An end to illusion

Pakistan on the Brink: The Future of Pakistan, Afghanistan and the West, by Ahmed Rashid, Allen Lane, £20, 256 pages

Bazaar Politics: Power and Pottery in an Afghan Market Town, by Noah Coburn, Stanford University Press, £19.95, 288 pages

When More is Less: The International Project in Afghanistan, by Astri Suhrke, Hurst & Co, £25, 293 pages

The western project in Afghanistan is now well and truly over. The US has no political plan for the country after its ground troops withdraw in 2014. Its move to create an enormous Afghan army to fight the Taliban, if it succeeds at all, can succeed only in bringing about military rule. For every dollar in international aid that enters the country, another flows out through corruption, money-laundering and capital flight. Over the past 10 years, only the most tenuous gains in western-style judicial reform and women’s rights have been achieved, even when backed by large western military forces.

Not surprisingly, then, the Obama administration has finally acknowledged the need for direct talks with the Taliban. Unfortunately, powerful forces in Washington are working for different goals: to use these talks to split the Taliban and make a settlement unnecessary; and to retain US bases and special forces in Afghanistan so as to defend the Kabul regime – whatever it turns out to be – and continue attacks on al-Qaeda and Taliban targets in the tribal areas of Pakistan. Associated with these goals is hostility to and fear of Pakistan, leading to a view that this country should be “contained” – both as a sponsor of extremism, and because it is in imminent danger of becoming a failed state and a safe haven for terrorism.

This approach to Pakistan is mistaken on three key points. First, if the US were to aim at a genuine compromise with the Taliban, then Pakistan would be an ally, not an enemy. Second, while Pakistan has certainly sheltered the Afghan Taliban, as senior US and British officials acknow­ledge, it continues to give vital help against terrorism directed at the US and Europe. And third, although the situation in Pakistan is certainly grave, it is in little danger of collapse in the near future – unless, through some mixture of attack and “containment”, the US itself brings this about.

Among those writers who have done most to promote the idea of Pakistan as a failing state is Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid, who justly won fame with his excellent Taliban (2000) after 9/11. Descent Into Chaos, a 2008 account of the western failures in central Asia, was also a solid and detailed record of events, even if it lacked deeper analysis of Afghan and Pakistani political culture and society.

His latest book, Pakistan on the Brink, is unfortunately something of a disappointment. It is well worth reading for its sensible arguments against the containment of Pakistan by the US and in favour of a peace settlement with the Taliban; and for its descriptions of Rashid’s meetings with Afghan president Hamid Karzai and with senior western officials. However, it also shows signs of haste in its writing. It is more like a set of articles, aimed at different audiences, than a coherent work. Signs of carelessness are also evident in the prose. If you encounter sand in Rashid, you can be sure that someone’s head will be buried in it. Elephants are to be found in rooms rather than in zoos or jungles.

The book’s relative incoherence also seems to reflect Rashid’s attempt to adjust some of his ideas to suit new circumstances and US policies, while sticking to others. Thus he has belatedly come round to backing peace negotiations with the Afghan Taliban and argues that they have “mellowed considerably since the 1990s”, including in their attitudes to women (though the evidence for this is in fact pretty ambiguous). He also now sees a clear gulf between the Taliban and al-Qaeda, which he previously regarded as the closest of allies. This support for compromise within Afghanistan, however, sits uneasily alongside his continuing demand that Pakistan destroy without compromise Afghan and Pakistani militants on its own soil. Similarly, while Rashid criticises US policies as ill-thought-out, he demands that Pakistan give them its full support.

Most damagingly, Rashid at no point sets out his own concrete ideas of what a peace settlement in Afghanistan might be. As a significant participant in the US public debate on Afghan policy, this is a serious failure on his part. A compromise with the Taliban will be deeply painful and highly unpopular with many sections of US society; but as the western position in Afghanistan crumbles almost by the week, experts on the region now have an obligation to advance concrete, useful plans, not pious generalities. Without discussing the details of a settlement, it is impossible to discuss what may or may not be practical, and what Pakistan and other regional states can or cannot reasonably be asked to support.

On Pakistan, Rashid’s belief that the country is “on the brink” stems in part from what can only be called a disappointed belief in miracles – all too common among the Pakistani liberal elites to which he belongs. It seems that he genuinely hoped for great reforms from the elected government of the Pakistan People’s party and President Asif Ali Zardari – though what gave him that hope in view of their previous record in office and the class interests they represent, God alone knows. When miraculous change failed to arrive, he swung to utter condemnation of that government’s failings.

Yet in fact, by Pakistani standards (rather than idealised western ones) the Zardari administration has some limited but real achievements to its credit. It has brought about modest improvements in revenue collection; and passed, through democratic compromise, very difficult reforms rebalancing revenues between Pakistan’s provinces and devolving powers from the central government to the provinces. Pakistani democracy too, with all its faults, does give the chance for public frustration to vent itself without revolution – something that makes Pakistan very different from the Middle Eastern autocracies overthrown in the “Arab Spring”.

Above all, however, Rashid fails to understand the deeper sources of political, social and indeed religious resilience in Pakistani society because he is completely in thrall to western political stereotypes and western ideas of “normality” – a word he uses several times. The ignorance with which the west entered Afghanistan after the overthrow of the Taliban is pardonable given the complexity of that country. What is much less forgivable is that western institutions and officials remain so ignorant after more than a decade of western presence. They have betrayed a lack of curiosity amounting to narcissism when it comes to learning about Afghan society and culture – with disastrous results for western strategy. The same has been true of much western analysis of Pakistan.

This intellectual and political failure is reflected in the fact that Noah Coburn’s book Bazaar Politics is not only one of the most interesting and important of recent works on Afghanistan, it is also the only new piece of specific anthropological research on Afghanistan written in the past decade. And it is above all works of anthropology and history that western policy makers need when trying to operate in profoundly different social and cultural environments. Much of western political science is hopelessly wedded to general theories based on schematic versions of western societies and institutions, and is remarkably impervious to even the strongest evidence of local experience. Western journalists on the ground rarely have the time or the background to challenge these paradigms.

There is an interesting comparison to be made here with the western anthropology of the colonial period. Since Edward Said’s famous book Orientalism (1978), it has been fashionable to denounce these works because they shared the assumptions of empire and often aimed explicitly to serve its cause. This is quite true, but at least intelligent colonial administrators understood that knowledge is power and worked hard, often with genuine intellectual curiosity, to acquire that knowledge. Most of their latter-day descendants, by contrast, entered Afghanistan with little more than a faith in Blairite nostrums about “people everywhere wanting freedom”, and leave it with little more than embittered clichés about “tribalism” and “fanaticism”.

Most anthropological studies of Afghanistan have focused on the Pashtuns. Coburn, by contrast, looks at the Tajik town of Istalif, north of Kabul. This might seem a narrow field, but Coburn both paints a wonderfully vivid picture of the place and draws lessons from it that are of immense value for an understanding of societies where the state is only one among a multitude of constantly negotiating sources of power. His chapter on the “politics of stagnation” is a profound study of how the means that people in Istalif use to avoid conflict among themselves work at the same time to prevent economic development. Above all, by spending long periods listening to ordinary people, Coburn provides evidence that is worth a thousand official and semi-official briefing papers – as well as being a lot more fun to read.

Concerning the future, Coburn is pessimistic but not despairing. He brings out the tenuous nature of the peace that the west thinks it has established in places such as Istalif, where violence can be summoned up if powerful actors find it useful. On the other hand, he writes: “If political and economic incentives shift and insurgents cease seeing disruption of the system as their most effective strategy, violence could end as quickly as it began.”

Coburn can usefully be read in conjunction with Astri Suhrke’s book When More is Less, a brilliant and merciless dissection of the strategies of the western officials and aid workers who appear in Coburn’s Istalif almost as visiting space aliens; and as described by Suhrke, Afghans have good reason to treat them with wariness. Suhrke, a Norwegian political scientist, looks at the megalomaniac illusions of the western project in Afghanistan, and the way in which as western policies stumbled, the dominant response – Vietnam-style – was not to abandon them but to reinforce them. In particular, the attempt to appeal to sceptical western electorates through the language both of building Afghan democracy and existential Afghan threats trapped the US and Nato in a “rhetoric trap” of their own making.

It is especially important to pay attention to one belief attacked by Suhrke, because it may come back to haunt us in future operations. This is the view that the western project in Afghanistan was doomed not by its own inherent flaws and lack of correspondence to Afghan realities, but because the west did not pour even greater resources into Afghanistan after 2001 – a view held by Rashid among others.

Suhrke brings out the sometimes almost Soviet gap between western official rhetoric and reality. Thus in recent years the US has turned to a strategy of creating locally raised auxiliary police in southern Afghanistan to fight the Taliban, describing this as “empowering local communities”. In fact, this points directly towards a resurrection of the local warlord militias that ruled in the years after the fall of the Communist regime in 1992. Already their members have been accused by Human Rights Watch and other bodies of murder, rape and kidnapping. Lest we forget, it was precisely in order to get rid of such forces that the Taliban came together.

Anatol Lieven is professor of war studies at King’s College London. His book ‘Pakistan: A Hard Country’ has just been published in an updated paperback edition

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