The international occupation of Afghanistan is in bad shape. US casualties are up — at times the ratio of killed and wounded to troops deployed is equal to that in Iraq, though of course the total numbers are not. Taliban attacks are intensifying, and now include frequent suicide bombings. Kidnappings are becoming more common. NGOs are being attacked and pulling out. Over 200 schools have been burned down and closed. Each year, fewer roads are safe to travel. The country’s economy lies in ruins and its government is a largely dysfunctional kleptocracy. A new round of aid is coming — at a February 2006 donors’ conference in London, $10.5 billion was pledged through 2011 — but the long-term prognosis looks bad.

In the face of this disaster, the US is drawing down its troop levels from 20,000 to 15,000, while the Europeans are
deploying more troops and boosting their development aid. In short, the US, having mismanaged the project, is handing the mess off to the Europeans, who seem ready to take on the burden despite the many attendant risks. How are we to understand this set of dynamics?

Facts on the ground in Afghanistan — the internal politics of ethnic factionalism, regionalism, a north-south split, religious fundamentalism, underdevelopment and warlordism — need to be placed in a proper international context. In that regard, three elements must be brought in to the equation. They are the war in Iraq, US-European relations and the role of Pakistan as a regional power that seeks to keep Afghanistan weak. Together, these three factors do much to explain Afghanistan’s latest tragedy.

Political Prop

The primary function of Afghanistan for the Bush administration was as a stepping stone to a later, larger invasion. It has also served as a political prop for use in selling the global war on terror and explaining away the deepening quagmire in Iraq.
Just after the September 11, 2001 attacks, then Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz pushed hard for making Iraq a priority target in the new war. His boss Donald Rumsfeld also urged an attack on Iraq, arguing in part that Afghanistan had “no decent targets.” [1] Others in the administration, like White House counterterrorism adviser Richard Clarke and Secretary of State Colin Powell, were horrified, and prevailed upon the president to limit the US military response to Afghanistan for the time being. But Wolfowitz, buttressed by Vice President Dick Cheney and his national security adviser, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, continued to press for regime change in Iraq. [2]

As it happened, the invasion of Afghanistan served to justify Rumsfeld’s goal of “military transformation” and his theory of light, fast warfare. The Taliban were easily knocked over with a minimum of regional unrest, helping to justify the theory then used to sell the invasion of Iraq.

The underlying desire to attack Iraq shaped the opening stages of the Afghan occupation in ways that were very destructive to the 24 million people of Afghanistan and may ultimately undo the foreign occupation. The fast and light military strategy, the rushed political process, and the sloppy formation of a government are all coming back to haunt the occupiers. During the first two years of the occupation, there were only 9,000 US troops on the ground. The Pentagon’s “tooth to tail” ratio (the proportion of combat units to support units) being what it is, that meant there were rarely more than 800 to 900 US soldiers actually in the field at any one time. Ultimately, the early occupation was just a big manhunt. (Recall that critics of the war had suggested that, instead of an invasion, an international police action focused on capturing bin Laden would have been acceptable.) As for economic development, the Bush administration’s commitment to a new Afghanistan was such that it failed even to request any money for aid to Afghanistan in its 2003 budget. Alerted to this shameful oversight, Congress scrambled to find $300 million.

Once the occupation of Iraq was underway, and going badly, Afghanistan emerged in the Bush administration’s script as the happy analog of the increasingly gloomy debacle in Mesopotamia. If Iraq was falling apart, wracked with sectarian violence, then Afghanistan was on the verge of a new dawn, passing all of its milestones: the loya jirga, the constitution, the presidential elections and the parliamentary election. The administration told the same story about the post-Saddam political transition in Iraq, but there greater media scrutiny rendered the narrative far less credible.

As in Iraq, however, the rush to meet deadlines — deadlines that suspiciously anticipated US electoral cycles in ways convenient to the Republican Party — misshaped the government of Afghanistan. The core issue here is that, at each turn, the warlords of the Northern Alliance have been allowed to entrench themselves deeper into the Afghan state.

After using the Northern Alliance to help topple the Taliban, the US had the opportunity to thank them for their services and dismiss them. What some have called “the B-52 effect” was in operation: the warlords had witnessed such a shocking and awesome spectacle of violence unleashed from the sky that they were, by all accounts, cowed and ready for instructions. Instead of sending them home to be mere landlord thugs, the US invited the warlords into the government, deeply dismaying the many capable and often politically progressive Afghan exiles who had returned to help build a new country. But creating a warlord government was the quickest way to create short-term stability, and “success” in Afghanistan was the quickest way to Iraq.

With warlords running the government, corruption and drug dealing became part of the state’s activities, giving a boost to opium poppy cultivation and undermining development. Now, stunningly corrupt warlords — like Rashid Dostum,
Abdul Rasul Sayyaf and Mohammad Mohaqqeq — bathe in the inflow of drug lucre and aid money. Stalled development leads to rising frustration and, thence, to continued instability and a growing insurgency.

Insecurity is thus intimately linked to Afghanistan’s still shattered economy and to the state’s endemic corruption. The country is totally dependent on foreign aid, opium poppy culti- vation and remittances sent home by the five million Afghans living abroad. According to a USAID consultant in country, Afghanistan’s internal markets are so entirely dominated by Pakistan, Iran and China that even two thirds of the wool used in weaving Afghan carpets is imported. War has decimated Afghan sheep herds that badly.

Since late 2001, the international community has spent $8 billion on emergency aid and reconstruction in Afghanistan. But corruption has absorbed much of the aid flow. According to the World Bank director in Afghanistan, Jean Mazurelle: “In Afghanistan, the wastage of aid is sky-high. There is real looting going on, mainly by private enterprises. It is a scandal.” He has estimated that 35–40 percent of Afghan aid is “badly spent.”3 Most of the incoming funds are donated to and spent by the UN, NGOs and private firms; only about one quarter of the money goes through the Afghan government. Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his cabinet members have called for that amount to increase. As Finance Minister Anwar ul-Haq Ahadi complained at the February donors’ conference in London, “We could do a much better job if we had more control of the funds and were able to award contracts locally. Too much money is wasted on salaries, offices and overhead.” [4] But there is ample waste in the government of Afghanistan as well. A ramshackle collection of 32 often redundant ministries — in addition to the Finance Ministry, for instance, there are Ministries of Commerce and Economy — the state is little more than a vehicle for dispensing patronage, awarding sinecures and organizing shakedown schemes.

In some areas, police are said to buy their jobs, not because they so covet the paltry $50–100 monthly salaries they receive, but for the opportunity to “tax” businesses and traffic at the district level. Fazil Ahmad Manawi, a Supreme Court deputy, acknowledges that bribery exists among the judiciary and points to the low salaries as an explanation. One Afghan American told me he had to spend $9,000 in bribes just to get a land title transferred from one family member to another. People at the highest levels of government concede that bribery is a way of life in Afghanistan.

Proving Ground

Why are the Europeans and the Canadians stepping into this US-made morass? What benefit accrues to them?

On the economic front, much of the new aid is coming from European Union member states and Japan. Militarily, the primarily European-staffed and NATO-led International Security Assistance Force is increasing its troop levels from about 9,000 to 15,000. This European buildup is not an EU operation. Rather, it is the sum total of several NATO states all cutting separate deals with Washington.

The European states were dragged into the Afghanistan project one by one, kicking and screaming. As one diplomat explained: “They want to be good allies and create [a sense of ] obligation [in] the US — show their power — but they are very worried about casualties, about domestic fallout, and about the costs and possible failure.” Afghanistan is therefore a sort of geopolitical proving ground.

In the early 1990s, many European politicians wished to form an EU-based rapid reaction force so that Europe could project power as a single entity. This never came to be. European military power is still primarily contained within the US-dominated NATO structure. Part of the backstory is the EU’s overexpansion into Eastern Europe, which left the EU too big and cumbersome to coalesce into a proper proto-federal state with a single constitution and military force.

The EU rush eastward was, in many respects, an attempt to keep up with the US, which, before EU expansion, had extended NATO to the east. With states like Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland linked to the US via NATO, many European leaders felt these states would act as a pro-US buffer zone, separating the EU from Russia. The solution was to incorporate these same states into Europe so as to counter-balance the pull of US power. But, as yet, a Europe with so many member states has been unable to surmount the obstacles of drafting a universally agreeable constitution, let alone those of building an integrated military. Thus, the more ambitious, Atlanticist European powers continue to cut deals one by one with the US. But the basic equation is the same: Europe, in general, seeks to use its military abilities to create reciprocity with the US. At the same time, the European powers, correctly, see US military might as the central force holding together a world system in which European business interests benefit massively (even if these interests also on occasion collide with US business interests). So they halfheartedly volunteer to bail out the US enterprise in Afghanistan.

Many observers hope that a European-led counterinsurgency strategy will be more sophisticated and effective than current US methods, which are rightly criticized as heavy-handed, overly focused on military means, culturally insensitive and badly marred by the torture and murder of prisoners at the Bagram detention facility. As one adviser to the British Embassy put it: “Detaining and mistreating random cab drivers? Not so good for US legitimacy.” The next five years — with the new round of funding and infusion of fresh European troops — are seen as Afghanistan’s last chance to stanch the growing Taliban insurgency. But it is doubtful that the Taliban can be beaten.

Pakistani Backyard

Pakistan is the other key ingredient in this cocktail. Afghanistan and Pakistan have had a tumultuous relationship since before Pakistan became a sovereign state. The groundwork for trouble was laid in 1893, when Afghanistan was separated from British India by the Durand Line, drawn up by Mortimer Durand and forced upon Abdur Rahman Khan, the otherwise “Iron Emir” of Afghanistan. The border, the intended purpose of which was to divide Pashtun and Baluch tribal lands, translated into territorial loses for Afghanistan, including the old winter capital Peshawar. The treaty was seen as a betrayal and has rankled Afghans ever since. When it expired 100 years later, Afghanistan refused to renew its terms.

The Durand Line’s main political impact has been to divide “Pashtunistan,” leaving millions of Pashto speakers dispersed between Afghanistan and Pakistan. In Afghanistan, Pashtuns have always been the largest ethnic group, today making up 40 percent of the population, and have ruled the country ever since Ahmad Shah Durrani was crowned emir in 1747. Karzai is but the latest in a long, unbroken line of governing Pashtuns.

In Pakistan, however, Pashtuns are a large, poor, restive minority whose numbers the state persistently undercounts. Herein lies the problem. The last thing Pakistan wants is for the Pashtun minority within its borders to link up with or become the tools of a strong neighboring Afghanistan ruled by Pashtuns. The Pakistani military is the main institution driving this logic, just as it has been the main institution in Pakistan’s political life for much of the past 50 years. Pakistan also wants Afghanistan to remain feeble and disunited so as to provide “strategic depth” or fallback room in case of a major land war with India. Pakistan dominates Afghan consumer markets; it receives water from the undammed Kabul and Kunar rivers; and it loots Afghanistan’s ghostly battlefields for scrap metal, tons of it. Pakistan’s benefits from a weak Afghanistan are myriad.

By some accounts, Islamabad began covert destabilization of its mountainous neighbor as early as 1973, [5] when it began to arm and train disaffected Afghans to harass the nationalist government of Daoud Khan, who supported the idea of “Pashtunistan” — code for irredentist Afghan claims to the Pakistani side of the Durand Line. That destabilization seemed to have worked because Daoud soon mellowed and was ready to parley with Pakistan.

With the Communist coup of 1978 and the Soviet invasion of 1979, Pakistan’s Pashtun problem became part of developmentalist Kabul’s jihad problem. What had been a mix of ethnic political problems was recast, with money from the CIA and Saudi Arabia and management by the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence directorate (ISI), as an anti-modernist, religious backlash. The mujahideen backed by Washington, Riyadh and Islamabad eventually forced a Soviet withdrawal in 1989 and overthrew the Communists in 1992. During the mujahideen’s brief “rule,” which was really just four years of civil war, Pakistan switched its allegiance to the Taliban, who swept into power across southern Afghanistan in 1996.

With the attacks of September 11, discussion of Pakistani-Taliban relations turned on how Musharraf would soon be forced to ditch his Pashtun clients so as to serve the new US agenda. Such a change of course would gain the general many concessions, but it would undermine the perpetual structural agenda of keeping Afghanistan weak.

The benefits Musharraf would eventually receive included: an end to the US sanctions that had been imposed by President Bill Clinton after Islamabad’s 1998 nuclear tests, relief from some of Pakistan’s $38 billion international debt, a legitimation of the general’s 1999 putsch, more loans from international financial agencies and a closer relationship with Washington to offset the closer Indian-US relations.

But why give up the traditional agenda of destabilizing and controlling Afghanistan just to cozy up to Washington? Why not do both at once? Thus, Pakistan now plays both roles. It is Washington’s indispensable ally, the local broker, and ostensibly the chief partner in the ongoing hunt for bin Laden, while continuing to be the chief meddler (outpacing the US itself ) in Afghanistan. This two-horse strategy has caused Karzai to complain about Musharraf’s lackluster anti-terror efforts.


When I met Taliban fighters in a canyon in Zabul province in February 2006, they made no bones about receiving support from Pakistan, and neither did the Taliban spokesman I interviewed by satellite phone. Likewise, in the April 2006 Esquire, Sebastian Junger interviews a former Taliban commander who had switched sides and had available the cell phone and address of his ISI handler, a major, based in Quetta. The Taliban turncoat told Junger that he feared the ISI was about to sell him out to the US. He worried that a recent promotion to command troops in Afghanistan was in fact just a prelude to life as a US captive.

One theory is that the ISI disposes of people it does not like or need by turning them in to the US military. This tactic would serve two purposes at once: getting rid of local problems, while pleasing the unwitting foreign master by proffering meaningless battlefield trophies. For many a CIA officer, or Guantànamo-based interrogator, locked away as they are in the compartmentalized cells of the sprawling US war bureaucracy, one bearded Pashtun gunman is as good as the next. The roster of Taliban leaders busted by Western forces is a series of nobodies: useful fools sent into Afghanistan with the ISI’s blessing and then sold to the US.

Meanwhile, Mullah Omar and the leadership council operate quite effectively from Pakistan. Nor do the most important commanders, who run what both Taliban and Afghan intelligence sources told me were three regional fronts in Afghanistan, seem hampered by the threat of arrest or assassination. The last important Taliban to be captured was a spokesman named Abdul Latif Hakimi, in October 2005. In the meantime, Mullah Omar’s promised wave of suicide bombers seems to be cresting.

Where is it all headed? Perhaps a defeat in Iraq will cause the US to tack back around the Afghan buoy and, in the face of gathering crisis there, attempt to make the reconstruction work. More likely, Afghanistan will be kept just barely afloat until the Western political classes tire of the effort. Then it will be cut loose to sink once more into chaos.


[1] Richard Clarke, Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War on Terror (New York: Free Press, 2004).
[2] James Mann, Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush’s War Cabinet (New York: Viking, 2004), pp. 300–302.
[3] Agence France-Presse, January 28, 2006.
[4] Financial Times, February 1, 2006.
[5] See, for instance, Tara Kartha, “Pakistan and the Taliban: Flux in an Old Relationship,” Strategic Analysis (India) 24/7 (October 2000).


How to cite this article:

Christian Parenti "Afghan Wonderland," Middle East Report 239 (Summer 2006).

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