Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Part V: At Last I Have Some Idea What my Job Will be in Afghanistan.

“Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Arabs do it tolerably than that you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them, not to win it for them.”

From The 27 Articles of T.E. Lawrence
By T.E. Lawrence (aka "Lawrence of Arabia”)
The Arab Bulletin, 20 August 1917


If you ask many of the folks on the street back home in the states they’ll tell you that the war in Afghanistan is over. This is far from true. While We the People did manage to remove the Taliban* regime from power quickly and efficiently, that was not the object of the invasion. While we have not yet located Osama bin Laden, that was only a side-note to the object of the invasion. And before you ask, we’re not in any big rush to build an oil pipeline across the country. That also was not the object of the invasion.

What then, was the object of the invasion? Stability. While the events of September 11, 2001 were horrific and the planners and perpetrators need to be brought to justice, what’s more important is making sure that it can never happen again. As one of the poorest, most unmanageable countries in the world, Afghanistan is the perfect breeding ground for international terror and crime groups to hatch, fester, and grow.

During the initial stages of the invasion, you would hear the occasional comment back home about how we need to bomb Afghanistan back into the Stone Age. What these folks didn’t understand was that Afghanistan was already in the Stone Age. Under the Taliban regime there was one (count them, ONE) computer with internet capability.** Even the capitol city of Kabul was without electricity most of the time. The scope of their power and influence in the nation was limited at best. In fact, much of the territory marked “Afghanistan” on most maps was never under any type of control while the Taliban was in power. The government, if you could call it that, was barely able to keep itself together not to mention the rest of the country.

So in the days following 9-11 it was made clear that this was a broken state at best and an oppressive, despotic regime at worst. Either way, the country called Afghanistan was not and never has been a threat to us. The invasion was not an act of revenge. It was a measure of preventative maintenance. The object of the invasion wasn't to destroy a nation, but to clear the way for the building of a nation. The problem is, you cannot bomb a country into building an effective government.*** This kind of conflict requires a slightly different approach.

That's where my job comes in. I’m working in a very rear-echelon, headquarters job helping to coordinate the efforts of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Afghanistan. There’s a bunch of them and only about half of them are American-led. The people that comprise the teams are military and civilian, governments and charities, engineers and agricultural advisors, and everything else you can imagine. The work that they’re doing ranks from simply amazing to seemingly impossible. In my short time in-country so far, they’ve coordinated billions of dollars worth of effort. They’re building roads and irrigation systems, developing renewable energy sources, enabling voter registration, and countless other projects.

The plan is not to just build a bunch of things and then hope for the best when we pull out. The plan instead is to provide materials and technical support while they build things. Wherever possible, we aren’t giving anyone any fish, we’re teaching people how to fish. We’re helping them build schools and train teachers, we’re providing security and training their policemen, we’re teaching carpenters and electricians and engineers and then helping them find jobs with local contractors to give the whole country a chance to build it into something it can be proud of for once.

There are, of course, challenges. To understand the breadth and depth of the problems that come with building a fully-functioning nation here, you first have to understand that it’s never really been a nation as such. Depending on your definition, a “nation” is a large body of people, associated with a particular territory that is sufficiently conscious of its unity to seek or to possess a government peculiarly its own. Or, in looser terms, a nation is an aggregation of persons of the same ethnic family, often speaking the same language or cognate languages. Afghanistan is neither of these.

For the longest time this portion of the world was just a collection of local tribes which had settled in their particular valleys and to some extent it still is. In fact, the borders of Afghanistan were more or less arbitrarily determined when it was set up as a buffer state between the British Empire and the Czarist Russian Empire. Its people include dozens of ethnic varieties, four main languages and countless others, and a wide variety of religious faiths. Slightly more than half of the population is Pashtun. The rest are Hazara, Uzbek, Arab, Tajik, Turkmen, and so many others that decades could be spent studying them and only scratching the surface.

So our goal here is to take this long-neglected little corner of the world and build it up into a functioning nation. This is where it gets tricky. So far, Alexander the Great, Genghis Kahn, the British Empire, the Czars of Russia, and the Soviet Union have all failed to establish any real influence in this area. In each case, the locals have managed to mount an effective opposition and drive the foreign invaders out. Then, with no foreigners left to fight, they would go on pursuing their own local civil wars and tribal conflicts.

How then, can we possibly hope it’ll be different for us? First off, we’re not here to make an American colony. We don’t want it and we don’t need it. There is very little in the way of natural resources to be had in this country and extracting those resources will prove to be even more difficult. Second, we’ve got a very distinct plan to depart when our work here is done and the Afghan people know this.

While there are plenty of criminals out here who are trying their best to grab as much stuff as they can before we go, there are an overwhelming majority of the locals who are making a serious bid to improve their lot. Between the Soviet invasion and the latest civil war, this country has been at war for 30 straight years now. For the first time in three decades, there’s a chance to make life better.

This begs the question: since we’re doing all of these wonderful things here, why is there still a war then? The answer: any change that’s this big takes time. We’re trying to teach them to settle their differences in courtrooms instead of battlefields. We’re trying to teach them to grow wheat instead of opium. We’re trying to teach them that women are more than just livestock. While many of the people of Afghanistan are open to these ideas, some are not. Some of them continue to take up arms and disrupt progress in any way they can.

During the initial invasion, most of the extremists just faded into the hills and mountains where they could simply blend in with the population. As US and NATO forces manage to establish security in larger and larger areas, these insurgent elements are driven farther and farther into the hills.

It’s no secret that the bulk of the insurgent forces have found their way across the border to safe havens in Pakistan. This isn’t really the fault of Pakistan. The border is a mountainous region with a myriad number of roads, trails, and goat paths and the insurgents move in small groups and look just like any of the other folks who might be wandering in that part of the countryside. They hide there to rest, recuperate, resupply, and re-arm, and then it’s back to the fight against the international forces stationed in Afghanistan. That's the bad part.

The good part is that we get to be the good guys. For instance, say we set up shop somewhere and help the locals build a bridge so they can cross a river to bring their goods to market and some hope of prosperity. Then the insurgents come along, drag everyone out of their homes, beat up the local elders, and then burn the bridge to the ground while decrying it as the work of the evil foreigners. It doesn’t take much reasoning to understand that we are winning the battle for the hearts and minds of the people, but there’s still a long ways to go.

How will it end? There are two ways. First, we continue to do whatever we can to establish a strong, legitimate government with the support of the people and the ability to maintain security in the country. Second, we lose sight of why we invaded in the first place. Then we pull out only to watch these honest, industrious people fall under the yoke of drug lords and warlords and wait until someone else decides to use Afghanistan as a base of operations for another attack against the Great Satan of the West.****

*The term "Taliban" translates literally to mean "student." As originally conceived, the Taliban in Afghanistan were a group of student cleric revolutionaries determined to build a pure Islamic government in Afghanistan.

**The one internet-capable computer was kept deep inside the government compound and access was only given to one "trusted man" lest Western ideology be allowed to penetrate the country.

***While the United States has always been challenged by limited engagements, it’s worth pointing out that these sorts of police actions and counter-insurgencies have constituted the bulk of our nation’s military history. Even before the United States was the United States, back as far as the French and Indian War, our military was conducting counter-insurgency operations. We’ve been working to stabilize conflicts and/or build governments everywhere from Haiti to the Philippines and, believe it or not, we have the necessary skills. The only challenge is keeping the American people from losing heart and backing out before the job is done.

****In case you hadn’t heard, that’s us.

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