When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains.

After the defeat of the Soviet Union and the withdrawal of its forces in 1989, Afghanistan collapsed into civil war.  From that appalling war the Taliban, an Islamic fundamentalist movement, emerged victorious.  Then the Taliban provided a home for Osama bin Laden.  Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda group then truck-bombed two American embassies in East Africa and attacked the U.S.S. Cole in Yemen.  The Clinton administration kinda-sorta wanted to do something about the problem.  However, Americans weren’t ramped-up for war at the time; the head of the CIA wasn’t sure that it was OK to kill foreign terrorists; Pakistan saw the Taliban as a useful client[1]; cruise missiles were problematic because flying them across Pakistan into Afghanistan might trigger a Paki-Indian nuclear war by mistake, so you had to tell the Pakis about the attacks and the Pakis told Bin Laden; the U.S. military despised Bill Clinton, so they didn’t work hard at providing the dough-head with options; and drones were just a twinkle in the eye of weapons designers.  So, the Americans did nothing effective.  Then came 9/11.[2]

Virtually none of the original conditions now apply.  Americans now are perfectly content to blow up suspected Islamist radicals; drones have advanced massively in number and capacities; no American regards either Afghanistan or the Pakistan’s “tribal regions” as a “No Go  Zone”; any thinking person regards Pakistan as an enemy state; and—as under Bill Clinton—the American military wants to limit the range of choices presented to the president.   Now Americans can strike at radical Islamists with a free hand.  Why not just say 2017 is not 2001?  What are we to do?  Why send troops?  Get.  Out.  Yet the recent war-plan announced by President Trump takes little account of these –perceived only by me?—realities.

Well, what about the blown-up Buddhist statues because radical Islamists object to the physical representation of deities (icons) and to polytheism?  What about the ban on televisions (for the same reason they blew up the Buddhist statues)?  What about the women in blue burkas falling down in the street because they can’t see where they’re going?  What about the “honor killings”?  What about the sodomized young boys because sometimes that how men with guns roll?  Sucks to be them.  But it sucks to be an American soldier.  Just one percent of Americans do military service. (Lots more put yellow ribbons on the trunks of cars and the tail-gates of pick-up trucks.  So, that’s a help, I’m realize.)  Even so, for whom and for what do we ask American soldiers to fight?  For oil companies?  For feminist ideals of how all women should be treated?  For hetero-normativity?  So we don’t have to say we lost a war?

Why aren’t people in the streets over this issue?  They were when I was a kid.[3]  Four decades later, the same generation appears indifferent to a war shrouded in puzzles.  (OK, some of them are exercised over transgender bathrooms and Confederate monuments.[4])  Where is Congress on the war?

Where does South Asia (Afghanistan, Pakistan, India) fit in America’s national security strategy?  Where does it rank in comparison to Western Europe, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and the Far East?  What happens if we “lose” Afghanistan?  What would we get out of “winning” in Afghanistan?  What would constitute “winning”?  IDK.  I’m just one guy.

[1] They still do.

[2] See: The Report of the 9/11 Commission.

[3] Truth in packaging: I wasn’t one of them.  Never occurred to me.  OK, Seattle in the Seventies was a time machine: take you back to the world of Ward and June Cleever.  Really, it was just shy and contrarian me.

[4] Republicans hold the White House, the Senate, the House of Representatives, the Supreme Court, and 34 state governorships.  It seems unlikely that these sorts of issues offer a path to a Democratic majority.

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Opium War.

Opium was a familiar plague in Asia before the 20th Century. Chinese efforts to ban the import of opium from British India led to the Opium Wars, which China lost. Conquering opium became associated with conquering sovereignty for the Chinese. When the Chinese Communists won the civil war in 1949, they launched a campaign against drug use and against opium production within China. Chinese producers fled to Laos and Burma (today’s Myanmar). Anti-drug campaigns in other Middle Eastern and Asian countries pushed the heart of production into increasingly remote areas: Burma, Laos, and most of all, Afghanistan. Once the long war against the Soviet Union and its Afghan puppets (1979-1989) wrecked traditional wheat and grape farming, Afghan peasants moved into growing opium poppies

Since the Iranian Revolution (1979) the government has tried to end drug abuse, production, and role as a transit corridor for Afghan production. Afghan producers shifted their routes to the successor states created by the collapse of the Soviet Union (1990). The hall-marks of these successor states were poverty, corruption, and badly secured nuclear stockpiles left over from the Soviet Union. For criminals—or for Islamists—conditions were perfect. (There’s a movie in this, if only Hollywood will listen.)

The Taliban, like the Iranian regime, tried hard to suppress the opium trade and opium use in Afghanistan after they came to power. In 2000 the Taliban ordered an end to poppy farming and to the opium trade. Partly, they wanted to end a social evil; partly they wanted to destroy the financial base of the regional warlords who opposed them. Whatever their motive, opium production came to a near halt. The American invasion in 2001 toppled the Taliban, freed the warlords to pursue their traditional actions, and caused the Taliban itself to turn to opium dealing as a way of financing its war to return to power. Within a few years of the American invasion, almost 90 percent of the world’s opium again came from Afghanistan. Myanmar and Laos came in distant second and third places.

Afghanistan is hardly the only weak state that is caught up in the international narcotics trade. In 1998 the Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il launched his government into the opium trade, producing it on collective farms and transporting the product through North Korea’s embassies. Nigerian drug dealers have set up business in Bangkok to buy Pakistani and Iranian heroin for re-sale everywhere there is a part of the Nigerian diaspora. (There’s a movie in this, if only Hollywood will listen.) The cocaine cartels fighting against the Columbian government broadened their own product-line to include opium poppies and then heroin.

In the eyes of American officials, putting a stop once again to the opium trade appeared to be essential to building a viable Afghan state by taming both the warlords and the Taliban. A viable state, in turn, formed a prerequisite to an American escape from Afghanistan. In early 2005 the Americans and the Afghan government launched “Plan Afghanistan,” which was modeled on the “Plan Columbia” anti-cocaine campaign begun in 1999.[1] The plan combined assistance to farmers to help them shift to other crops with efforts to eradicate opium poppies and interrupt the movement of opium out of the country. So far, neither “Plan” appears to have made a serious dent in the trade. Drugs give weak states a kind of strength, just not the kind we want.

Matthew Quirk, “The World in Numbers: The New Opium War,” Atlantic, March 2005, pp. 52-53.

[1] This offers an interesting example of analogical thinking as a guide to action. See: Yuen Foong Khong, Analogies at War: Korea, Munich, Dien Bien Phu, and the Vietnam Decisions of 1965 (Princeton UP, 1992); and Richard Neustadt and Ernest May, Thinking In Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers (Free Press, 1988).

Carlotta Gall on Afghanistan

The British had an empire all over the world, so both British journalism and the British intelligence service had an unusual reach. Many of the empire-builders, journalists, and intelligence officers were willing to go where others feared to tread. Henderson Alexander “Sandy” Gall (1927) grew up on a rubber plantation in Malaya, went to school in Britain, and then went to work for a series of news agencies. He reported on the Suez Crisis (1956); the Hungarian Crisis (1956); the Congo Crisis (1960-1963); the Vietnam War (various times, 1965-1975); the Six Days War (1967); Uganda (where he was arrested by Idi Amin’s police in 1972 while reporting on the expulsion of the Indians); and the Yom Kippur War (1973). Along the way, Gall did some work for MI 6, the British intelligence service. He slowed down a bit for a decade to work as the news presenter on a television show and to have a family. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 he went there to make a series of documentaries about the “mujahideen” fighting against the Russkies.

His daughter, Carlotta Gall (1971?- ) is a chip off the old block. She went to Cambridge University, where she “read” Russian and French, then got an MA in International Relations and Journalism. This provided her with a launching pad to become a reporter for the Moscow Times, covering the war in Chechnya (1994-1998). She briefly covered the Caucasus and Central Asia for the Financial Times and the Economist (1998-1999), then went to work for the New York Times. For a couple of years Gall covered the wars attending the break-up of the former Yugoslavia (1999-2001). Then she went to Afghanistan to cover the American war against the Taliban and al Qaeda (2001-2013). Now she is supposed to be covering the Middle East, but the Times sent her hot-foot to Ukraine when trouble cooked-off there.

Right at the moment (September 2014), she is best known for her book The Wrong Enemy.[1] Based on her years of reporting in and deep knowledge of Afghanistan and Pakistan, Gall argues that Pakistan is the force driving the Taliban in its fight against the Americans. The Soviet invasion of Pakistan put a hostile state on the western border of Pakistan. Both the Americans and the Pakistanis involved themselves in supporting the “mujahideen” resistance to the Soviets. When the Soviets left in 1989, so did the Americans. The Pakistanis stayed. Soon, the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) aligned itself with the Taliban, the victors in the civil war that followed the Russian defeat. Briefly, after 9/11, Pakistan aligned itself with the Americans who overthrew the Taliban as part of their hunt for Osama bin Laden. When, after several years, it became apparent that the Americans would not be leaving Afghanistan any time soon and appeared to be creating their own client-state in Kabul, the ISI re-entered the fray by reviving the alliance with the Taliban. The chief culprit here has been Pakistani General Ashfaq Kayani, who headed the ISI from 2004 to 2007, and then became chief-of-staff of the army in a country with a long history of military intervention in politics. Under Kayani’s direction, ISI armed, trained, and directed the Taliban in a war that has killed 2,300 American soldiers, 1,100 other foreign soldiers, and somewhere between 50,000 and 70,000 Afghans.

Why haven’t the Americans recognized that they are fighting “the wrong enemy”? Possibly because the ISI is good at hiding its hand. Possibly because of long-standing deficiencies in the CIA. Possibly because the incompetence and corruption of the Karzai government is so much easier to see. Possibly because it would be difficult to explain to the American people.

[1] Carlotta Gall, The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014 (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014).

The Origins of al Qaeda

In the beginning all Muslims were supposed to belong to one community, not to many communities, and there was to be no division between politics and religion.  By the start of the Twentieth Century the Ottoman Empire expressed these unities.  At the same time, the Ottoman Empire—called the “Sick Man of Europe”—fell farther and farther behind Western countries, while the Turks bullied the Arabs inside the empire.

Then secular (non-religious) nationalism (which divided Muslims into Egyptians, Syrians, Iraqis, Saudi Arabians, etc.) created the first countries in the Muslim world.  Secularism and nationalism were Western ideas, so this amounted to Westernization.  Turkey provided the example here after the First World War.  Many other countries followed it after the Second World War.  Unfortunately, many of these governments did not serve the interests of their people.  The early nationalist leaders held on to power in ways that looked like dictatorship.  Economic development and the opportunity to make a better life did not keep pace with population growth.  Countries often seemed to cringe before the Western countries.

The dissatisfaction with secular nationalist governments made their religious critics the natural alternative in the eyes of many people.  Religious feeling became increasingly strong throughout the Muslim world.  However, the emergence of leaders with a strong religious motivation did not begin in the Arab world.  Rather, the movement which overthrew the Shah of Iran in 1978-1979 put power into the hands of religious leaders.  Subsequently, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 sparked a rebellion by Afghans which drew in many Muslims from all over the Middle East to wage “jihad” against the Russians.  Among them was a Saudi Arabian soccer enthusiast named Osama bin Laden.  ObL’s father was rich, but he wasn’t.  He fought some, but mostly he organized people to fight and raised money to give people the weapons with which to fight.  In 1989 the Afghans succeeded in driving out the Russkies.

When Iraq invaded Kuwait and threatened Saudi Arabia ObL suggested that the “Afghan Arabs” who had defeated the Soviets should now fight the Iraqis.  The Saudis preferred to put their faith in the Americans.  Enraged by allowing these “unbelievers” into Islam’s holy land, bin Laden turned his attention to the “far enemy”—America.  Again he served as an organizer/fund-raiser.  (A National Endowment for Inhumanity.)

First, he based himself in Sudan.  When that got too hot, he moved to Afghanistan.  The Taliban, a movement of Muslim fundamentalists which had gained control of Afghanistan, protected ObL.  From these bases he organized the simultaneous bombing of the American embassies in Kenya and Tanganyika, then the bombing of the U.S.S. Cole, an American warship visiting Yemen.  Then he agreed to support the “planes operation,” which had been pitched to him—purportedly—by Khalid Sheikh Mohammad.  This—purportedly–involved hijacking a bunch of planes in America and crashing them into buildings and hijacking a bunch of planes over the Pacific and crashing them into the ocean.  The second part of the plan had to be abandoned because the CIA snagged a bunch of the Pacific Ocean plotters in the Philippines.  Bin Laden concentrated on the American part of the operation.

On 9/11/2001 the attack came off as planned.  The Americans then invaded Afghanistan.  ObL fled to the lawless border regions of Pakistan.  Then the US invaded Iraq in 2003.  Eventually the Americans killed ObL.  The war in Afghanistan goes on to prevent the Taliban from coming back.