Dexter Filkin’s writes in the New Yorker about the potential for civil war to break out in Afghanistan once the US “leaves” in 2014. He interviews Abdul Nasir, who was present in Afghanistan when the Soviets invaded and witnessed what happened when they left. What happened was civil conflict and warlordism throughout the 1990s, leading to effective Taliban control over most, but not all, of the country.
…with the United States planning its withdrawal by the end of 2014, Nasir blames the Americans for a string of catastrophic errors. “The Americans have failed to build a single sustainable institution here,” he said. “All they have done is make a small group of people very rich. And now they are getting ready to go.”
These days, Nasir said, the nineties are very much on his mind. The announced departure of American and NATO combat troops has convinced him and his friends that the civil war, suspended but never settled, is on the verge of resuming. “Everyone is preparing,” he said. “It will be bloodier and longer than before, street to street. This time, everyone has more guns, more to lose. It will be the same groups, the same commanders.” Hezb-e-Wahdat and Jamiat-e-Islami and Hezb-e-Islami and Junbish—all now political parties—are rearming. The Afghan Army is unlikely to be able to restore order as it did in the time of Najibullah.
…Nashir grew increasingly vehement. “Mark my words, the moment the Americans leave, the civil war will begin,” he said. “This country will be divided into twenty-five or thirty fiefdoms, each with its own government.”
The glaring reality of impending civil war will undoubtedly be used as a justification for maintaining increased US troop levels in Afghanistan. If and when that argument fails, due either to budgetary constraints or lack of political will and public support, the same glaring reality will be used to justify tens of thousands of troops and Special Operations Forces beyond 2014 and continued propping up of the Kabul government and its defunct security forces.
That the war is a failure is known to everybody. As Filkins writes, “After eleven years, nearly two thousand Americans killed, sixteen thousand Americans wounded, nearly four hundred billion dollars spent, and more than twelve thousand Afghan civilians dead since 2007, the war in Afghanistan has come to this: the United States is leaving, mission not accomplished.” The Taliban actually control entire parts of the country, where they “collect taxes, maintain law and order, and adjudicate disputes,” Filkins writes. Nasir tells Filkins, the “country will be divided into twenty-five or thirty fiefdoms, each with its own government,” as soon as they Americans leave.
The bulwark against a return to Taliban rule, we are told by the Obama administration, is continuing to support, arm, and train the Afghan security forces. But as a former US official told Filkins, “several hundred soldiers in the Afghan Army are thought to be agents for the Taliban or for Pakistan.” He “said that the killers of some of the twenty-two coalition soldiers who died this year while training Afghan forces had been planted in the Army by the Taliban or by Inter-Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s main intelligence branch.” Those that aren’t Taliban are weak and ineffectual.
“I cannot count on the Army or the police here,” Nashir said. “The police and most of the soldiers are cowards.” He was echoing a refrain I heard often around the country. “They cannot fight.”
Pakistan has always preferred Taliban authority in Afghanistan to help counter Indian influence and facilitate commerce between Central Asian states and Pakistani ports. Islamabad will continue to peddle Taliban influence in Afghanistan beyond 2014, but it has to be understood that the last decade of war and destruction has not been good for Pakistan, or the Taliban for that matter. Pulling out completely, even if it means civil war or the Taliban regaining control, won’t to translate to Afghanistan becoming a dangerous safe haven. Any militants with any sort of international agenda aren’t likely to be welcomed back into Afghanistan. Besides, as Malou Innocent has written, safe havens are a myth.
Impending civil war is not an argument for continuing the policies that have made it a glaring reality. Even the most hardened and indoctrinated war advocates should be able to understand that eleven years of war, occupation, and nation building has not undermined the fundamental facts about Afghanistan and eleven more won’t either.