And what is there to show for it? Well, while under the control of the US (which was in many cases more notional than real) Afghanistan became responsible for 90% of the world's opium supply, valued at around $58.5 billion a year. Even as a corrupt scheme to use government funds to get at some dirty drug money, the Afghanistan venture has been a pitifully, pathetically ineffectual one, and that is probably why the topic hardly ever comes up. Being ruled by a mafia government may not be particularly shameful for people who have no shame, but being ruled by a mafia government that can't even come up with the ink is, among thieves, the ultimate dishonor.
Perhaps an even greater dishonor is in leaving behind scores of people whom the Taliban consider American collaborators: translators and other service personnel recruited and employed by the US and NATO forces in Afghanistan over the past two decades. An honorable thing to do would be to fly them out to the US and to give them places to live and pensions. A dishonorable thing to do is what the US usually does under such circumstances: abandon its allies as soon as they become unnecessary. The whole world is watching and the lesson they are learning is this: the US is in rapid, chaotic retreat, and it is manifestly unsafe to be an American ally or, worse yet, an American collaborator.
But such important topics are being studiously ignored. What is talked about instead is... cue the sound of silence. Joe Biden recently let us catch a glimpse of his internal mental void, saying, "We went [into Afghanistan] for two reasons: to... to..." Then he froze with a blank stare and eventually came up with two expedient explanations: getting Osama Bin Laden (who was in Pakistan, a US ally at the time, enjoying his quiet CIA retirement living next to a military college) and fighting terrorism (which is now a worse problem than ever).
From this we might conclude that US blundering into Afghanistan and staying there for two decades was a horrendous mistake and, surely, it was, but this does not explain why the mistake was made. Why are empires, especially dying ones, drawn to Afghanistan like moths to a flame? The case study below is from my book The Five Stages of Collapse. It is about the Pashtuns, but to simply just a little, the Taliban, who will, by all indications, soon will once again be in charge of the whole of Afghanistan, are ethnic Pashtuns (they have recruited a great many ethnic Tajiks in recent times, but this does not change their basic nature).
Beyond satisfying an interest in US foreign policy, the story of Afghanistan, and of Taliban in it, offers a valuable opportunity for attitude adjustment. You may not think highly of them; in turn, what they think of you is that you should shut up, get out and stay out. You may be tempted to expound to them your tender feelings about freedom, democracy, human rights, social and technological progress, environmentalism, gender equality and the reproductive rights of women. They will simply ignore all of that as idiotic, childish noise.
Chances are, your entire civilization will crumble into dust and nothing will be left of it except some rusty rebar sticking out of cracked concrete and they will still be there, same as ever. Your challenge is to learn to respect them, knowing full well that they will never, ever have any respect for you.
Case Study: The Pashtuns
Among the world’s many ungoverned spaces, there are few as long lasting and as able to withstand the relentless onslaught of empires as the Pashtun tribal areas, which straddle the porous and largely notional border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, including the Pakistani tribal area of Waziristan. To invaders, this is an invisible yet impregnable fortress that has withstood all attempts by centralized government authorities to impose their will. The term “ungoverned” is, as usual, misapplied here: the Pashtuns have an alternative system of governance whose rules preclude the establishment of any centralized authority. At over forty million strong, they are one of the largest ethnic groups on the planet. Their ability to resist the British, the Pakistanis, the Soviets and now the Americans/NATO makes them one of the greatest anti-imperialist success stories on our planet. What makes up the shell of such an uncrackable nut? This is an interesting question, which is why I have decided to include an exposition on the Pashtuns, the toughest nut in the whole tribal nutsack.
An equally interesting question to ask is, What compelled a succession of empires to continue to make futile attempts to crack it, throwing life and treasure at the task of conquering a rugged, fiercely independent, inaccessible and mostly worthless piece of land? Wouldn’t it be much easier to just leave the Pashtuns alone and continue using rifles against Pygmies armed with ripe fruit? The compulsion to conquer and to subjugate is by no means new, and tribes have continuously conquered and subjugated other tribes since prehistoric times, but with the emergence of global empires a new element seems to have been introduced: complete intolerance of complete independence. Every pocket of the planet, no matter how small, has to be assigned to an internationally recognized state that has been bound to other states through treaties and state-legal relations. The global political order can no longer tolerate a single white spot on the political map. Its imperative seems to be to force every single group of humans to at least sit down at the negotiating table, at which the most powerful (or so they think) always have the upper hand, and to sign legally-binding documents. The existence of any such white spot poses an existential threat to the entire system, which is why the efforts to eliminate it are often disproportionate to either its value or its threat. Like space aliens, great big empires swoop in and say, “ Take me to your leader!” And if there is no leader, and the only bit of foreign policy this particular tribe ever happens to have developed is exhaustively described by the words “go away and leave us alone,” then a misunderstanding inevitably results and things end badly for both sides. Appointing a local stooge to sign legally-binding documents on behalf of the ungoverned territory that is supposed to behave like a nation-state does not work.
It would appear that the state cannot impose its authority on an area if its underlying, local system of governance is non-hierarchical, self-enforcing and decentralized, and has a strong tradition of uniting solely for the purpose of ganging up on outside threats and an equally strong tradition of attempting to avenge all wrongful deaths (such as a family member who has been killed by an American Predator drone). This happens to be the case with the Pashtuns. Their ancient and eternal code of conduct is Pashtunwali, or “The Pashtun Way.” The reason for following Pashtunwali is to be a good Pashtun. In turn, what a good Pashtun does is follow Pashtunwali. It is self-reinforcing because any Pashtun who does not follow Pashtunwali is unable to secure the cooperation of other Pashtuns, and has very low life expectancy, because ostracism is generally equivalent to a death sentence. Among the Pashtuns, there is no such thing as the right to life; there is only the reason for not killing someone right there and then. If this seems unnecessarily harsh to you, then what did you expect? A trip to Disneyland? Needless to say, the Pashtuns cannot be seduced with offers of social progress and economic development, because that is not the purpose of Pashtunwali. The purpose of Pashtunwali is to perpetuate Pashtunwali, and at this it is apparently very, very good.
Pashtun society is classified as segmentary, a subtype of acephalous (leaderless). The main figures of authority are the elders (maliks) who serve a local tribal chief (khan), but their leadership positions remain at all times contingent on putting the tribe’s interests first. All decisionmaking is consensus-based, severely restricting the scope of united action. However, when faced with an external threat, the Pashtuns are able to appoint a dictator, and to serve that dictator with absolute obedience until the threat is extinguished.
Pashtunwali defines the following key concepts: honor (nang) demands action regardless of consequences whenever Pashtunwali is violated. It is permissible to lie and kill to protect one’s nang. Revenge (badal) demands “an eye for an eye” in case of injury or damage, but crucially allows payment of restitution to avoid bloodshed. Incarceration is considered unacceptable and unjust under any circumstances. It is seen as interfering with justice, since it complicates the process of exacting revenge and precludes the payment of restitution. This is why Afghanistan has been the scene of spectacular prison escapes, where hundreds of inmates are freed in a single military-style attack; the attackers’ goal is not just to free prisoners but also to later kill them or collect restitution from them. The law of hospitality (nanawatai) demands that any Pashtun must welcome and provide sanctuary to anyone who asks for it. As a matter of nang, the guest must be kept perfectly secure and safe from all harm while a guest. Once over the threshold and no longer a guest, he can be sniped at one’s leisure should such an action be called for. Laws against harboring fugitives, serving as accessory after the fact, impeding official investigations and so forth are meaningless and attempts to enforce them automatically result in badal.
The local Pashtun governing body is the jirga, which is convened only on special occasions. It takes its roots from Athenian democracy, although some scholars argue that it predates it. The participants arrange themselves in a circle, and everyone has the right to speak. There is no one presiding, in accordance with the principle that no one is superior in the eyes of Pashtunwali. The decision is based on a majority consensus. Those who defy the decision of the jirga open themselves up to officially sanctioned arson and murder. It is significant that the jirga does not allow representation: it is a direct rather than a representative democracy. It is also crucial that the jirga reserves the right to abnegate any agreement previously entered into, making treaty-based state-legal relations with the Pashtuns impossible. Lastly, only those who follow Pashtunwali can participate in a jirga; all outsiders are automatically excluded.
This should give you some idea of why Pashtunwali presents an intractable problem for any empire that wants to dominate the Pashtuns. Now let us briefly glance at the long and tangled historical record of such attempts.
Empires break their teeth
The first modern empire to tangle with the Pashtuns was the British, who optimistically tried to impose the Indian Penal Code on them. When the Pashtuns refused to recognize this code as just, the result was a considerable amount of carnage. The British then abandoned attempts at imposing a system of justice and resorted to administrative means instead: their Closed Border Policy attempted to segregate the plains tribes from the hill tribes. This policy failed to stop the carnage and was abandoned after thirty years. Eventually the British were compelled to resort to accommodation by recognizing Pashtun tribal law. Then they bled profusely and departed in unseemly haste, leaving the Pashtuns to the Pakistanis, who mostly practiced accommodation as well. The Taliban movement, which is predominantly Pashtun-led, was recognized by Pakistan. Pakistan was content to allow Pashtun self-governance until September 11, 2001. Since then they have been compelled to at least make a show of imposing authority on the Pashtuns, in order to at least appear to cooperate with their American allies, although little remains of this cooperation today.
The Soviets blundered into Afghanistan in a misguided effort to defend socialism against regressive counterrevolutionary tendencies in accordance with the Brezhnev Doctrine. They made a futile attempt to eradicate ethnic and religious identities through a strategy of suppression, and succeeded, for a time, in consolidating control of urban areas while the predominantly Pashtun resistance established footholds in the hills surrounding the capital Kabul. They also relentlessly bombed the Afghanistan-Pakistan border to create a no-man’s land. In doing so, they failed on a grand scale, creating a very large refugee crisis and thus ensuring that their enemies had plenty of international support. Once, thanks to the efforts of the CIA (working closely with Osama bin Laden) the Pashtuns acquired Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, the Soviets gradually lost the ability to continue the air campaign.
The Soviets’ effort to win the Pashtun hearts and minds was likewise a spectacular failure. Pashtunwali demanded revenge for the Soviets’ military actions from even the most ambivalent Pashtuns. The few elders the Soviets were able to co-opt through intimidation or bribery swiftly lost the support of their followers. The Soviets withdrew in 1988, having made zero headway, and having lost the political will to succeed. It was a costly conflict with no benefits.
The Americans (and a few NATO troops) are currently in the process of repeating the Soviet experiment, with very similar results. Here is a nice little fact to illustrate this point: on March 18, 2012, Hamid Karzai, the American-imposed President of Afghanistan and an ethnic Pashtun (but an obvious apostate from Pashtunwali) denounced the Americans as “demons” engaged in “Satanic acts.” The Americans swiftly reacted... by saying nothing and doing even less. Then they trotted out some well-spoken media robopundits who said that Afghanistan is still, potentially, “a good war.” Thus, the result of the American invasion of Afghanistan is predictable: the Americans will pretend it never happened. When forced to discuss it, they will remain delusional. But mostly it won’t be in the news, and Americans will no longer know, or care, what happens there. The US initially blundered into Afghanistan under the delusion that they would find Osama bin Laden there (while, if you believe the news, Osama was in Pakistan, living quietly next to an army college). If jet airliners start crashing into skyscrapers again, odds are some other tribe will get “bombed back to the Stone Age.”
An approach that works
It is difficult but not impossible to constructively engage the Pashtuns: during better times, the Pakistanis came closest to doing so. They freely offered the few important gifts the Pashtuns were willing to accept and appreciate. They offered the Pashtuns a sense of participation by giving them a big audience and a voice. They provided an unlimited time horizon for engaging the Pashtuns as permanent neighbors, building traditional ties and long-term relationships. These activities were informed by an understanding that attempts to impose order without legitimate authority are bound to fail, coupled with the realization that with the Pashtuns any such legitimate authority must of necessity come from within and remain autonomous and decentralized.
Part of what made such accommodation succeed is the fact that Pakistan is a weak state with limited resources. But as long as there are mighty military empires stalking the planet (not for much longer, we should hope) we should expect that one of them will periodically come along and, just like the ones that came before it, break its teeth on Pashtunwali. You might think that they’d learn from each others’ mistakes, but then here is a simple rule for you to remember: the intelligence of a hierarchically organized group of people is inversely proportional to its size, and mighty military empires are so big, and consequently so dumb, that they never, ever learn anything.