The Law of Unintended Consequences in Afghanistan

One of the first foreign policy problems the new Obama administration will have to confront is the war–or, more precisely, two wars–the country is waging in Afghanistan. To summarize previous comments in this space about the effort, it is a mess. The United States and its NATO allies are simultaneously attempting to confront and eliminate Al Qaeda (especially its leadership) and to support the Afghan government of Hamid Karzai by assisting in the government’s efforts to thwart the Taliban attempt to overthrow it. Neither is going well, and in neither case is it even vaguely likely that continuing the present course, even if tweaked with more forces, will result in an acceptable outcome for the United States.

The problems are multiple, but at heart the reason failure is assured is that the two goals the U.S. and its allies are pursuing are contradictory at the operational level, and actions taken to accomplish one goal have the unintended consequence of making the other worse. Presently, the United States is concentrating its efforts on supporting the Karzai government. That is not working and is making it less likely that the U.S. will get the kind of local assistance it needs to run down and smite Al Qaeda.

The heart of the dilemma is the position of the Pashtuns, about whom I have commented in previous postings. To reiterate, the Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan (about 40 percent of the population) and the largest minority group in Pakistan. Historic Pashtun lands lie on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border (the so-called Durand Line, which Pashtuns do not accept or honor). The Pashtuns form the heart of the Taliban movement seeking to overthrow the government in Kabul, which makes them our opponents. The Pakistani territory where Al Qaeda is imbedded is similarly Pashtun territory. Since one of the major problems the United States faces in getting at Al Qaeda is finding them, the cooperation of the local tribesmen in Pakistan (meaning the Pashtuns) would certainly simplify that effort considerably. That, in turn, would seem to militate toward befriending the Pashtuns. Washington, we have a problem here!

This situation creates a conundrum for U.S. policy. If the major U.S. goal in Afghanistan is eradicating Al Qaeda, that suggests coopting the Pashtuns, a course that would require denouncing (or forcing the major reconstitution) of the Karzai government. The reason is that the Taliban (and thus their Pashtun supporters) reject Karzai (a former Pashtun war lord) as a turncoat who has formed a government that is disproportionately non-Pashtun, especially in the security area and army, which are heavily ethnic Tajik and Uzbek. The Pashtuns think of themselves as the Afghans, and thus many support the Taliban as the representatives of the Pashtuns, despite some of the Taliban’s strange policies and behavior. The Afghan civil war is really a Pashtun-anti-Pashtun affair, and the United States has chosen its side.

This means, of course, that the Pashtun must consider the United States the enemy. If they need any further proof of the anti-Pashtun character of the United States, all they have to do is to point to where the United States stages its operations in Afghanistan from: leased bases in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. This latter arrangement demonstrates particularly clearly the law of unintended consequences in operation. The United States did not negotiate bases in those two countries because we are anti-Pashtun, but because we needed a staging ground from which to support operations in Afghanistan. The other countries bordering Afghanistan are Turkmenistan, Iran, and Iran. The selection of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan was expedient, not principled, and although there is little record on the subject, there is virtually no indication that anyone considered the possibility that choosing bases in these countries would actually make it harder to get Al Qaeda than it would have been otherwise. But it almost surely has.

The hope of American policymakers has been to reconcile the two wars: propping up a “democratic” government in Afghanistan will make that country impervious to Al Qaeda and make its capture and destruction easier (it will have less places to hide). Unfortunately, it hasn’t worked out that way. Instead, Pashtuns must think the United States is their enemy, following in a long line of foreign invaders to be repulsed. As long as an appreciable number of Pashtuns feel that way, they are going to oppose the United States in both its wars: the Taliban will continue to assault the Afdghan government, and the Pashtuns will continue to provide safe haven for Al Qaeda. That is certainly not what the United States intended as it crafted its policies, but it certainly has been the consequence. Figuring a way out of this conundrum is the major Afghanistan burden the Obama foreign policy team faces.


2 Responses to “The Law of Unintended Consequences in Afghanistan”

  1. As a Pashtun, I appreciate this law of unintended consequenses, but this is the sort of thing that the smart think tank guys were supposed to think of when setting out the strategic policy, guys like then Ambassador – now UN Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, himself an ethnic Pashtun.
    Even as this assesment is a vast improvement on current policy, there are still major flaws in its approach. The Pashtun are not monolithic in their approach, in fact some have stated that the term Pashtun unity is an oxymoron – and the Afghan side Pashtuns psyche is different than those on the south side of the Durand line, further more, the Pashtuns living in Balochistan differ to those living in the FATA and they differ to those living in the urban areas.
    Karzai had no power base other than the US, — that position belonged to Abdul Haq who survived a decade of fighting the Soviet juggernaut only to be killed by a screwy CIA arranged scheme to take over Jalalabad.
    Its still the same old story, for the Pashtun it is chapter three of a fight starting with the Brits in 1920’s, the Russkies in 1980’s and now the new invaders. So America has more powerful weapons, and night goggles.
    From the Pashtun perspective, they did not seek out this war, they did not invade any country, but they are confounded as to why is it that people from such far distance choose to come to fight in this land, since there is no gold in these mountains, no rubies, no oil.
    What is it that draws the best and most powerful armies in the world to come and try to take their land and kill them?
    With literacy at such abysmal rates, one can excuse their lack of understanding of Superpower strategic objectives. However they do learn to shoot a gun at a young age, history has shown them it is necessary for survival, its part of their memetics.

  2. […] The Law of Unintended Consequences in AfghanistanIf they need any further proof of the anti-Pashtun character of the United States, all they have to do is to point to where the United States stages its operations in Afghanistan from: leased bases in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. … […]

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