• Daniel Ethan Finneran

Make Afghanistan Great Again

August 2017

Afghanistan’s instability has been and will continue to be a disease that plagues the Middle Eastern state. It’s an ailment that’s both ancient and ineradicable, debilitating and chronic. For centuries, no prevailing force—from within its borders nor from without—has been able to successfully influence or improve the nation. Afghanistan, in this way, is distinct in having successfully thwarted all efforts of the imperialist and the meliorist alike to its own detriment. The former sought in Afghanistan land, commodities, trading routes, and labor; the latter wanted only an elevation of morals, ethics, and deeds. Neither have acquired those slippery things, tangible in one case and ethereal in the other, that they so laboriously sought.

The Persians and Mongols concerned themselves not with cultivating and edifying the spirit of Afghanistan, but with subjugating it. At one time or another, one or the other held Afghanistan, but they couldn’t maintain their grips. Instead, each decided to cut its losses and move on. The voluptuous Persians pursued more tractable interests in the Middle East, while those virile Mongols reverted to plundering the north.

Cleaved of influence from the East, Great Britain next made a go at Afghanistan. The Britons attempted, futilely, as ultimately their efforts proved, to make the Afghan region a protectorate of the crown. They saw in Afghanistan not only a tributary state, one with a modest potential to be profitable in the likeness of an India or Rhodesia, but an important buffer between her interests and Russia. The Romanovs maintained an enduringly strong influence over South and Central Asia for years. This was due in part to the fact that Russia thought very little of meddling in the Asian religion at that time (as it is in this)—Islam. Aside from its having been religiously tolerant, Russia also had an interest in establishing its presence along the southern coast, where it would have renewed access to international trade. It’s not as though Russia was itself a burgeoning economy (it persisted until the 1860s to be a mostly feudal state), but a stronger presence on the beaches of the Arabian Sea certainly couldn’t hurt. With its eyes settled on the south, Russia began maneuvering through Kazakhstan, itself uncomfortably close to British India.

Understandably, this disquieted the British Empire. Frightened at the prospect of Russia being so near, it hastened to annex more territory and ensure its Asian market. The British wanted above all to secure its beloved “jewel in the crown”, that is, India, and Afghanistan was the perfect cushion to do the trick.

Such, the “Great Game” between Britain and Russia ensued. There was no winner, nor was there an obvious loser. Of course, in saying so flippantly there was no loser, one necessarily ignores the plight of Afghanistan in a time of strife and war and the tumult through which its indigenous people lived. Resiliently and quite importunately, if you were to ask a British statesman of the day, the Afghans didn’t take to their colonizers warmly. They bristled violently against what had become an imposed Anglican fate. Having no recourse nor choice in the matter, they responded as any imperiled and militant population would. Out, then, broke the Anglo-Afghan Wars, which constituted all of three battles over the span of fifty years. They were fought from the mid-nineteenth century throughout the end of First World War. Thus, the “Great Game” transitioned into and lasted longer than did the “Great War”.

In time, after the Treaty of Versailles and after the British crown decided to turn its attention elsewhere (mainly toward Africa, South America, Melanesia, and Polynesia) English intrigue in the Indian subcontinent waned. Sensing its opportunity to make itself more intimately known in the Afghan region, Russia was eager to fill in this gap. Now the Soviet Union—what with Czar Nicholas II and the last vestiges of the Romanovs having been since deceased—Afghanistan found a friend in this new Bolshevik regime. Before the Anglo-Afghan Treaty (or Treaty of Rawalpindi) was even finalized, the Soviet Union jumped quickly to acknowledge Afghanistan’s sovereignty. In so doing, they established an early and amiable diplomatic relationship with the Afghans. To reciprocate the move, Afghanistan later became one of the first nations in the world to recognize the Soviet Union’s inchoate Bolshevik regime.

The Soviet and Afghan relationship was relatively amicable for greater part of the twentieth century. It wasn’t until 1979 that it was irreparably strained. It was then that the Soviet-Afghan War incited under the leadership of President Brezhnev, who would later be succeeded by that ill-fated liberal reformer Gorbachev. It came to be clear that Russia’s war for control of Afghanistan was becoming a costly and decidedly unnecessary intervention.

For a decade Moscow squandered its resources, soiled its respectability, and alienated its civilian’s morale in an unpopular war. The Russians surely didn’t anticipate the local Afghans to be so patriotic and capable. What they might’ve expected, though, was for America to have an interest in the affair. The Cold War was at the time in its adulthood, and a Soviet failure in Afghanistan might just accelerate its end. Knowing this, America furtively involved herself in a sort of proxy war, whereby she armed the insurgent, anti-Russian mujahedeen who fought the Russian’s with renewed zeal. Eventually, the Russians withdrew and the Afghans—as is their wont—were victors. But for the Soviet Union, the loss in Afghanistan was more than just a military defeat; it was a bellwether for the imminent toppling of the world’s first and most sobering experiment with Marx.

Too much ink has been spilled already in discussions about America’s intervention in Afghanistan after September 11. I’m hastily assuming that this was the next seminal moment in Afghanistan’s attempt to preserve itself. Needless to say, we fared little better than did any of those old imperialists of yore. Afghanistan—be it the nineteenth, twentieth, or twenty-first century—proved just as intractable and unmanageable as ever before.

It’s because of this that we need more clarity regarding our position in Afghanistan moving forward. The man invested with providing us with this direction forward is, of course, President Trump. He attempted to do so during a speech at Fort Myer in Arlington, Virginia on Monday night. That which he said was unremarkable and stale. Save for the debased syntax, what Trump ended up saying could’ve just as easily been said by Presidents Obama or Bush. The expectation, especially amongst those perched on the isolationist and nationalist right, was that Trump would commit to an immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan America’s troops. This appeared to be his preferred choice for many years. In 2008, he supported Obama’s platform to do the same and in 2013, he tweeted incessantly about the need for a “speedy withdrawal” from the region.

While crying, “bring the boys back home” reads well on bumper stickers and campaign pins, as Obama learned in 2008 and again in 2012, the circumstances on the ground often subvert rosy campaign ads. The feasibility of such a speedy withdrawal became an impossible task. It was a political chimera—a message that was rousing but evasive. Too much of everything had been invested in the re-structuring of the Afghan state. Sixteen years, billions of dollars, and thousands of soldiers had been lost along the way. And for what, exactly? The West brought its liberal institutions and its blueprints for modern governance, but Afghanistan hadn’t acquired the taste for such heady and delectable things.

The Afghan government, if one could be so generous as to call it that, was woefully ill-prepared to absorb these lessons from the West. Reluctant were they not only to learn, but to implement our ideas. Thus, a vacuum was created, and in it, the expediently Taliban inserted itself. Many local Afghans saw in this terroristic cabal a more genuine form of government than that which the West propped up. They were more sympathetic to the Taliban than they were accepting of that which they considered to be an Americanized “puppet” government.

The Taliban spells in bold letters everything antithetical to the West. Its religiosity ardent, its ideology radical and severe, the group champions Medieval ideas. Such has been the case since 1994, when the group was founded. The Taliban is founded upon the doctrine of Sunni fundamentalism. As a corollary, it believes earnestly in the rightness and piety of Sharia Law. Liberals in the West will tend to obfuscate just how popular Sharia Law is. Statistics, though, cannot be long avoided. Afghans, be they supporters of the Taliban or not, are largely supportive of this Medieval code of law. One can’t help but shutter upon learning that ninety-nine percent of Afghans support adopting Sharia Law as the codified law of the land. Remarkably, this figure, obtained from the Pew Research Center’s reputable dataset, is the highest among all queried Islamic nations (in second place on this list is Iraq, with ninety-one percent of its population in favor of the adoption of Sharia Law. Common among the two nations, of course, is that within the last twenty years, both have been on the receiving end of America’s aggression and subsequent “help”).

The odds, as they pertain to the likelihood that Afghanistan adopts in the near future Western ideals, are clearly against us. I think it’s high time to acknowledge this anti-climactic fact. In the eyes of most Afghans, America has become an oppressor and an invigilator—a bully trying to impose upon it her will. Reform there has failed and nation-building has failed, but not because America didn’t try. Afghanistan simply isn’t educable. You can’t take a nation whose population nearly to the last imam believes in Sharia Law and expect it to become modernized, humanized, and liberalized without many decades of work. The current culture (not the religion, per se, but the more radical aspects that inspire it) must be extirpated, dusted off, and beautified. Only in this way will Afghanistan ripen into what it might become.

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