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Martin Parsons: The future of Afghanistan (part 1) - The West must aim at the restoration of an Afghanistan similar to that prior to the Soviet invasion

Screen shot 2012-06-24 at 23.19.42Martin Parsons is currently director of faculty of Britain’s newest sixth form college in Lowestoft, Suffolk. He has a PhD in Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations and has written a major academic book on this subject. He is currently writing a further book on Conservativism and Christianity and is a member of the parliamentary candidates list.

What will Afghanistan be like after the withdrawal of international combat forces? In part 1 we examine what outcomes are likely for Afghanistan itself in the lead up to and immediately following the withdrawal of the main western combat forces at the end of 2014. In part 2 we will examine the wider implications for international security and British foreign policy. 

Afghans are war weary, they are also very suspicious of foreigners. A couple of years after the Taliban had fallen, whilst an aid worker in the country, I found Afghans would come up to me discreetly to talk on their own about the future of the country, but would not do so in cafes where others could hear. They were not sure which way the wind would blow in the future - more specifically how long western forces would stay. That nervousness is inevitably there now, and is the reason that we will almost certainly see increasing numbers of desertions from the Afghan National Army and police, but also "green on blue" attacks as Afghan soldiers and police perceive that attacking western colleagues is a way of ensuring their own safety from the Taliban, who they believe may regain power after western withdrawal. There will also be increasing numbers of direct Taliban attacks as anti-western forces seek to exert increasing dominance of the situation. There is a pattern that has happened in other similar situations such as the British withdrawal from Aden in 1967. Western governments can either exacerbate that problem by speeding up withdrawal in the face of increasing numbers of such attacks, or they can limit its spread by holding their political nerve. At the moment the former appears to look more likely.

So what will Afghanistan be like in the period after withdrawal of western combat forces? Facets of the country’s political history and culture provide some indicators:

The waiting strategy - Pushtun culture

The Taliban are a predominantly Pushtun grouping. The Pushtun tribal code known as Pushtunwali has two central poles – hospitality (Melmastia) and blood vengeance (badal). These place incredibly strong duties on every Pushtun man both to provide sanctuary (nanawati) to anyone who asks for it and to take blood vengeance on the extended family of anyone who has killed a member of his own extended family. That is a key reason why it was so difficult for them to accede to western demands to timescale for taking blood vengeance – one simply waits until the most opportune time, which may be twenty years after someone has been killed. What this means for western strategy in Afghanistan is that we need to understand that it is deeply embedded in Pushtun culture, and hence in Taliban thinking, to wait, if necessary several years, for the most opportune time to kill your enemy. So, when the US announced what was widely seen to be a "withdrawal" date from Afghanistan, the default Taliban thinking is almost certain to have been along the lines of "keep up a few attacks, but wait until the most opportune time – i.e. when it is just the Afghan National Army (ANA) and then attack big time both to take blood vengeance and to seize back power".

How long will ANA last?

That of course is the question that no one can accurately say, although in some measure it may depend on the extent to which western governments hold their nerve, rather than cutting and running as attacks on them, including "green on blue" ones from renegade ANA soldiers and police increase. The answer will also depend on the location. The ANA is 97% non-Pushtun and so is likely to be strongest and most loyal in Farsi speaking areas, particularly Kabul and, to a lesser degree, the northern areas such as Panjshir and Badakhshan. Conversely, it is most likely to collapse in the Pushtun areas of the south such as Helmand and Kandahar, and east such as Nangrahar province around Jalalabad.

The rural-urban divide

Whilst the Afghan National Army is likely to control Kabul and probably major cities, it is much less likely to retain control more than temporarily of outlying rural areas. Prior to the 2001 western intervention, every successive Afghan government had had, at best, minimal control of most of these areas, particularly those at some distance from Kabul. The real question is whether these areas will return to tribal control or be taken over by the Taliban. The question of why British soldiers fought and died to hold onto outlying rural areas such as Musa Qala in Helmand province is likely to be an extremely difficult question for the British government to answer if the Taliban take control shortly after the withdrawal of coalition forces at the end of 2014.

The Pushtun/non-Pushtun divide

There is likely to be an increasing divide between government and non-government controlled areas based on ethnicity. The Taliban are predominantly a Pushtun movement, the largest tribal grouping which is dominant in the south and east. These areas are likely to be the first to be contested by the Taliban with particular focus on seizing the area around Kandahar in the south which has historically been the centre of the Pushtun tribal culture. If Kandahar falls to the Taliban, Afghanistan will effectively have reverted to two countries – the situation that existed prior to the 2001 western intervention when there were (at least!) two different governments in different parts of the country. That of course would mean a civil war of the sort that we saw in the period prior to 2001.

The waiting war lords

Prior to 2001, Afghanistan had been ruled by various groups of mujahaddin (holy warriors engaged in jihad) who held sway over different regions. These groups had come to prominence in the fight against the Soviet invasion. However, most owed their origins to the Islamist movment that began in the 1970s and later splintered into different political parties. In the opinion of many ordinary Afghans, the good people got out of the mujhaddin after the Russians left, when the remaining mujahaddin warlords fought each other and then later the Taliban for control of the country, It is important to emphasise that these mujahaddin commanders are not part of traditional Afghan culture. They were (originally) young men with guns who gained power at the expense of the old men – the grey beards who are the traditional elders in Afghan society. They are also radical Islamists in contrast to the traditionalist Islam of wider Afghan society, which, whilst fundamentalist by western standards, is not overtly political.

These warlords still have considerable power and sway because the government led by Hamid Karzai that was set up under western auspices following the 2001 military intervention was a coalition government. There is a very real danger that the withdrawal of western combat forces will lead to large areas of Afghanistan again falling under the sway of these local warlords, particularly in the north where the Taliban are less likely to gain control quickly. This is likely to be exacerbated by President Karzai's term of office ending in 2014, just as the main western combat forces leave the country.

The longer term

I have written before of the possibility of cultural strategies which an Afghan government could use to neutralise the Taliban threat. However the precondition to these working would be both a position of relative strength by the Afghan government in relation to the Taliban and non-interference by the west. However, it is questionable how realistic either of these will be immediately after the withdrawal of western combat forces at the end of 2014.

Any return of the Taliban or other radical Islamist groups to control of part or all of Afghanistan would mean the brutal imposition of sharia in a similar manner to the way in which the Taliban enforced it before 2001. However, Afghan history shows that whenever there has been a clash between Pushtunwali, the Pushtun tribal code, and sharia, Pustunwali has always won. In fact, mullahs are very much regarded as outsiders in Pushtun society. The classic example of this was the case of Sayyid Ahmad Shah Bareli who led a Taliban like movement in the early part of the nineteenth century. However, when he preached against Pushtun marriage customs, the Pushtun tribes conspired against him and murdered both him and his immediate followers one night in 1831. Pushtun ballads are still sung in memory of this event. It is this anti-clericalism in Pushtun tribal culture that may ultimately cause a Taliban revival to burn out. However, that still begs the question of how much of Afghanistan they could be confined to and how much damage to people’s lives, Afghan society and international security they might do in the meantime.

Our medium term strategy must therefore be to aim at the restoration of a situation similar to that prior to the Soviet invasion – when major cities were increasingly subject to liberal influences, particularly among the Kabul elite, while much of the countryside was dominated by tribal elders and customary tribal law which, whilst not exactly living up to western standards of human rights, is definitely preferable to Taliban enforced sharia. This situation would allow a long term strategy of seeking to bring in liberal influences from the centre outwards to Afghan society.

In part 2 tomorrow we will examine what these likely changes mean both for international security and British foreign policy.


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