Afghan history lesson helps us see the future

By Claude Garrod | Special to The Enterprise | November 07, 2009 23:17

In the next few weeks, President Obama will decide whether to substantially escalate the war in Afghanistan. If he does so, it's likely to be only the start of a much larger and longer military campaign in that country. Thus, while there's still time to convey our opinions to 'the Decider,' it might be useful to learn a bit about the country involved. What sort of a country is Afghanistan?

Afghanistan is a country of about 30 million people. This is only an approximate number, since no complete census has ever been taken. Half of the population is younger than 18 years, so a large supply of fighting-age men will be coming online in the years ahead.

The population is composed of several distinct ethnic groups: 40 percent Pashtuns, 27 percent Tajiks, 19 percent Hazaras, 9 percent Uzbeks and many smaller groups. They are nearly all Muslim, with 80 percent being Sunnis and the rest Shias.

It's an abysmally poor country, with two-thirds of the people living on less than $2 a day. The educational level is best communicated by the fact that about 80 percent of the women and 57 percent of the men cannot read or write any language. The major languages are Pashto (for the Pashtuns) and Dari. Both are Persian languages, closely related to the Farsi spoken in neighboring Iran.

The birth rate is more than three times the U.S. rate, with the average woman giving birth to about seven children. The life expectancy is 41 years for men and 44 for women.

Geographically, Afghanistan is slightly larger than France and about 50 percent larger than Iraq. It's a very mountainous, landlocked country, bordered by Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, China and Pakistan.

Several of these countries, but particularly Iran and China, would be naturally nervous about having a permanent American military presence in Afghanistan; Iran for obvious reasons and China because the border occurs at an unstable region of Xinjiang Province populated by the Uighur minority.

The yearly budget of the central government is about $1 billion, which contrasts starkly with the many billions spent yearly by the United States and NATO. In other words, we (and/or the Taliban) run things in the country. Hamid Karzai's government is just a sideshow.

The major ethnic group, the Pashtuns, is composed of about 24 million people, distributed about equally on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. They have never recognized that border (the Durand Line), which was laid down arbitrarily by the British when what is now Pakistan was part of British India. There have been repeated disputes, which have sometimes come close to war, between Afghanistan and Pakistan over this issue.

Ever since the unification of Afghanistan by a Pashtun king, the Pashtuns have been the dominant ethnic group in Afghanistan. Almost all governments have been controlled by them. This changed in 2001, when the United States intervened in an ongoing civil war between the Pashtun-controlled Kabul government and a Tajik minority in the far north of the country.

With the support of huge amounts of modern American firepower, the Tajiks were able to gain control of the whole country. A new government was formed with a Pashtun, Karzai, as president but with most important government functions, including the military and the internal security agencies, controlled by Tajiks.

The Taliban insurgency, which is usually presented as a terrorist campaign by a collection of nutcase religious fanatics, is actually an attempt by the Pashtuns to re-establish their traditional dominant position in the country. It is solidly supported by Pashtuns on both sides of the Durand Line.

Recently, a senior American civilian official in Afghanistan, Matthew Hoh, resigned in protest of U.S. policies. Part of his statement was:

'I fail to see the value ... in continuous U.S. casualties or expenditures of resources in support of the Afghan government in what is, truly, a 35-year old civil war.' ... 'The Pashtun insurgency is fed by what is perceived by the Pashtun people as a continued and sustained assault, going back centuries, on Pashtun land, culture, traditions and religion by internal and external enemies.

'The U.S. and NATO presence and operations in Pashtun valleys and villages, as well as Afghan army and police units that are led and composed of non-Pashtun soldiers and police, provide an occupation force against which the insurgency is justified.'

A U.N. official recently commented that: 'Seventy percent of the army's battalion commanders are Tajiks' ... 'It doesn't help that many of the army units sent to the Pashtun areas consist primarily of Tajiks who do not speak Pashto.'

In a New York Times op-ed piece in August, Selig Harrison, former Washington Post bureau chief in South Asia, wrote that 'One of the basic reasons many Pashtuns support the Taliban insurgency is that their historic rivals, ethnic Tajiks, hold most of the key levers of power in the government.' ... 'Tajiks largely control the armed forces and the intelligence and secret police agencies that loom over the daily lives of the Pashtuns.'

There's a real danger that we are inserting ourselves into a civil war that doesn't really concern the United States. That's what happened in Vietnam where we took sides in a contest between two factions in the country. One can see that that war was unnecessary by the fact that losing it had no serious consequences for the United States, except for the tens of thousands of unnecessary American deaths.

- Claude Garrod is a member of the Davis Peace Coalition. This column appears monthly.