Among a myriad of articles in today’s New York Times addressing Afghanistan, David Sanger pens one that purports to deconstruct the “what ifs” of Afghanistan: What if the Bush administration had put enough troops into the country to stabilize it after the Taliban’s ouster? What if the Bush administration had followed through on its promise of an Afghan Marshall Plan? What if the Bush administration had not been distracted by its war of choice in Iraq? Would then Afghanistan not have become a hash?
Though his tone is negative, Sanger is ultimately inconclusive. He does question, however, whether “30,000, or even 60,000, [troops] could have brought stability to a vast country, where tribes, not governments, are the ruling powers?” He notes, “The Taliban—a native movement—would almost certainly have waited it out, figuring Washington could not sustain so large a force for very long.”
It strikes me that Sanger’s analysis rolls up a bit of Orientalism with two curious assumptions. The Orientalism is obvious in Sanger’s contrast between government and tribes. The dichotomy is, of course, false. Tribal power and governmental power are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, tribes can be an incredibly effective mode of governance and an excellent building block on which to develop communal reconciliation and broader governance. Both the US experience in Anbar province in Iraq and the history of Somaliland since 1991 provide excellent examples of tribes behaving in just this way. The dichotomy, though, is not Sanger’s alone—the Western penchant for contrasting civic government, epitomized in Western states, with any mode of governance that is alien is well trod territory.
The curious assumptions in Sanger’s analysis are that he apparently believes the Taliban to both be static and monolithic, and popular. Sanger’s belief that the Taliban could have waited out a US/NATO deployment of 30,000-60,000 troops suggests that he believes the Taliban circa 2001 and the Taliban today to be the same, unchanging, and monolithic. Sanger’s implicit contrast of the Taliban, “a native movement,” with Karzai’s government and its supporters suggests that he believes the Taliban to have an Afghanistan-wide base of support.
Comparing the budding truth of Sanger’s second assumption to the origin of the Taliban—and its level of popular support in 2001—demonstrates that his first assumption is false. The Taliban began as a Pashtun movement and in large measure it remains so today. It is true that the insurgency is spreading from Pashtun heartlands—both in the south, Helmand, and in the north, Kunduz—to reach non-Pashtun majority provinces. The Taliban’s emerging national strength has only come through nearly a decade of Western malfeasance in Afghanistan—without failing to deliver on promises of reconstruction and improved livelihood, without scuttling the goodwill of the Afghan people by killing so many civilians, without supporting an obviously corrupt regime while pretending otherwise, it is unlikely that the Taliban would have garnered popular support beyond the ranks of the Pashtun. It is little wonder that the Taliban were able to inflict so little damage on the ISAF for so many years—it took time for ISAF to do sufficient damage to itself vis-à-vis the civilian populace for the Taliban to reap benefits in the form of increased popular support, greater numbers of fighters, and greater freedom of movement. Thus, a greater security presence at the outset—provided that security force employed COIN principles properly—would likely have made all the difference in the world.