"Worse Than a Defeat:" the Far-reaching Lessons of the Brits' Latest War in Afghanistan
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December 14, 2014, 02:02 PM
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Here’s an excerpt from a long review of books about the British Army in the western Afghanistan region along the Helmand River from 2006 onward. It’s by James Meek in the London Review of Books, and makes the point that in much of the world what seem to New Republic-reading Westerners as ideological conflicts are more just mafias adopting ideologies and outside patrons as new improved tools for doing what they’ve always done: fighting other clans. Thus the recent British travails in Helmand are useful for thinking about ISIS or Boko Haram or Kony 2012 or whatever is the latest Threat to Civilization that we’re all supposed to get worked up over.

Alderson got to set up a counter-insurgency centre for the British army in 2009. This might seem like progress of a kind, were it not for powerful evidence that the war the British and the Americans fought in Helmand wasn’t a counter-insurgency at all. I’ve avoided using the word ‘Taliban’ up till now. That isn’t because they don’t exist, or didn’t play a role in attacking British troops in Afghanistan. They do; they did. But Mike Martin’s extraordinary book [An Intimate War: An Oral History of the Helmand Conflict], based on interviews with 250 people, almost all of them Helmandis, lays out the wrong-headedness of the mainstream Western characterisation of the situation in Helmand from 2006 to the present day as a ‘Taliban insurgency’ against a ‘legitimate government’, which the British were helping stand up after a long, tyrannical deviation from civilised norms.

Martin, a Pashto speaker, a British officer who served in Helmand in the late 2000s and a protégé of both Alderson and Newton, argues that ‘insurgency is a pejorative term, one that is useful to governments in establishing their legitimacy or that of their allies and in defining their enemies.’ Martin believes that the conflict in Helmand should be seen as ‘a continuing civil war’. Because the British were ignorant of what was really going on – due, in large part, to their short six-month tours of duty and lack of linguists – they were manipulated into becoming pawns in long-running conflicts over land, water, drugs and power between local leaders.

I have the vague impression that the U.S. in Vietnam got sucked into a lot of these “Kill My Neighbor’s Cow” micro-feuds, generally on the side of locals who spoke some French, which just exacerbated nationalist resentments against foreigners. Practically nobody in America spoke Vietnamese when the U.S. got involved, but lots of Americans spoke French, and so did lots of Vietnamese. They were generally locals who had some sort of affiliations with the old French colonizers.

Because we live here” is one ideology that humans can sort of agree upon, so Americans generally get themselves in trouble when they wind up on the anti-nationalist side, as foreign interventions almost inevitably do.

Of course, the boundaries of “here” are in “Because we live here” are seldom a priori clear. Europeans adopted the printing press early, so moderately sizable information spheres coalesced in which people could read each the prestige dialect (Florentine Italian, Parisian French, etc.) Muslims didn’t like the printing press, so this nationalism process was hugely delayed.

British commanders in Helmand always knew they began with two big handicaps, over and above the shortage of men and helicopters. One was that the British army has a history of invading Afghanistan. The other was that they came to Helmand with the intention not only of making it a safer, better place, but of destroying the mainstay of its economy, opium farming. Afghanistan was (and still is) the source of most of the world’s heroin, and Helmand is the centre of poppy-growing. Most farmers depend on it for their livelihood. It was as if an Afghan army had come to Scotland proclaiming that they would make it better, and that their first step would be to blow up the distilleries and oil rigs. In fact, Britain underestimated the first factor, and misunderstood the second.

… The British were hated in Helmand before they’d fired a shot, although generally the locals were too polite to say so. … The reaction to the British arrival was one of astonishment. Fairweather quotes Ashraf Ghani, now the country’s president, who predicted: ‘If there’s one country that should not be involved in southern Afghanistan, it is the United Kingdom. There will be a bloodbath.’ A popular local assumption was that the British had come for revenge [for two wars Britain fought in Afghanistan in the 1800s]. When, within weeks of their arrival, the bombs began to fall, the Helmandis didn’t see it as the British defending themselves – even though the attackers were, in the main, Helmandis – but as confirmation of Britain’s thirst for vengeance. ‘From the perspective of the Helmandis,’ Martin writes, ‘the historical enemy had just turned up for round three.’

… In Martin’s analysis, seemingly cynical yet backed up by his heroic research, each outside intervention in Helmand – whether from an Afghan government in Kabul, from Moscow, London, Peshawar, Quetta or Washington – has two negative effects, whatever benefits it might bring. First, it lays down new local grievances on top of old ones that remain active. Second, it gives tribal barons new sources of funding and new ideological guises they can exploit in order to settle those grievances. These guises, these idealistic labels concealing the striving for clan or tribal advantage – the ‘mujahedin’ label, the ‘government’ label, the ‘communist’ label, the ‘Taliban’ label, even the ‘pro-British’ label – are what Martin calls ‘franchises’. Agencies from beyond Helmand give local big men money and/or weapons to act in their name, and a cause by which to justify their actions. The local leaders then bend this external support to personal ends.

The joint Afghan-American project to irrigate the Helmand valley in the 1960s, for instance, in the pre-opium days, was a boon to the region in that it brought bigger crops. It also brought grievances. The Alizai were angry (they still are) that the dam central to the project, at Kajaki, was on their territory, while the benefits flowed to the Barakzai on the plain. These events also marked the beginning of the era when such local grievances would be fought out through the adoption of labels of convenience. Although Martin says little about this moment, it seems possible that in those days there was genuine idealism and hope for change in Helmandi society. But the arrival of reformers from outside – the arrival, essentially, of a Western idea of central government – also gave powerful Helmandi tribes, families and opportunists the chance to pursue or suppress local grievances over land and water by adopting the labels, or ‘franchises’, that Martin describes: ‘pro-government’, ‘communist’, ‘anti-government’ or ‘Islamic’.

It’s kind of like if FDR built Tennessee Valley Authority dams flooding the Hatfields’ farmland to provide cheap electricity to the McCoys.
Throughout the communist era and the Soviet occupation, the opportunities for Helmandi barons to adopt franchises became more diverse, specific and lucrative. In the early days feuds could be expressed by support for national factions of the Communist Party: the woman-subordinating traditionalists of Khalq, or the more cosmopolitan, gender-liberal communists of Parcham. Later, the mujahedin era offered a new set of labels. …

When the communists fell, these mujahedin franchisees – besides fighting socialism, they had become the kingpins of the new opium economy – rebranded themselves as ‘government’, and set about plundering, racketeering and squabbling. With the coming of the Taliban, the ‘government’ fled and the Helmandis were largely left to their own devices. When the Taliban was pushed away in 2001 the ‘government’ franchisees soon re-established themselves. These were the hated mayors, policemen and secret policemen – who set up countless illegal checkpoints to extract tolls from travellers, stole their rivals’ opium and tricked Western troops into sending their personal enemies to Guantánamo – that British forces spent eight years fighting and dying for.

The British, Martin explains, were never fighting waves of Taliban coming over the border from Pakistan: they were overwhelmingly fighting local men led by local barons who felt shut out by the British and their friends in ‘government’ and sought an alternative patron in Quetta. The Taliban provided money, via their sponsors in the Gulf, and a ready-made, Pashtun-friendly ideological framework the barons could franchise. Since the British were hated even before they arrived, recruitment of foot soldiers was easy.

The degree to which outside powers get something in return, according to Martin, is in direct proportion to their knowledge of Helmand and the personal histories of its leading families. The British and Americans, accordingly, got played; the Pakistan-based Taliban, who were more familiar with the territory, did better out of allowing the Helmandis to attack the British under the ‘Taliban’ brand. But their success was limited. When, around 2010, the Quetta Taliban tried to enforce the strict operational control over the Helmandis fighting in their name that the British fantasised they’d always had, it didn’t work. The Helmandi ‘Taliban’ were following their own agenda.


This sketch oversimplifies the true situation in Helmand as Martin describes it. And Martin’s interlocutors told him that he had only begun to grasp the province’s tangled realities. …

Here Meek includes a complicated account of one elite family’s ideological revolutions over the last few decades, all in the service of the never-changing goal of sticking it to other Helmand elite families.

Westerners like to think about ideologies like Communism, feminism, etc. as ends in themselves, but in much of the world proclaimed ideologies are more like college football formations. For example, in the 1970s the U. of Oklahoma was the exemplar of the Wishbone running game, while in the 2000s Oklahoma had a couple of Heisman-winning quarterbacks who ran up huge passing yardage totals with state-of-the-art passing games. But none of this because running or throwing the football is a better way to live, it was all in the service of Beating Texas.

The White House and the Pentagon were focused on invading Iraq and capturing Osama bin Laden: they had little interest in local politics or narcotics in an obscure corner of Afghanistan, except in so far as the local bigwigs might help them hunt down al-Qaida.

The small contingent of US special forces based in Helmand between 2001 and 2006 didn’t mean to poison the well for their successors, but that was what they, together with the mujahedin commanders, did. The commanders used the Americans to target their enemies, and get US bounty money, by branding their rivals ‘Taliban’ and having them sent to Guantánamo. One was beaten to death inside the American base. International poppy-eradication efforts were deliberately directed by commanders against rivals’ fields. The commanders attacked one another. They fought over control of the checkpoints used to shake down travellers. They stole opium from one another’s clients. They stole the opium harvests of the poor. They ruthlessly preyed on anyone whose safety wasn’t guaranteed by the big protection networks. They stole land. They dragged the Americans into a long-running quarrel over who controlled Sangin bazaar. In 2005 dozens were killed in a gun battle in Lashkar Gah when a lieutenant of Abdul Rahman Jan, the notoriously bullying ex-mujahedin commander who’d become chief of police, attacked a Sher Mohammad drugs convoy. Another big commander, Mir Wali, became the head of the Afghan army’s mainly illusory 93rd Division, for which he reaped government salaries; he ingratiated himself so skilfully with the Americans as to give the impression to his rivals that he was untouchable. …

Eventually, the U.S. got many of the most influential warlords fired, which just left less influential warlords in place by the time the Brits arrived in 2006:
It is difficult to imagine how the situation for the British could have been less favourable. Their lack of resources, their lack of local knowledge, their mandate to attack the Helmandis’ chief means of livelihood and the popular belief that they had come for revenge would have been bad enough, without an indigenous, Taliban-branded revolt against marauding ‘government officials’ being joined by those very ‘officials’ and their men. To make matters worse, only the top commanders had been taken out of government – those who, no matter how badly they behaved, had the ruthlessness, negotiating skills and authority to bring whole communities on side. The British were left to try to work with – to try to fight for – the second-tier ‘government officials’, often the least capable and most rapacious lieutenants of the dismissed commanders.

… It’s just that next time we think about military intervention in a foreign country that hasn’t attacked us, it might be worth running a thought experiment to work out at exactly which moment, in the many internecine conflicts that have afflicted the British Isles, our forebears would have most benefited from the arrival of 3500 troops and eight helicopters, and for which ‘side’ those troops would have fought.

That’s kind of the plot of the bestselling historical novel The Year of the French by Caitlin Flanagan’s dad Thomas Flanagan: In 1798 the Revolutionary French landed a small army in Ireland to help liberate the Irish from the English. It didn’t make things better.