Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Misunderstanding Afghan nationalism and history

I’ve got a few bones to pick with Jeffrey Laurenti’s piece on the framework strategic partnership drafted by the American and Afghan governments. Mr. Laurenti, senior fellow at the Century Foundation, though admitting the agreement is quite vague, believes it may bolster the position of the Afghan government in their struggle against the Taliban insurgency. In my view, Laurenti bases his argument on a basic misunderstanding of nationalism combined with a problematic reading of Afghan history.

First, Laurenti makes a distinction between Karzai's "nationalism" and the Taliban's "Islamism":
The recent resolution in Karzai's favor of the two core issues that had held up this week's accord – giving Afghanistan control over special forces' night raids and detainees – has strengthened Kabul's nationalist credentials. Indeed, the Taliban's furious critique of the pact revealed the ideological corner into which it has painted them. 
The Taliban purport to see five objectives behind the American accord with Kabul, and none of them deals with Afghan national honor and sovereignty. The pact supposedly aims to aborting a "true Islamic government," insinuating "secularism and liberalism" into Afghan society (shades of Rick Santorum!), building up an Afghan army "hostile to Islam," and threatening "Islamic countries in the region" -- presumably a reference to Iran. 
The conflict here isn’t between nationalism and Islamism, but rather between nationalist projects. For the Taliban – and many Afghan politicos – “Islam” and the “Islamic state” are inherently nationalistic concepts. “Islam” is code for “the nation,” the “Islamic state” stands for total independence from foreign occupation. The Taliban thus appeals to Afghan "national honor and sovereignty" by using the language of Islam. As does Hamas, Hezbollah, and Muqtada al-Sadr. Given Afghanistan's history of "jihad" (i.e. national liberation), this framing has particular appeal. 

In line with this, since the framework agreement entrenches foreign influence, particularly dependence on American financial support, the nationalist alternative the Taliban offers could remain salient, couched, of course, in the language of Islam. "A 'true Islamic state' does not rely on un-Islamic dollars." Time will tell whether or not this appeal will work.

Laurenti’s optimism is based, furthermore, on a problematic reading of Afghan history:
If the insurgents cannot score a knockout blow quickly, they risk more rapid demoralization than the anti-Soviet mujaheddin experienced after their much-ballyhooed first offensive against the hated Najibullah regime following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.
While the mujahidin were unable to quickly dislodge Najibullah’s regime, they were ultimately successful: in 1992, the regime fell.
And while people might doubt the virtue of today's Afghan officials, they are certainly and ostentatiously Muslims. In contrast to the officials of Najibullah's regime, they are not atheistic communists against whom continued jihad and sacrifice are justified.
Neither were the mujahidin who replaced Najibullah in 1992. They were Muslims who had spent more than a decade fighting a jihad against the Soviets. But, they proved corrupt and ineffective, prone to warring among themselves. These Muslim rulers gave rise to the Taliban movement. The Karzai government, it should be noted, does appear to less fractious than the mujahidin of the ‘80s. But their corruption is well-established. Corruption could prove to be more powerful than nationalist appeals in deciding the future of Afghanistan, as in 1996. And invasive night raids by corrupt government forces may be just as unpopular as those currently being conducted by NATO forces.
The accord with Washington promises precisely the long-term assistance to Kabul that Moscow suspended after just three years. Relying on your allies to win a civil war is always a risky proposition, of course, so both Afghan sides have good reason to explore ways to forge peace rather than intensify the bloodshed. The Taliban, though, with little international support as it is, have more at risk from continuing a war.
Laurenti backs up his claim of “little international support” for the Taliban by arguing that Pakistan may cut off support for the Afghan Taliban as part of their struggle against the Pakistani Taliban. But this hasn’t occurred: Pakistan has consistently provided support for Afghan insurgents while fighting the local Taliban in the tribal areas along Afghanistan’s border. Why should we expect them to suddenly stop? It’s not the tribal insurgency that keeps Pakistani militarists up at night. It’s India and an India-allied government in Afghanistan that drives support for the Taliban. Laurenti’s optimism is premised on the idea that a peace accord between India and Pakistan can be reached. Given the tumultuous history between the two states, there’s little reason to assume that they’ll suddenly come to their senses simply because it suits American interests.

Laurenti is right about one thing: the withdrawal of Soviet support for the Najibullah regime did contribute significantly to its ultimate downfall. If the Karzai regime can survive without a peace settlement with the Taliban, long-term American largesse will be necessary. But, this assumes that Congress will agree to propping up the Afghan government for the foreseeable future. Though much of the focus has been on controlling security operations, American and Afghan negotiators have been at odds over the nature and scope of continued American financial support for the government. The current price tag is at $4 billion a year, with Karzai wanting more.

Once American forces withdraw, will Congress continue funding the Afghan regime? In this age of deficits and austerity? Current support is based on entrenched militarism and throwing money at Afghanistan is part of the war effort. But, once American troops withdraw – or most of them – both parties in Congress may see continued funding as foreign aid. And foreign aid is an especially appealing target for cuts.
U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and some dude

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