Elegy for Afghanistan: Forgetting a war

To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire;

and where they make a desert, they call it peace.

~ Tacitus, Life of Agricola, Book 30

Led to write this piece by the recent attacks in Kabul (Three in the last week of January), I wonder if the powers that-be have consciously decided to forget Afghanistan. This piece is split into two parts, one reflective, and one based on my observations on the complete antipathy in current Afghanistan strategy.

 My father once told me he planned on driving a jeep all the way from England to Afghanistan, but his group got distracted by Turkey and didn’t have enough time. Time was the only thing preventing them from cracking the mountain ramparts of Iran, and taking that circular road south, through Lashkar Gah, through Kandahar, through Helmand Province, to Kabul. He would have learned of them from the road, from their people.

I learnt of them only from news stories. With every new war we learn new geographies, and new compact maps light up our front pages and our screens. How often have we seen the receding black of Islamic State (IS) superimposed on defunct outlines of Syria or Iraq, the green of Al-Qaeda, the yellow of the Kurds, our own boys-in-blue? How often heard of Raqqa, Sirte, Homs or the horror that might have befallen Benghazi? Our parents learnt the complicated names of villages in the Balkans or South-East Asia; I have now studied the sites of massacres in the Punjab, and daily learn the litany of Syrian towns and villages in Gaza. When do we forget them? When do they pass out of a collective global consciousness and just fall by the roadside? 

Do we also forget the people? I was travelling on a tram through Sarajevo, sat next to an old lady whose skin was so translucent, I didn’t realised that for half the journey tears had been reflecting the setting sun on her face. She was just staring out the window and crying at the city. I couldn’t ask her why, my Bosnian extending to asking for food and wine, but from that moment on, I couldn’t help but feeling something in that city, and in that country, that thrummed between the minarets – I think it was forgotten grief. Or perhaps the grief at being forgotten.

 In Mostar, at a place my parents were shocked to find out I had been, the Spanish Line, a blood-soaked roundabout held by Spanish Peacekeepers, I had to be told by a local why it was important. He was surprised I didn’t know. I told him I was too young, that it hadn’t been my war. He nodded, pointed to an adjacent abandoned building and walked away before I could say anything to qualify my earlier terse, insensitive statement. Cursing myself I walked to where he had indicated. In that derelict, a bank left as skeletal testimony, was a carpet of expelled machine gun and sniper cartridges. They, oxidised, cracked under my boots, coated my feet rust-blood red. They were huge in my hands, but fragile like autumn leaves. It was impossible to tell, of course, which ones had hit home, done their job, which ones spent; the animus it must have taken to let them do their work. It was horrible, but I forced myself to penance and climbed five stories of death. I didn’t want to forget. I haven’t yet.

Derivative work: Poxnar All four pictures in the montage are taken by the US Army/Navy. – September 17 2001.jpg US 10th Mountain Division soldiers in Afghanistan.jpg Car bomb in Iraq.jpg US soldiers in Zabul province.jpg

I will likely never go to Afghanistan. But will that mean I forget it? Will the world forget? The soldiers who rotated through will unlikely do so, but any Pashto they peripherally learned will leave them, and I doubt those stationed in Helmand gained a great deal of Persian refinement. The opium will continue to flow. The war is still technically on.

But massive recent attacks across the country and in Kabul by the reinvigorated Taliban and an IS desperate to maintain its final geographic toehold in the highland east have garnered some media coverage in the West, but little debate and no stark policy changes.

Unarguably, these attacks are a function of both structural and emergent elements in the Afghan conflict. Earlier thaws are leading to earlier starts for spring offensives. Repeated attacks and years of attrition have rendered the circular highway almost unusable, hindering the Afghan National Army’s mobile forces and isolating regional governors and militias from oversight, weakening coordinated responses. Thus Kabul’s current weakness serves the Taliban’s relative strength. IS and the Taliban are competing, and IS knows it is losing in terms of money, men and materiel. Arguably Pakistan’s isolation from the US leaves the Taliban to act unfettered. Opium revenues have increased year-on-year, leading to both larger arms budgets and intensified competition to control the drug flows. The recent large attacks in Kabul are highly demoralising – if the government can do nothing to protect citizens there, what can it possibly do in more isolated areas?

However, these factors are compounded by a sense of complete disaffection in the West toward Afghanistan, and the plight of a government in Kabul that they created, prop up and want nothing to do with. The US’ antipathy in the public sphere and, shall we euphemistically say, distraction at the executive level, is not only hugely detrimental to Kabul’s authority, but a veritable boon to the Taliban. The infidel couldn’t save you, of course he couldn’t; are you ready to see the light now? And given the operational space gained by the Taliban, the extent of their territorial holdings, presumed revenues, vigorous command structure, chastisement of IS and sheer strategic audacity, the apparent answer to that question has been by many, yes. The US-led forces crashed with great slaughter into the country, set up the false titles of the Kabul government, declared a semblance of a peace, so that at least Kabul was safe, and they made a desert. But Kabul is no longer, if it ever was, safe, and the desert turned out perfect for the cultivation of poppies. 

Is there anything to be done? The depressing thing, and perhaps the reason for the sheer antipathy towards the situation, is that it feels like no. The troop surge worked briefly, but there is no appetite in any country for more expenditure of blood on this unconquerable land. How about treasure? Kabul eats international funds and gives back nothing, a combination of both incompetence and corruption. However this is coupled to those strategic factors listed above; this is a war almost impossible to win, and a form of warfare suited to the adversary. The Taliban has been at this for decades, and they are very good at what they do. Perhaps the only hope is for a drop in global demand for illegal opiates, say through the legalization and regulation of the drug trade, but coordinating this at an international level, and with a Republican Congress, is pure blue-sky.

But should something be done? Most assuredly.

The forgotten quagmire of the American Empire that is Afghanistan should not, and cannot, be allowed to fall.

Not just IS operate from its hills. The Taliban, while currently appearing unified, will, once they achieved their goal of bringing Kabul to its knees and extracting as many concessions as possible to the Pashtuns, either splinter into different groups holding different areas, leading to a worsening state of civil war or, perhaps worse, coalesce into a unified emirate as they have in the past. This potential state-within-in-a-state would constitute the Kabul state as effectively a failed state. It would likely be a harbour and magnet for militants, as it also was in the past, and provide safe haven for those seeking to inspire others to carry out attacks on the West, or on China, or anywhere in the geopolitically sensitive areas that Afghanistan abuts. This would not be IS, by then a true underground network or a spent force, but if we have learned one thing from the 21st century it is that militancy adapts to new circumstances. 

Afghanistan cannot, therefore, be forgotten by policy makers in the West, try as they might.

A first step would be toward securing, expanding and rebuilding the road network, especially the circular highway. While being expensive and dangerous, and potentially futile, every invader since Cyrus having built roads through those mountains and eventually being repulsed, it would go someway toward linking Kabul to its regional centres and reasserting some semblance of authority. Working out the balance of power in Kabul too, between the powerful northerners and Pakhtuns not associated with the Taliban could help present a more unified front. But attempts at this sort of unity have been tried since the invasion and failed to produce results. Attempts to bring the Taliban to the table, when they are in such a strategically ascendant position, would also be futile. However, a combination of energy in Kabul and control of the drugs trade might just provide some light to combat the apathy; the likelihood of Afghanistan being forgotten though, pushed to the back of the pile, as the long, long-forgotten war is much higher. 

I hope I will not forget Afghanistan. I will try not to. I hope our policy makers will not forget too. An elegy is a funereal poem; let us not have to sing them for Afghanistan too soon.

Christopher Cannell

Christopher Cannell

Christopher Cannell is an independent political, historical and cultural researcher. He formally worked with the Eurasia Group, a political risk analysis company, covering South Asia. He has a Masters Degree in South Asian Area Studies from SOAS, University of London, and a Master of Arts (Honours) Degree in International Relations from the University of St Andrews. While his focus remains on Asian politics and Asian relations, particularly India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, the current situation in his home continent of Europe and home country of Scotland has led to a broadening of his research and analysis to the Western world.
Christopher Cannell

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