exit. The Brits (in India) decided to invade to oust an emir who they felt was too close with Russia, Dost Mohammed Khan, and install their own puppet, Shah Shoja. The Afs didn't accept Shoja, a vicious tyrant, or the occupation but it was soon apparent that Shoja wouldn't last on the throne without a British army. But with most of the army having returned to India, the occupying army was just 8,000 troops, too few, and headed by a sick, bedridden and completely incompetent and indecisive old general, George Elphinstone.
The Afghan rebels took over Kabul and the British negotiated a withdrawal in January (winter-- mistake). There were around 4,500 soldiers, mostly Indians and Afs-- and as many as 12,000 dependents (including servants). The British were attacked as they made their way through narrow snowbound passes. They had no shelter and little food. The Afghan troops deserted on the second day of the march and headed back to Kabul. Shoja was murdered and the head of the rebels, Akbar Khan had no interest in abiding by the agreement of safe passage for the Brits and their allies. The Brits who didn't freeze to death were all massacred, although the white women and children were taken back to Kabul to be ransomed while the Indian and Afghan women were all killed. When Elphinstone went to negotiate with Akbar Khan, he was informed that he and his officers were now hostages and would be ransomed. When one officer resisted, he was shot in the face. In the end, one person escaped, the Afs took 9 prisoners and everyone else was killed. Some of the women captives were married off to Afghan tribesmen. Captured children were given to Afghan families to raise as their own.
I asked a member of Congress who was discussing this tragic piece of history with me yesterday if he thought people had learned any lessons from this. "Well, Najibullah knew all that history," he said, "but he still took on the role of Soviet puppet for a few years, until the Taliban dragged him out of the UN compound and cut off his balls." I asked him if he meant literally cut off his balls. He replied "Yes. And then took off his and his castrated brother's clothes and dragged them around Kabul behind a truck, and hung their corpses in the street, so that everyone could see that their penises were missing. Oh, that wild Afghan sense of humor." So... relatively speaking, our retreat from Kabul is going smoother than the 2021 American presidential transfer of power. So far.
Writing for The Hill today, Iranian American academic and author Mahyar Amouzegar noted that he "used to think that the British military, unlike the U.S. military, was profoundly knowledgeable of the geopolitics of the Near East; after all, they had a heavy hand in reshaping the region. However, sitting in those Ministry of Defence meetings, as an Iranian American, it became clear to me that the British were as clueless as their American counterparts. The lack of language skills or even a basic understanding of the differences in cultural traditions and values between the various peoples of the region was shocking, to say the least. This dearth of critical cultural understanding enabled the ineptitude that was presented throughout our bungling management of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. We conflated religion with ethnicity and mistook those Afghanis who may have been educated in the West as 'Westernized.' We don’t appreciate history, so we never tried to learn from it, and we repeat our mistakes over and over again. We looked at Afghanis, and those who spoke English fluently or wore suits and ties were put in a “good” column, and then we relied on these people to guide us through Afghanistan’s labyrinth. Now we are surprised and disappointed that they got us lost along the way and fled when the moment of truth arrived."
[Y]ou can’t impose culture by fiat... Afghanistan, Iraq and every other country that Americans have tried to 'rehabilitate' have their own cultures, their ways, and instead of adapting to understand their culture so that we can help rebuild from within, we tried to change them and help from without.
One only hope can be that today’s Taliban are not the same reprobates as their fathers and grandfathers. We know the Taliban are happy to use Western technology, from our cell phones to machine guns, and now, thanks to our quick withdrawal, U.S. helicopters and Humvees. It’s hypocritical for the same people who want to turn the clock back a thousand years to use the technology invited and paid for by the “infidels.” But we are not sincere either, are we? We promised so much and delivered so little-- and we are leaving those who believed in us to fend for themselves.
Newspaper articles have complained about the immense corruption in the Afghan government, but to some degree, this indicates again that we don’t understand other people’s culture and think we are better than they are. Corruption exists everywhere, even in our government. But we have a massive buffer in our system that can withstand even significant turbulence. The developing world, like many working poor, is always on the brink of homelessness and hunger. When my car breaks down, I just have it fixed and use a loaner while waiting for the repair work to finish. When a poor person’s car breaks down, it can have a cascading effect that may lead to losing a job and even a home. The line between having a functional government and chaos is a small perturbation-- and that’s another lesson we have not learned.