|Modern Afghan "Ring Road" follows ancient caravan routes|
Any recent perusal of the news from Afghanistan would lead an intelligent observer to conclude that the impending U.S. withdrawal will be a complete catastrophe. All of the gains from the last 13 years in the form of improved governance, infrastructure improvements, advances in the status of Afghan women etc are in immediate peril if the U.S. withdraws all of its forces. The U.S. departure is dangerous in that there is not a follow-on plan for what to do with Afghanistan. This is another circumstance where the “long imperial afternoon” experience of the British in Afghanistan during the 19th century provides a useful solution. Like the U.S., the British Empire had more pressing concerns than Afghanistan and could ill-afford to station large numbers of troops there for extended periods. For the British, Afghanistan was not a country, but more of a geographic location populated by a host of small tribal nations. Rather than try to fundamentally alter these tribal relationships, which proved unsuccessful, or make it one of the formal “pink bits” on the imperial map, the British embraced them at the extreme “local” level and were largely successful in maintaining peace in the Central Asian hub for many decades. The Afghan wars fought by the British were more about mistakes the British made in carrying out their own policy rather than provocations by the Afghans. The U.S. can still withdraw the vast bulk of its troops from Afghanistan as planned, but it must also realize that this central “hub” of the Eurasian continent cannot again be totally left to its own devices.
|Cap emblem of 19th century Khyber Rifles|
Afghanistan has been a geographic “hub” within the Hindu Kush mountain range from earliest antiquity. Rather than a “graveyard of empire” as popularly believed, the region has been more of a highway for imperial conquest. Afghanistan possesses a a virtual ring of mountain passes and flatlands within an otherwise mountainous terrain. This system facilitated easy movement within Central Asia. It was exploited by Persian satraps, Alexander the Great, Turkish and Mongol warlords on horseback, and a host of other conquerors seeking to move quickly within the vast Eurasian interior. The nearly 130 year British involvement in Afghanistan was undertaken to prevent the 19th century Russian Empire, and after World War 1 its Soviet successor, from using these same routes to threaten India. For most of their period of influence in Afghanistan, the British relied on a combination of influence-building in Kabul, good relations with all of the Afghan tribes, and small security units of native troops advised and officered by Britons. The two 19th century wars fought by the British in Afghanistan, (1839-1842) and (1878-1880), were both initially successful, punitive expeditions to disabuse Afghan rulers of any intent to admit Russian troops into their region. Both conflicts experienced bloody defeats however, when British troops became complacent, failed to manage competing tribal interests, or tried to “modernize” the Afghan state to European standards. The British were most effective in maintaining order in Afghanistan when their actual military footprint was miniscule. Small units like the famed Khyber Rifles, led by Britons who lived with Afghan villagers and adopted their custom,s successfully policed Afghanistan for decades without significant unrest. The British supported the often weak central government in Kabul, but also maintained relations with competing tribes in order to ensure some level of impartiality. Peace was maintained so long as all Afghan parties thought they had an an element of independence and influence.
|Pashtun tribal map (purple) showing Durrani and Ghilzai areas|
The U.S. now confronts a situation similar to that faced by the British in the wake of the 19th century Afghan wars. It costs too much to actively police the vital hub of Central Asia, but it cannot be left to again become a base for terrorists. The govt. in Kabul is led by a prominent member of the Durrani (Popalzai) tribe, Hamid Karzai, but the Taliban opposition is (nominally) led by a member of the Ghilzai tribe, Mullah Omar. These two Pashtun tribes have competed for the leadership of Afghanistan for several hundred years. Some accommodation of both tribes and their positions is necessary for peace in the region. Like the British in the 19th century, the U.S. must preserve Afghanistan as a state friendly to its interests and free of dangerous groups, but cannot afford to spend too much time, effort, or financial resources on this effort. A pragmatic approach to Afghanistan must recognize these tribal distinctions, eschew modernization not desired by Afghans, and limit military efforts to Special Operations Command (SOCOM) advisors living and working closely with the Afghan military. Taliban leadership (although largely Ghilzai) perhaps should be treated as just another tribal entity and engagement with them must continue. The Taliban rose to power primarily in Afghanistan because Western nations turned their back on the region politically in the wake of the Soviet collapse. The West cannot afford a second similar mistake without serious consequences.
The United States can withdraw the bulk of its forces from Afghanistan and still preserve an influential presence in the region. Recognition of and discussion with all tribal elements is necessary and will lessen overall tensions. Support for the central government in Kabul must continue, but with the understanding that Afghanistan is more a tribal confederation than a centralized nation state. U.S. and other Western military advisers working closely with Afghan military units at the local level rather than large formations are the appropriate military presence in the region. If the situation becomes difficult, the West must actively demonstrate to the Afghans that large numbers of Western troops can and will return, with likely negative consequences for troublemakers. Afghanistan cannot be allowed to degenerate again into another completely ungoverned region of violence. Elements hostile to the rule of law will likely take hold as they did in the early 1990s. The region could also fall under the influence of the Chinese, who contemplate oil and natural gas pipelines through Afghanistan to circumvent maritime blockades of vital petroleum products. The sun may have set on the formal British Empire, but the there is much to be learned and applied from their experience in Afghanistan.