Saturday, November 7, 2009

Who is the Enemy in Afghanistan?

Who is the enemy in Afghanistan?

Matthew Hoh fought in Iraq in 2004- 2005 and again in 2006 - 2007 both as a commissioned officer in the Marine Corps and as a civilian employee of the US government. He is a hero and a patriot. During the last six months he worked in Afghanistan as a foreign service officer. When he resigned his job last week, he stated that the war in Afghanistan, in his view, served no purpose. Human lives, by no means only American, and huge amounts of money were being wasted on a misguided undertaking.

From where we are in the US, it is difficult to say whether Hoh's doubts about the Afghan war are correct. But the questions he raises are critical. Whatever President Obama and his advisors decide about that war, Hoh's questions must be answered if our government chooses to continue that war in any form.

We attacked Afghanistan in 2001 because Obama Bin Laden, the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks, was said to be hiding out in Afghanistan. The Taliban, then in power in Afghanistan, refused to surrender him to us. US and NATO troops destroyed their government. While no one knows where bin Laden is, the most common opinion is that he is now living in Pakistan. Fighting in Afghanistan will not bring us any closer to capturing him.

Hoh insists that, moreover, Al Quaeda has training camps in Sudan, in Yemen, in the former Yugoslavia, and in Europe. The 9/11 attack was hatched in Hamburg, Germany. The war in Afghanistan will only marginally weaken Al Quaeda. Afghanistan plays a minor role in the continued existence of Al Quaeda.

Who is the enemy in Afghanistan? It is often said to be the Taliban--religious fanatics whose political outlook is the opposite of ours: they despise democracy and seek to establish a theocratic state. (They regard the separation of Church and State, practiced by us, as evil). They do not believe in equality for women, or in individual liberty (the freedom to run one's life as one chooses--as long as others are not harmed by one's choices). Our ways are abhorrent to the Taliban; their ways are anathema to us.

But says Hoh, is that a reason for continuing that war? Surely an excellent question.

What is more, Hoh thinks, the insurgency we are fighting is not primarily led by the Taliban, by the Islamist movement that wants to establish a theocratic state in Afghanistan. The energy for the bloody fighting against US and NATO troops comes from sheer nationalism. When George Washington and the American Patriots fought the British, they fought a nationalist war. Their goal was to have Americans govern themselves and to force the British out of any positions of power in the colonies. The enemy in Afghanistan, according to Hoh, are similar nationalist movements. But they differ from the Patriots in the US in that they are not defending the independence of the entire country, but often of a small area, one particular valley, the home of a particular tribe.

Afghanistan, in the opinion of Hoh and of many other observers, is not one country, but a collection of very local populations focused on their locality, their own language and traditions. All of this is held together by a corrupt and ineffective government in the largest city Kabul. But Afghanis think of themselves not as citizens of the country, Afghanistan, but as citizens of the specific place where they were born that their families inhabit, and where they have been for generations. No common language, tradition, and family connections link all Afghanis to each other. Their identity is connected to their locality, not to the country as a whole.

These very local groups want to be left alone to run their collective lives as they have for a long time. The longer US troops remain in the area, the more we will inflame this nationalist resistance. The Russian invasion faltered for the same reasons--all the tanks and guns of a superior army were powerless in the face of the local loyalties of Afghan tribesmen.

These local Afghan tribes are no threat to the safety of the US. They want to be left alone. If we do that, that will be the end of their interest in us.

Does Hoh assess the Afghani situation correctly? Has he understood some fundamental truths about Afghanistan? Most likely there will be sharp differences of opinion among people who know Afghanistan at first hand. These questions have no answers that all the experts accept.

But Hoh does raise the key question in Afghanistan: who is the enemy? It seems extremely plausible that in Afghanistan Al Quaeda is not the enemy. Are the Taliban the enemy? Why are we fighting them in 2009? Are the enemies very local tribesmen defending their desire to be left alone? Who is the enemy?

President Obama and his advisors must give us a clear and persuasive answer to the question of who the enemy is. Once the enemy is identified, we must be told why that enemy is worth fighting. Unless there are answers to those two questions, we should should tell all Americans in Afghanistan--military and civilian--to get on the next plane home.

It is pointless to fight a war if you do not know whom you are fighting.