Not long ago, I received an email from a geographer friend with a link to a news report that the Taliban have overrun yet another district in Afghanistan.  A short comment followed the link:

“After a trillion $$ and countless years of US presence, the place is still $%^& up and probably always will be.  The “brass” simply fails to understand the difference between folk and popular culture (and, of course, the “Warlords” simply being tribal chieftains who are doing what tribal chieftains have done since Day One: protect their turf and kick shit out of neighboring tribes while screwing their women).”

The seemingly-crude comment’s brevity encapsulates a major problem purposely left ignored since the beginning of the Afghan campaign in 2001: ethnopolitics stemming from ethno geographic issues and how it pertains to the country’s overall cultural geography.  The top “brass”, however, were not left unaware of it. 

Current Director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, Lieutenant General Robert Ashley, specifically came to see me in my office in Kabul City in 2012 to learn about my work on that very topic.  At the time I was creating a series of products addressing ethnic geography and its implications to the short and long-term stability and security in the region.  A week or so prior, his deputy, another General Officer visited us and, upon receiving a long briefing from me about the scope of my work, made sure that the immediate arrangements were prepared for his boss’ visit to my office.

[In the procession of General Officers and the civilian Senior Executive Service (SES) and various “intel” Country Leads through my office, which lasted for months, someone commented “It’s usually the other way around. They send analysts to visit the bosses, not the bosses to visit the analysts.”] 

Then-Major General Ashley and I exchanged pleasantries in an informal get-to-know setting—if that is possible with all the “others” being around us—and I made sure to criticize his fruitless hope that his favorite football team will one day win a Super Bowl.  Afterwards we got to work and I delivered to him a long brief on the same topic his deputy received previously.

Spatial Awareness 

The “brass” are aware of problems, but cannot do much to change them; the Military is not creating or leading the policy toward pacification of Afghanistan.  They have to ignore, for lack of a better cliché, an 800-pound ethnic gorilla in the room. 

Decision-makers in Washington, D.C., regardless of the administration in charge, are clueless about Afghan cultural geography, yet they design policies that become operational frameworks for the deployed troops.  “Do not (honestly) discuss ethnic issues” almost seems like it is rule number one in that policy.  Pretending that something does not exist, however, cannot devalue its importance. If you are on the ground in Afghanistan who are you suppose to believe, the policymakers in Washington, D.C. or your own eyes? This leads to another question in America’s longest war: have you ever heard the American President addressing ethnic issues as a significant factor in regard to permanent stability in Afghanistan?  No, because it would not fit into the official narrative of the dichotomy of the Afghan conflict—the Afghan government fights the Taliban and the Taliban fight the Afghan Government.

Figure 1. Directing the Afghanistan-oriented policy from Washington D.C. has thus far resembled resting on this bench and analyzing the cultural landscape—there is a lot more complexity around than meets the eye. (Photograph by author.)

The “brass” know better, particularly those who served in bombing and peacekeeping—depending on the order of operations—in the Balkans during the 1990s.  They arrived in Afghanistan with experience from the former Yugoslavia’s carnage where ethnic geography and resulting ethnopolitics was THE issue, into an equally unstable environment where ethnic geography and ethnopolitics suddenly became a non-issue.  

[Similarities in complexity between the two regions are exceptional, for those willing to notice.  I used the Balkans-Afghanistan cultural geographic analogies many times in briefs to the military and intelligence professionals to their great satisfaction.]

An Inconvenient Truth

Kaleidoscopic lenses the D.C. based policymakers use to create new plans in how to bring peace to Afghanistan apparently cannot be replaced.  By acting like that they are lying to themselves, the Military, and the American public still painfully unaware of what is really going on out there. Reasoning behind their policies is the equivalent of using an umbrella to cover oneself against hail, while standing in the path of an approaching tornado. 

Observers outside the United States are not so sure that what comes from within the Beltway will work, particularly those who have previously operated in Afghanistan and learned cultural geographic lessons the hard way.  Soviets—prior to and during their Afghan campaign—and now Russians have always kept an eye on inter (between the groups) and intra (within the groups) ethnic relationships.  Even a brief review of popular and scholarly literature confirms that; I invite the readers to explore more on their own.

Warlords and tribal chieftains, as my friend put it, active since the 1970s and 1980s—the likes of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Abdul Rasul Sayyaf to Ismail Khan, Hamid Karzai, Atta Muhammad Nur, Abdullah Abdullah, and General Dostum—are well aware of the reality, as are the lower echelon of decision makers, the Taliban, and the rest of the country’s population.  Should it be surprising then that the Russians do not sugarcoat the conditions on the ground?  They know with whom they are dealing.  Consider these passages from their recent attempts to influence the situation in Afghanistan:

“Sitting between Afghan envoys and their fierce rivals from the Taliban movement, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Friday promised to work for a united and peaceful Afghanistan, showcasing his country’s return to the diplomatic forefront of the 17-year war.

Russia’s unprecedented hosting of the peace conference almost 30 years after it pulled out of Afghanistan in disgrace comes after efforts of the United States and others repeatedly failed to stem the constant fighting.

‘Russia stands for preserving the one and undivided Afghanistan, in which all of the ethnic groups that inhabit this country would live side by side peacefully and happily,’ Lavrov said, sitting between a five-man Taliban delegation and four members of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, a government-appointed body charged with overseeing the peace process.”

This was not the only moment when the Russian leaders underlined the importance of incorporating ethnic factors in bringing the Afghan conflict to an end.  They understand that if the current conflict suddenly ends tomorrow, the day after tomorrow another civil war may easily erupt as it did in 1992, with, interestingly, many of the same individuals in charge now as they were then.  With plenty of experience in dealing with not only Afghanistan, but also internal Soviet Union’s and Russian ethnic issues and conflicts, they have few difficulties in grasping the complexity of Afghan affairs and openly addressing the issues. Afghans know that and, because of it, may even trust the Russians more than the Americans.

Calling Rambo

Can the American policy makers grasp the complexity of Afghan affairs beyond typical polarization of “us versus them,” and openly admit that progress requires a much more complex approach? I doubt that very much.  A burden of admission of being wrong for nearly two decades is not something anyone’s shoulders in Washington, D.C. are ready to carry, regardless of how many servicemen and women, or how many civilians continue to die as ignorance-based policy prolongs the suffering in Afghanistan.  It is more likely that, for fear of appearing incompetent, the same people will continue to sabotage any attempts to properly fix the mess.

If, by some miracle, the policy begins to change and the ethnic issues and geography are to be incorporated into solving this problem, this—surprisingly– may result in a negative outcome.  From what I have observed, very few people who comprehend the nuisances of Afghanistan’s ethnopolitics are also intimately familiar with the country’s cultural geography.  Even if they are allowed to make an input into a freshly minted policy, their intentions may not lead to a desired outcome.  It seems counterintuitive, but just because they are experts in one narrow subject matter that does not mean their expertise extends into a broader scope of cultural geography, of which ethnopolitics is only one aspect.

In long terms, the current American policy toward Afghanistan—one with which the majority of the American populace is totally unaware—is not working.  Any other option from the Washington D.C. repertoire of failures will not work either.  Swallowing pride and asking for participation from those who may be able contribute something meaningful, hardly looks like it will be considered any time soon.

For further readings consult my Afghanistan archives.

Tornado-proof Umbrellas in Afghanistan