Peter Golden: North of Pakistan, East of Iran

Peter Golden

Roughly the size of Texas and with a population of about 13 million, Afghanistan has rightly been called "the graveyard of empires" for the simple reason that no Western power has ever "won" there. This is worth noting in light of the current debate as to proper U.S. policy in the region.

A casual look at the CIA Factbook, an online resource, begins to reveal the particulars on the country. While our national interest is clearly a factor in our actions toward South Asia - the region where Afghanistan is located - just what those actions should be and how they will play out in the larger context of global affairs is by no means a settled question.

Like a pinion in a mechanical watch, Afghanistan, a seemingly minor component in an enormously complex array of gears, exerts a major influence on a substantially larger mechanism. As the wheels of global trade turn and western interests push ever more deeply into areas where tribalism is still the dominant from of social organization, Afghanistan and the vast region surrounding it come ever more sharply into relief.

With our president just returned from China (which borders Afghanistan on the east), questions of great power relationships arise. These include such concerns as the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden, a general proxy for terrorism; the impact of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban on the country and region; the stability of Afghanistan's nuclear neighbor, Pakistan; and the global trade in heroin, which in part is dependent on Afghanistan's poppy crop, as durable a staple of the country's farming culture as marijuana and cocoa in Central and South America.

Other issues: Who will control and profit from the vast natural gas resources coming out of the other "Stans," those now-autonomous nations of the former Soviet Union capping Afghanistan's northern border? How can competing territorial claims between India and Pakistan in Kashmir (and accompanying acts of violence) be resolved? And to return to the Great Power department for a moment, how will the Chinese and U.S. balance their respective security and economic interests in the region?

Afghanistan lies north of Pakistan and east of Iran. Stretching beyond its horizons lay Turkey and the Middle East. One line of thought harkening back to the former Soviet Union's disastrous 1980s experience in Afghanistan holds that we should cut our losses and "pull out" (whatever that means).

Such wishes, while understandable, neglect an even greater complex of factors than those already noted: Afghanistan's next door neighbor and home to a shared ethnic population of Pashtuns (a constant source of political-military instability) is Pakistan, a country in a state of flux in which religion still trumps civil society and Western-style democracy is viewed with deep suspicion by much of the population.

One must also remember Pakistan's nuclear capability, its Saudi-funded fundamentalist madrassas (practically the only form of grade-school education available to a chronically under-educated population in some regions) and a long, highly-evolved domestic jihad movement dating back to the WW I era based on a potent blend of science and Islamo-centric thought.

The American interest

Along the Afghan-Pakistani border, such considerations may play out as clan wars, but without some form of Western military leverage in the region, you and I may wake up some morning to find a major American city reduced to a smoldering ruin of nuclear rubble. As unpalatable as it may seem, without long-term, expansive interdiction and intelligence networks on the ground in the region and a bevy of operatives and analysts to put disparate pieces together, such a scenario may not be all that improbable.

Yet, the range of opinion as to how to proceed is sharply divided. Recently I asked a retired mercenary soldier, a European with a sharply drawn sense of politics, what policy he would pursue in Afghanistan. "Immediate, unilateral withdrawal," was his terse and unequivocal reply.

Matthew Hoh, a former U.S. Marine and until recently a province-level manager of civilian reconstruction programs in Afghanistan for the U.S. State Department, publicly resigned his post last month while releasing a four-page letter explaining his actions to the media. Hoh positioned himself as caught in the middle of a long-running civil war between economically advantaged, urbane and apparently quite corrupt city dwellers and a poor peasantry in the countryside.

In Kabul, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has extracted promises from the Karzai regime to clean up its act, fight crime and show tangible evidence of progress. If this is a familiar refrain to an older generation, please reference a small, largely unobserved nation in Southeast Asia that now enjoys Favored Nation trading status with the U.S.. How many lives and dollars were spent on the fiasco of Vietnam while Madame Nu and Marshall Ky were championing "democracy" on one hand and playing the nepotism and drug-running game on the other?

Meanwhile, someone over in the U.S. Central Command must have heard something of Matthew Hoh's complaints. According to the New York Times, U.S. Special Forces detachments are now showing up in remote Afghan valleys with small loads of food and ammunition. In their support for local clans intent on countering Taliban religious thugs they are finally beginning to do what we did in the 1770s in response to English presumptions - building up village-level militias with the know-how to fight and win at the local level.

Insurgencies (a form of social dysfunction) in vast, untracked, mountainous countries beset by civil war, lack of education and limited economic opportunity cannot be countered by standing armies. Pour a million American troops into Afghanistan and class and religious conflict will still remain. Countering extremism is a multi-pronged process involving guerilla warfare and economic and cultural initiatives, not a battle of standing armies.

Alternatives to battle

Here's a thought: Take the focus off "winning" in Afghanistan. Plan to maintain a low-level presence for the foreseeable future. Transition out our regular troops and build up a force focused on counter-insurgency trained to fight so close to the ground that the idea of marrying into an Afghan family becomes familiar practice. Promote social relations, commerce and cultural exchange with the U.S. and European nations. Legalize the poppy crop on the basis of village licenses and turn the harvest to medicinal use in the form of medicinal morphine.

Hang out; farm; launch micro-commerce programs; start co-ops and educational initiatives that benefit rural populations; form institutions designed to bridge the class, ethnic and regional lines of the civil war that Mathew Hoh describes in his resignation letter. And try, as former NPR correspondent Sarah Chayes has been doing for years, to do much more for Afghan women, who are invariably objects of repression by fundamentalists like the Taliban and are probably our best grassroots allies in the region.

Meanwhile, open academic and vocational training doors in the U.S. and Europe to Afghan and other regional youth. Ninety-nine percent-plus of the Islamic world seems to be as interested as we are in real estate, college degrees and a robust consumer economy. What better way for young people to gain exposure to a secular society than through work and study in the U.S.?

Should we be negotiating with the Taliban and other proponents of re-establishing the Caliphate and Sharia law? - Of course, but take time - lots and lots of time. Culture is the most durable of human institutions and is only modified by long, intimate contact in an atmosphere of trust and mutual endeavor - and a robust, armed response to violent extremism.

Early in October, Ben Sklaver, a gifted young man from Hamden, Connecticut was killed in a terrorist bombing in Afghanistan. An Army captain and graduate of Tufts and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (like Mathew Hoh), Ben was among the best and the brightest of his generation. I knew him, briefly, through my daughter, who dated him years ago in high school.

There are better things for Americans and Afghanis to do than meet in an embrace of violence, enveloped in the fire of self-immolation. If we are to honor Ben's memory and that of his fallen American and European comrades, indeed all in Afghanistan who espouse peace and moderation, we must learn more of what Ben did in one of his earlier postings.

In his off hours, while serving as a military advisor to the Army of Uganda, he began a program to drill wells in rural villages. Later, he founded a non-profit organization called Clearwater to expand on his efforts.

Afghanistan is a dry and thirsty nation. North of Pakistan and east if Iran, drilling wells and other development work among the most poor, isolated and alienated seems like an excellent way to stem the forces of extremism and begin bending swords into ploughshares. As a response to the question "What should we do in Afghanistan," I can think of no better.

Peter Golden can be reached at

The MetroWest Daily News