Afghanistan; pipes (dreams, bombs, lines, peace) 24-Aug-2021

Graveyard of Empires

It’s a nifty sobriquet. All great myths grow from at least a little truth. This piece is not dedicated to the brave Mujahideen fighters of Afghanistan.

The more plausible explanation for the failure of the empire is its own foreign policy and governance structures. Decades-old short-termism, corruption, and ideological nonsense.  A synonym for all of that might be “politics” or, if you’re feeling daring, “democracy”.

English football fans have it right: you’re nothing special, we lose every week.

It didn’t have to be this way, in Afghanistan, elsewhere, or anywhere at all, really. A terrible tragedy (among many) is that out of years of garbled nonsense, something approaching acceptable was taking shape. It’s not what could’ve been built if everything was done properly from the start, but at least some Western goals could’ve been met, and some burdens shifted.

Unfortunately the exit from Afghanistan looks as calamitous as the entrance. What is this? A bad Hollywood horror remake of Carry On Up the Khyber?

Western engagement in Afghanistan looks like a terrible loss and failure now (perhaps just for now). The match isn’t even over, there are players still on the field, but fans are already leaving the stadium. Let’s be positive. At least some of this chaos is ending. Let’s draw a line under this and look at it a bit like a case study. Let’s learn from the failures and look forward to how to do better in the future. In Afghanistan, elsewhere, or anywhere at all, really.

Afghanistan could still be very geopolitically and economically impactful.

Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start - why America went to Afghanistan

The answer is short but informative and a good contrast for a different plan.

After the collapse of the USSR, the US was left as the world’s only and uncontested superpower. It could do whatever it wanted and didn’t have a particularly clear purpose. On its face, the Cold War was a triumph of US ideals. Why shouldn’t they triumph elsewhere?

Western interventions in Sierra Leone and the Balkans were largely unopposed, not unpopular, proceeded without UN permission (Yugoslavia), and seemed to work.

Domestically, Bush scraped through to the presidency on very suspicious grounds. And perennially there has always been a lot of money, lobbying, and corporate media support for war.

When 9/11 happened it was a perfect set of circumstances and incentives for political leaders to present themselves as taking strong and decisive action.

A more imminent reason is that Osama bin Laden was thought to be in Afghanistan with Al Qaeda.

More broadly, it was spun at the time that Afghanistan was a lawless place with room for Islamic terrorist organisations to grow. Invasion and rebuilding was meant to eliminate that space and create a sustainable peace enforced by a functioning government.

The US government was puffed up with self-confidence, misunderstood its own track record, had a giant military, and all manner of financial and political incentives to do something it could easily pass as strong and righteous while completely unopposed.

The skit “War Party” from (SNL 17-Nov-2001) captures and mocks the mood pretty well. Watching this almost 20 years on is quite an experience. On the one hand, the skit is much smarter than anything SNL has done for a long time, and seems to make a critically mocking point about American attitudes to shallow victories like taking cities. (It’s hard to overstate the total disregard in general - Kandahar was founded by Alexander the Great). On the other hand, after Tracy Morgan’s interjection, Will Ferrell seems to believe completely sincerely in the “War on Terror”. Has that phrase been said at all in the entirety of last week’s news or by those trying to justify staying in Afghanistan?

That alone seems like a pretty good indication of how flimsy and planless the public rationale was for the invasion of Afghanistan.

Let’s take the two probably least widely scorned points: 1) Osama bin Laden was in Afghanistan and 2) Afghanistan was a hotbed for Islamic extremist terrorism.

There was a better solution than full boots on the ground invasion.

But that brings us on to the less publicly discussed motivations for wanting to control Afghanistan. Military presence and resources.

All your base are belong to us - strategic military presence

Theoretically, Afghanistan is not a bad spot for a US military presence. Invading a country and setting up a base is one way to do that.

The US doesn’t have any major military presence east of Iran until South Korea and Japan.

The most important is lithium. Afghanistan may have the world’s largest deposits of lithium, vital for making batteries. It was once President Karzai’s ambition that Afghanistan should be the “lithium capital of the world” (RFI 18-Jun-2010).

Unfortunately for Afghanistan, it has a lot of obstacles. It’s unsafe. The Taliban destroyed approximately $300m worth of infrastructure in a few months in 2016 alone (VOA 26-Nov-2016). Without that infrastructure, it’s impossible to transport raw materials, which are often large and bulky, out of Afghanistan. The mountains obstruct even the most basic public services and have made Afghanistan the tribal, multi-ethnic cobbled together Russian/British Empire buffer state that it remains today. Mining consumes a lot of electricity and water and there is not enough of either.

A railway network would have to connect through Pakistan or Iran and on to the Caspian Sea. As long as the US stays in Afghanistan and/or the dynamic remains the same, there are obvious problems for both of these solutions.

China might be able to make it work. Afghanistan overlaps some of the Belt and Road Initiative, or could connect up, taking resources out through the Chinese ports in Pakistan, or through Turkmenistan, to Iran, and out there instead.

Well done, America. Go to your room and think about what you’ve done. Think particularly hard about how Communist China might make the moves you should’ve done from the start if you weren’t so ideologically self-righteously absorbed in yourselves.

2) Afghanistan is the last piece in the puzzle for the TAPI pipeline

Turkmenistan is very gassy.

Estimates predict it may have somewhere between the 4th and 6th largest natural gas reserves in the world (BP 11-Jun-2019).

Approximately 90% of its natural gas exports go to China via the Central Asia-China gas pipeline. The Turkmenistan–Afghanistan–Pakistan–India Pipeline (TAPI) or Trans-Afghanistan Pipeline, is a $10bn plan to send gas south to Pakistan and India, and therefore diversify gas exports.

Work has already started on parts of the pipeline in Turkmenistan (Reuters 13-Dec-2015), Pakistan (Express Tribune 02-Mar-2017), and Afghanistan itself (Twitter 22-Feb-2018), though there have been many delays (TOLOnews 27-Jan-2020) for various reasons. The Taliban have relatively recently promised Turkmenistan that they will protect the pipeline (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Turkmenistan 06-Feb-2021). Set aside the value of their promises, Afghanistan is very unstable again. It doesn’t seem very likely that the pipeline will be completed soon and without difficulties.

US stabilisation and securing of Afghanistan could have helped provide an alternative for Central Asia and boosted India against China. The approach that the US took in starting in 2001 did not achieve this goal.

Even worse, it has blindly antagonised large portions of the Afghan population. At best Afghanistan is about the same as when the US first invaded. The best chance at redeeming the mining and pipeline projects is if the US is not seen to be involved. The UK’s Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, seems to recognise this already. He expects the West will need to rely on Russia and China as moderating influences on the Taliban (Telegraph 22-Aug-2021).

The Taliban already have a relationship with Turkmenistan, though it will have to improve. If the TAPI pipeline is going to proceed, India and Pakistan will have to revisit their relationships with the Taliban too.

Diplomatic relationships, cultural and social realities. The most important resource of any country is its people.

In war, morale is to the physical as ten to one - people and motivations

Napoleon was right. So is American Robin Hood.

The US totally disregarded the kind of people they were confronting. (This piece really, really, definitely isn’t dedicated to the brave Mujahideen fighters of Afghanistan). There are all sorts of polls which tell you how many people in Afghanistan allegedly support NATO involvement, or democracy, etc. but polling other polling on religious attitudes is damning (Pew Research Center 30-Apr-2013).

In ex-Soviet and 99% muslim majority Azerbaijan, only 8% of muslims said that they wanted Sharia to be the “official law of the land”. In Afghanistan, 99%. Afghan Muslims by 95% agreed that a wife is “always obliged to obey her husband”. Approx. 85% believed in stoning as a punishment for adultery. Approx. 80% supported the death penalty for apostates and with almost 40% said that suicide bombings and other violence could be justified by Islam.

The research was conducted in 2013 but this is still about 13 years into the war. Maybe all these figures were at 100% before the US invasion.

Of course not. And nothing has changed for a long time. Alexander the Great in 330 BC described the people of the land which would become Afghanistan as “leonine” and “brave”, and that “each foot of ground is like a well of steel”.

Winston Churchill, who fought in Afghanistan himself, had this to say about the region’s religion and religious leaders:

“Their religion is the most miserable fanaticism, in which cruelty, credulity, and immorality are equally represented. Their holy men—the Mullahs—prize as their chief privilege a sort of droit de seigneur. It is impossible to imagine a lower type of being or a more dreadful state of barbarism.”

And this to say about the tribes in general:

“The Pashtun tribes are always engaged in private or public war. Every man is a warrior, a politician and a theologian. Every large house is a real feudal fortress...Every family cultivates its vendetta; every clan, its feud...Nothing is ever forgotten and very few debts are left unpaid.”

Has anything changed? The people still look exactly the same.

It’s not that majority opinion matters. As long as the Taliban had enough people, with enough drive, they were going to remain a significant problem.

Flying pride flags is not important (NBC News 03-Apr-2012). Nobody in this arena who matters cares about “Pride Month” (US Embassy Kabul 02-Jun-2021). Even as the Taliban was taking over the country the US State Department was worried about inclusivity (C-SPAN 16-Aug-2021)? The UN Women office is STILL advertising a position for a “partnership specialist” to go to Kabul, starting 25-Oct-2021. What happened to the last person promoting women’s rights for the UN in Afghanistan? Meanwhile the WHO got confused about why vaccine take-up isn’t very high (Reuters 17-Aug-2021). Good grief.

And it’s not like the Taliban don’t have the internet. They’re even getting good at trolling e.g. (Twitter 17-Aug-2021) Joe Biden regarding his ice cream (Twitter 19-Jul-2020). Does this guy mincing about what is supposed to be the seat of the US Empire project the Empire’s power or even a basic level of sincerity? After 20 years of flags and partnership specialists the Taliban have just rolled in and are mocking the West to its face about how it will respect women’s rights (Independent 15-Aug-2021) and slapping it down on its free speech hypocrisies (Twitter 17-Aug-2021).

Half the West looks at that stuff and thinks it's goofy. If you were the inheritor of hundreds of years of mountain man, tribal, Islamic, brutal, poor, bearded Kalashnikov culture, are you going to think any better of it? Is the US State Department and/or the US military so wrapped up in its own progressive ideology? Republicans and Trump supporters don’t like it, maybe the Taliban will?

Grab your popcorn for when the Taliban take up Afghanistan’s seat at the UN Commission on the Status of Women (Al Jazeera 15-Sep-2020).

Was it worth it? The price of the admission ticket to that show, all those lives and the money (BBC 16-Aug-2021), was very high.

The Road Not Taken - alternative method

The 2001 invasion has now proven to be/was made a failure.

Vengeance, military presence, natural resources, and tackling a culture.

There’s a different way to achieve these goals. It’s very tried and tested: the British style colonisation. It’s less flashy than a show-invasion, and modern Westerners don’t like to think of themselves as grubby, but it would have worked and at a fraction of the cost in blood and money.

Step 1: vengeance. Put a bounty on Osama bin Laden for $1bn. What the heck, make it $10bn. Last Afghan warlord to bring me an Al Qaeda leader’s head is a rotten egg.

Step 2: military presence. Find whichever warlord wants to be the biggest and baddest, give him a load of money and guns and point him at all the others. Send in advisers to supervise, train, and maintain the really dangerous kit that you want to keep control over. The US sort of got to this point a few years ago (ABC News 14-Apr-2021).

Step 3: natural resources. Now that the warlord is the sole ruler of all Afghanistan, he can give you all the contracts you desire to mine, farm, etc. whatever you like. It’ll help pay you back for all the money and guns you gave him, and help to pay for more.

Step 4: tackling a culture. This bit is harder but only because it takes longer. It’s actually relatively easy. Now that the warlord is secure, takes your military advice, gives you mining rights, etc. it’ll only make sense that he needs a bit more. Roads and railways would make controlling the country and extracting its resources much easier. You’re going to need some hospitals and schools too. The military advisers worked out well. The local Afghans don’t have the expertise. Why not send a few civil servants to help run everything? Suddenly the US finds itself owning and running a country.

Better yet, you really want to inculcate tolerance and inclusion and blah blah blah? The warlord’s kids are obviously going to have to go to Western boarding schools and universities. By the time they get back they won’t just be tolerant. If you do it right they’ll be total raging screamers organising such a degenerate and filthy Kabul Pride March it’d make San Francisco blush.

Maybe next time

There you go. Buy it and corrupt it from the inside. 

The only problem is that it’d never wash with the kinds of Western elites who fancy themselves to be educated, enlightened, compassionate, cultured, etc. It’s the kind of mentality which led them to believe they could fly some flags and just sit down and really have a good talk and try to get the Taliban to see their point of view.

Shallow shows of faith in the progressive orthodoxy didn’t work. Launching something so obvious as a war just to be seen to be taking action didn’t work either.

If you want results you have to put ideology and reflex aside, do what works, and make the effort.

Maybe try backing the Mujahideen again (Washington Post 18-Aug-2021)? This piece is really, 100% honest to God not dedicated to the brave Mujahideen fighters of Afghanistan.

Someone scrabbling around the US State Department is definitely thinking about it though.

​Afghanistan borders Iran and China, both hostile to the US, and Pakistan which is ambiguous at best. It’s also nestled in at the south end of Central Asia, all of which is still within Russia’s sphere of influence, or now slowly tilting toward China.

US military presence in Afghanistan also increased pressure on Iran. It’s the one regional power which isn’t a US supplicant and still dares to assert its sovereignty. It’s not making the best use of its sovereignty but the point is that it defies the US. In the 00’s Iran found itself surrounded by US allies and occupations in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Iraq, and Turkey.

Iranian fears wouldn’t have been completely unfounded. Presidential candidate and US Senator John McCain’s Beach Boy parody of Barbara Ann/Bomb Iran (NPR 20-Apr-2007) might actually be demonic.

Subduing Iran would have given the US total control over all of the Middle East’s fossil fuels and a better purchase on natural gas in Turkmenistan (which itself might’ve been a juicy target for the US State Department and corporate media - muslim, repressive dictator, lots of natural gas). Total hegemony over the Middle East would’ve opened up more viable access to Central Asia, drawing them away from Russia and China.

Afghanistan itself is also very rich in certain resources and is the last piece in the puzzle for a potentially vitally important gas pipeline.

Jesus Christ, Marie, they’re minerals - natural resources

Afghanistan is a resource play.

1) It’s very rich in its own natural resources

This isn’t news. When the USSR’s war started to flounder, they commissioned surveys into Afghanistan’s geology as a way to try and justify/offset the disaster.

Not content with proving it could be just as silly as the USSR by going to war in Afghanistan, (this piece is definitely not dedicated to the brave Mujahideen fighters of Afghanistan), the US had the same idea. The Pentagon and the US Geological Survey estimated there could be as much as $3tn of unmined natural resources in Afghanistan (Reuters 25-Jun-2010).

It has more than 1,400 sites (Afghanistan Investment Support Agency 29-Oct-2015) with deposits of almost everything you could want. There are two main belts of deposits which run from approximately Fayzabad in the north, down to Herat, and Kabul to Kandahar.​