So, what’s up with Afghanistan?

commentary

milt thomas

Aside from the COVID crisis dominating our local headlines, another subject attracting our attention is the ongoing situation in Afghanistan. Afghanistan? What does that have to do with Vero Beach?

I’ve had several discussions recently with people locally who have little or no knowledge on the subject and it has become one more wedge expanding the political divide in our country. Maybe this explanation will help to eliminate that wedge.

We have tried for 20 years to make Afghanistan into a nation only to have our efforts fall apart in what seems like a matter of days. It really started to fall apart 20 years ago due in large part to a lack of understanding about tribal culture. Here are some facts that are vital if we are to understand how we became so bogged down there and why we spent so much in human lives and financial resources only to pull out with nothing gained.

Fact #1: Afghanistan is not really a nation but a collection of tribes that happen to live in Afghanistan. The largest tribe in Afghanistan is Pashtun, which represents about half of the country’s total 40 million population and includes most of the Taliban.

Fact #2: Afghan loyalties lie with family first, then tribe, then their religion, which is Islam. Loyalty to their nation is a Western concept that we tried to impose on them and failed spectacularly.

Fact #3: The people of Afghanistan are consumed with eking a living out of their mountainous, brutal terrain. Life expectancy at birth is about 53 years. As of 2015, only 55% of the population had access to clean drinking water and only 31% had access to improved sanitation facilities. Less than 40% of the population over age 15 can read and write (52% male and 24% female).

Fact #4: The country depends on foreign aid.  US and our allies funded about 80% of Afghanistan’s budget.

So what happened to the supposed 300,000 Afghani troops, financed and trained by the US and our allies that disappeared when the Taliban began their takeover in the past few months?

See fact #1: Afghanistan is a collection of tribes that happen to live in Afghanistan. Pashtuns are the largest tribe, almost half the population. The other half is a mix of Uzbeks, Tajiks, Hazaras, and others. Tribal rivalries existed for a thousand years before we showed up. That doesn’t change after ten weeks of military training in a US-type command structure, totally foreign to them.  Afghanistan is 99% Muslim; the US is not.

So, when the Taliban started their campaign to ‘free’ Afghanistan they were extremely motivated. They were also fellow Muslims, they were primarily Pashtuns, and they were brutal extremists as we found out back in the mid-90s. So, if you were in the so-called Afghan Army knowing the Taliban were coming and knowing the US was pulling its support, what would you do? You would probably believe your family and your tribe would be better off under fellow Muslims, screw the US-supported government, throw down your weapons and go home.

Four US presidents over 20 years have vacillated between sending in more troops or pulling out. When Trump negotiated with the Taliban last year and without the Afghan government, he promised a complete withdrawal of US troops in exchange for their promise of a negotiated settlement. The Taliban knew a negotiated settlement wasn’t necessary because it was no secret we were leaving. Biden’s mishandling of the final phase-out has only added to the consequences of our longest war.

So where was the Taliban these past 20 years?

If Afghanistan is almost 50% Pashtun, it is helpful to know that Pakistan, a much larger country, has almost twice as many Pashtuns. The prime minister is Pashtun. Afghanistan is the buffer zone between Pakistan and their major enemy, India. India has tried to gain influence in Afghanistan. To the Pakistanis, the Taliban could be a threat to stability, but it was less likely since they are primarily Pashtun. Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t want to know.

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