Misreading Afghan ethnic conflicts cost two decades and trillions of dollars

Misreading Afghan ethnic conflicts cost two decades and trillions of dollars
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NATO and the U.S. will withdraw their last troops from Afghanistan by Aug. 31, 20 years after the al Qaeda terrorist attacks against the United States. Afghanistan was NATO’s largest and most ambitious operation ever. However, the Taliban’s almost daily military advances throughout the country now undercut its purpose. There is a real possibility that the Taliban may retake national power, and that al Qaeda may return to the country, contrary to the original reason for intervening at all.

How could things go so awry — and why did NATO and the U.S. decide to stay for two decades without reason at any point for optimism about Afghanistan’s ability to sustain itself? The short answer is that the Western countries were wrong from the beginning about being in a fight against oppressors of the Afghan people. By pursuing this narrative, they neglected the extent to which they had gotten involved in an ethnic conflict in Central Asia. If the imposition of democracy has shown anything, it is that Afghans in the ballot boxes identify themselves not only along ethnic lines but also against other ethnic groups.

Afghanistan is home to many ethnic conflicts but the most intense one is that between the Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group, and the non-Pashtuns (including Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras). The Taliban, which grows out of the Pashtun population, has a legacy of seeking to dominate national power, which in turn generated resistance from the non-Pashtun groups through changing webs of counter-coalitions. As opposed to the 1990s, the Taliban today however refrains from explicitly ethnic or sectarian attacks. It seeks to pose a nationalist movement to rally a larger number of tribes against the infidel invaders imposing liberal values and women’s rights on Afghanistan.

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U.S. and NATO efforts for democratic elections and economic development proved futile because neither ethnic group had reason to perceive the corrupt Afghan central state as legitimate. The shaky power-sharing agreement between a Pashtun president, Ashraf Ghani, and a Tajik “chief executive”, Abdullah Abdullah, underlines its artificial construction. The Western countries found themselves in an age-old ethnic conflict and could check it only for so long as they stayed in the country militarily. After two decades of insurgency, the Taliban is no less committed today to reestablishing Islamic rule over the country.

The U.S. and NATO seem to never have had a serious discussion about the really uncomfortable issue, namely the extent to which the Pashtun population and other tribes actually supported the Taliban and found their cause legitimate. They never have asked the uncomfortable question whether it was not mission impossible from the beginning to try to displace the Taliban’s networks, which many Afghans saw as legitimate insofar as they could provide services, legal stability, and limiting the arbitrary power of warlords. Had NATO and the U.S. approached the country more soberly, they might never have decided in favor of a comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign, which only dragged out the inevitable at the cost of so many extra lives and so much extra treasury. NATO never won the hearts and minds of the Afghan people, which saw it as supporting a central state that remained corrupt and predatory. Moreover, the Taliban enjoyed such an effective sanctuary among Pashtuns in neighboring Pakistan to rest and rearm that it perhaps never could have been defeated militarily.

As NATO and the U.S. are withdrawing from Afghanistan, continued funding will be critical to prevent an immediate collapse of the Kabul government similar to the embarrassing retreat from Saigon in 1975. External aid constitutes three quarters of its revenues and, despite widespread corruption related to “ghost soldiers,” is indispensable for running its security forces. NATO and the U.S. need to be at least privately honest about the fact that they will continue to be subsidizing a patronage system that buys elite loyalties in the struggle with the Taliban. Continued financial support should encourage unity for negotiations about shared power. The ambition now should be to prevent the worst-case scenario of a protracted civil war with atrocities similar to the 1990s.

For the little leverage they have left, it is time for the Western sponsors to play by Afghanistan’s ethnic rulebook.

Henrik Larsen, Ph.D., is a senior researcher at the Center for Security Studies at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich. He is the author of "NATO’s Democratic Retrenchment: Hegemony after the Return of History’" (2019).