In the conflict zones of Afghanistan, where multiple fronts shift concurrently, the lines between who is, or is not, a legitimate recipient of aid and protection are not just blurred but erased. As in other counterterrorism wars, these life or death issues are exacerbated by shifting power and territorial control between a growing insurgency, shrinking coalition ground forces and an escalating use of special forces and air operations.
As the baleful administration of President Donald Trump bumbles from one scandal to the next, a set of deeply disturbing patterns have emerged in the domestic politics and foreign policy of the United States.
When I was interviewing Afghan refugee writers and intellectuals in Iran in the mid-2000s, I soon realized that there was a gulf between their occupations and their aspirations.  The young poets who were the subjects of my research in the northeastern city of Mashhad often earned a living as manual laborers, construction or factory workers, or small-time street vendors. Some had woven rugs or made handicrafts as children, or engaged in other piecework in small workshops. They came together to read their poetry and short stories to each other on Fridays, their one precious day off. Most of them—both men and women—had benefited from at least a secondary education in Iranian state schools, and most hoped to continue on to university.
Anand Gopal, No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban and the War Through Afghan Eyes (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2014).
“There are no good men among the living, and no bad ones among the dead.” In the simplest sense, this Pashtun proverb is similar to the common injunction not to speak ill of the departed. In the course of Afghanistan’s long civil war, Anand Gopal writes, the saying has acquired a metaphorical meaning as well: No one is to be trusted. All alliances are temporary. The sole imperative is survival.
The themes of Adam Curtis’ new documentary Bitter Lake should be well known to those familiar with his body of work: power, techno-politics, science, managerialism and the media. The film uses the contemporary history of Afghanistan to tell a story about how polities in the West have become incapable of understanding the complex and horrible happenings around them. Traditional forms of power in the West and Afghanistan have taken advantage of the fear and confusion to consolidate their control, but at the expense of an intellectually deskilled Western public and a world that is fundamentally less governable. Bitter Lake is more fable than scholarship, but the film is nonetheless a devastating examination of how Western interventions in Afghanistan refract the vacuousness of our own politics.
Whoever made the decision to open the National September 11 Memorial Museum just a few days before Memorial Day was both bold and intuitive. The theme of remembrance unites both events, but the 9/11 memorial is a departure because it is dedicated to those so often forgotten in the recollection of national sacrifice—civilians.
I recently came across a document in the archives, a reminder that the march of “progress” in Afghanistan sometimes seems more reminiscent of a never-ending marching band reliably circling a parade ground. The martial metaphor here isn’t accidental: As elsewhere, security forces have been central to nearly every attempt to make Afghanistan a “modern” nation-state, a pattern echoed in today’s Beltway anxieties over how many local troops are deemed “ready” to take over in the event of a US withdrawal.
A jury today convicted on all counts Sulayman Abu Ghayth, a Kuwaiti preacher who made televised statements in support of al-Qaeda shortly after the attacks of September 11, 2001. As expected, war-on-terror liberals are seizing upon the outcome as proof that civilian courts are a superior alternative to military tribunals at Guantánamo. On Friday I blogged about some of the legal issues raised by the case and how it fits into broader US detention policies. Civilian trials are undoubtedly preferable to kangaroo courts at Guantánamo in principle and one hopes that the administration uses this verdict to finally close the prison in Cuba.
On a cold February day in London, over 40 Hazara men, women and children sat wrapped in blankets at the foot of the King George V monument opposite the Houses of Parliament. They were protesting the bombing of a vegetable market on February 16 in Quetta, Pakistan, that killed at least 91 of their brethren and wounded 190 more. It was the second day of their three-day sit-in and many had braved the freezing temperatures and the rain overnight. They had chosen to protest in this way as Hazaras — a predominantly Shi‘i Afghan ethnic group with a large, long-standing community in southwestern Pakistan — rather than joining the larger and more vocal crowd of diverse Shi‘i protesters outside the Pakistani High Commission two miles away.
American and NATO media handlers are in message control mode trying to contain the fallout from the escalation of insider killings of American and NATO soldiers by trained Afghan forces, known in military parlance as “green on blue” attacks. The latest rash of insider attacks on coalition forces has left at least 45 dead in 2012 to date. Fifteen members of the international coalition were killed in insider attacks in August, 12 of them American. In 2011, there were 21 attacks, killing 35; and in 2010 there were 11 attacks with 20 deaths.
Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan (Knopf, 2012).
The concept of “culture” took on new life in US military strategy in 2006. At the time of the US invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, cultural knowledge and training played no role in US military calculations; it was simply not part of the vocabulary of war. Culture became an official element of the US military’s arsenal with the 2006 publication of Field Manual 3-24: Counterinsurgency, referred to colloquially as “the COIN manual.” Under the COIN rubric, cultural knowledge functions as a tactical asset for troops and military strategists.
On President Barack Obama’s second day in office, one of the three executive orders he signed was a commitment to close the detention facility on the naval base at Guantánamo Bay as soon as possible but no later than one year thence. An inter-agency task force headed by White House counsel Greg Craig was established to come up with a plan. The new administration did not anticipate that this step would be controversial because, at the time, closing Guantánamo had bipartisan support, including from former President George W. Bush and Republican presidential contender Sen. John McCain. Bagram, the main US-controlled prison in Afghanistan, on the other hand, was being expanded — like the war in that country.
Thomas Barfield, Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010).
Two weapons today threaten freedom in our world. One — the 100-megaton hydrogen bomb — requires vast resources of technology, effort and money. It is an ultimate weapon of civilized and scientific man. The other — a nail and a piece of wood buried in a rice paddy — is deceptively simple, the weapon of a peasant.
—Lt. Col. T. N. Greene, The Guerrilla and How to Fight Him (1962)
Counterinsurgency is another word for brotherly love.
—attributed to Edward Lansdale
Pakistan lies at the heart of President Barack Obama’s plan to wind down America’s war in Afghanistan. If — as he avers — the “overarching goal” is to “disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” the war will be fought mainly in Pakistan. With fewer than a hundred fighters, al-Qaeda was defeated long ago in Afghanistan.