When reading about Afghanistan's history in the context of current events, the famous words "those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it" echo loudly. Thus, it is no wonder that senior U.S. officials such as Secretary of Defense Gates as well as President Obama seem to be reluctant warriors while dedicating additional military and economic resources to the current operations in Afghanistan. But existing problems are compounded by the fact that U.S. officials continue to exclude much of the Central Asia region, other than Pakistan, from the Afghanistan conversation and rationale for ongoing military operations. A focused reading of Chapter 2: Historical Factors Shaping Modern Afghanistan in Afghanistan's Endless War makes one realize the fallacy of this approach.
This chapter largely focuses on the "Great Game," a long series of diplomatic, political, economic, and militaristic maneuvers by Russia and Great Britain throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries to control and leverage Central Asia to realize their own visions of global conquest and influence. Essentially, Russia and Great Britain acted as two hammers striking against the anvil of Afghanistan, shaping the foundation of its modern people, borders and role in geo-politics and globalization. Thus, as author Larry Goodson writes, four themes have developed from Afghanistan's tortured history:
- "Owing to its geographical location, Afghanistan has been subject to countless invasions and incursions whose indelible imprint on the landscape has been matched by the social and demographic transformations they have wrought.
- Despite its location, or perhaps because of it, Afghan people have exhibited fierce independence and martial skill throughout recorded history.
- When Afghanistan did embark on state-building in the 18th and 19th centuries, it did so despite the effects of the first two themes above.
- When Afghanistan finally became a modern nation state, it was forced to exist in the shadow of a powerful neighbor (Soviet Union) with expansionist tendencies that throughout the 20th Century came to dominate Afghan affairs."
Mr. Goodson goes on to write that the internal context for a rise in ethnic consciousness and the consolidation of power into the modern nation state came about due to "forced internal migration of rivals, tribal bribes and leverage with political agents located in the Pakistani frontier" bordering Afghanistan. As described above, the external context was provided by the "Great Game."
These both are critical points to remember in the ongoing debate around whether to deploy a counterinsurgancy program or counterterrorist program in Afghanistan. I infer from Mr. Goodson's writing that there seems to be an underlying need for foreign elements to embed with the local population and assimilate while pursuing overall goals, and to bring about success.
The Four Levers of Soviet Influence
To this day, Russia continues to utilize four key levers in its relations with the countries of Central Asia, many once part of the former Soviet Union.These levers, as Mr. Goodson writes, are as follows:
- Diplomatic Pressure: Exerted against Afghanistan to prevent it from openly supporting the so-called Basmachi movement in an attempt to form a Central Asian confederation.
- Economic Penetration: Made possible the use of blockades, famines and similar tactics to undermine support for a Nationalist movement.
- Political Manipulation: Of cleavages along lines of ethnicity, religion, politics and socioeconomic status allowed cooption of certain groups and weakening of resistance.
- Military Force: Used throughout Central Asia.
These levers are not unlike those the U.S. is currently using to bring about the positive change it desires in Afghanistan. Thus, it is what the U.S. and other nations envision Afghanistan must become that drives how these levers are used. In the case vision and strategy are laking, the levers will fail to work jointly and with unified purpose, leading to reduced chances for a positive outcome.
The one thing that the Soviet Union understood is that any program deployed in Afghanistan to take final control of the country required a strong foundation. In filling the void left by Great Britain's absence and the hesitance of the U.S. post-World War II, the Soviets worked on building the "architectures" for its military supply chain, which would be crucial for an invasion:
- Physical: roads, airports, bridges, tunnels, buildings, etc.
- Financial: acted as financier of Afghanistan government programs and investments
- Informational: planted agents and infrastructure for capture of information and knowledge
- Relational: planted agents and advisors with key political and military figures
- Innovational: provided training based on advanced Soviet techniques and technology
- Human: provided experts, soldiers, politicians, etc. to build up the Afghanistan government center of control
I believe the Soviets' shortcoming was that its vision and strategy focused on improving its own power and influence rather than develop and empower the overall living conditions of the Afghan people, i.e. designed to bring Afghanistan under Soviet hegemony. In the process, as we will see in Chapter 3: Modern War in Afghanistan, the USSR also failed to properly factor in and deal with the fluid nature of the cross-border counter-programming aimed at supporting and strengthening the resistance against it.
As I prepare to explore Chapter 3, the two recent WSJ articles linked below are good reads and provide content for some comparative analysis between the late 20th Century and early 21st Century in terms of the evolution of modern war, both from an internal and external context.
For U.S. Troops in Afghanistan, Supplies Are Another Battle