Ten years after invading Afghanistan, on Oct. 7, 2001, the obvious question is whether or not the United States has won the war. Osama bin Laden’s death suggests the defeat of Al Qaeda. But even after the planned withdrawal of 30,000 American troops by late 2012, nearly 70,000 will remain on the ground.
Despite all the talk about counterterrorism, the war has never been so narrowly conceived or fought. The United States and its allies have consistently pursued a mission of state-building. The current American strategy of handing over “ownership” of the war rests on obtaining local “buy in” — both to the counterinsurgency as well as the larger state-building project — by winning Afghan “hearts and minds.”
But this approach has been tried, and failed, in the past. Indeed, the British Empire followed the same flawed strategy more than a century ago.
Nearly all elements of the current counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, from “clear and hold” tactics to arming “tribal militias,” have their origins in the activities of British colonial administrators. The most important of these was Sir Robert Groves Sandeman, who in 1891 insisted that to control the people of the Afghan frontier, the British had to appeal to their “hearts and minds” (and pockets).
By “knowing the tribes,” Sir Robert believed he could rule them through their “traditions” — something both more legitimate in the eyes of the tribesmen and cheaper for the colonial state. However, many of the “traditions” he employed were at least partly colonial creations.
Sir Robert recruited locals into state-sponsored militias to police themselves. But rather than bolstering state authority, Sir Robert planted the seeds of discord. Arming local factions proved a poor instrument for establishing central control. The people of the frontier came to inhabit a nebulous no-man’s land where the state exercised little control over them. Today, this area is known as Pakistan’s Tribal Areas.
The United States and its allies have largely mimicked the policies of British India’s frontier administrators. They have made extensive use of what they understand to be “native traditions” to bolster their authority. American soldiers sit in tribal jirgas, or assemblies, to win the support of local elders; tribal militias called arbakai are recruited to police the populace. But rather than showing the sophistication of the military’s cultural knowledge, these efforts merely demonstrate to Afghans the coalition’s poor understanding of local cultures.
The arbakai, an institution foreign to northern Afghanistan, may in fact lead people there to consider the Taliban favorably. As one local from Kunduz told us, “Before, there were people who were with the government by day and Taliban by night. Now there are people who are arbakai in the day and thieves at night.” Even authority figures in regions where the arbakai is indigenous, like Paktia Province, told us that it “won’t work now: 30 years of war means that everybody acts independently, not according to tradition.”
Afghanistan is not a country of primitive tribes cut off from the modern world. The singular focus on tribes, the Taliban, and ethnicity as the keys to understanding and resolving the conflict misses the nuances of the region’s past and present. Rather than fanatical tribesmen or poor victims in need of aid, many of these people are active and capable participants in a globalized economy.
The international focus on “corruption” tends to paint Afghan merchants as venal and incapable. Afghan entrepreneurs are dismissed as immoral profiteers, cronies of warlords or international drug smugglers. Such views are dangerous: these are the people who will fill the void left when international subsidies to the Afghan government end.
In fact, Afghan merchants play important economic roles at home and abroad. They export used Japanese cars from Dubai to Central Asia and precious stones to Hong Kong and Sri Lanka. They sell medicinal plants to India and Germany and regularly cross the region seeking new economic opportunities, connecting Afghans with the world beyond. In spite of Afghanistan’s poverty, these traders are central to the economy and critically important to the stability of the Afghan state.
Like the fixation on tribal tradition, the West’s obsession with corruption obscures the intricate social and economic networks that define modern Afghanistan. As the British experience of the late 19th century shows, a simplistic and unceasing focus on “tradition” as an exit strategy will not establish a stable Afghan state.
If America and its allies hope to identify and partner with Afghans who are willing and able to build a stable political and economic future, they must set aside the stale caricatures about “tradition” that have long dominated thinking about the region.
Unless they do, 10 years of fighting, an investment of over $400 billion by American taxpayers, and the deaths of more than 2,700 allied military personnel, not to mention an unknown number of Afghans, will have been for naught.
Benjamin D. Hopkins, a historian at George Washington University and Magnus Marsden, an anthropologist at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. Both are the authors of Fragments of the Afghan Frontier.