5 Afghan History Lessons for Obama’s New General

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who took command of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan on June 15, is far from the first general to take on the daunting task of pacifying the country. Here are five lessons from Afghanistan's history that he should keep in mind.

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TO GO WITH STORY BY HIEDEH FARMANI An aerial view shows the terrain on the Iran-Afghanistan border near the southeastern Iranian city of Zabol on May 20, 2009. Iran gave foreign envoys to Tehran and journalists a rare tour on May 20 of its restive eastern border in a bid to raise awareness and much-needed funds for its war on drugs. The Islamic republic says it has spent about 800 million dollars over three years to deter drug running on its porous eastern frontier with Afghanistan and Pakistan. According to UN estimates, about 40 percent of the 7,700 tonnes of narcotics produced in Afghanistan last year entered Iran, which also faces serious drug abuse among its mostly youthful 70-million population. AFP PHOTO/BEHROUZ MEHRI (Photo credit should read BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images)

1. Do not underestimate the landscape.

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Afghanistan is a country of deserts crossed by a right-angled wall of mountains -- the Hindu Kush to the north, and the frontier with Pakistan to the east. The frontier range is 200 miles long and 600 miles wide, with peaks topping 15,000 feet, and only a handful of major passes crossing it -- the most famous being the Khyber Pass.

1. Do not underestimate the landscape.

AFP/Getty Images

Afghanistan is a country of deserts crossed by a right-angled wall of mountains — the Hindu Kush to the north, and the frontier with Pakistan to the east. The frontier range is 200 miles long and 600 miles wide, with peaks topping 15,000 feet, and only a handful of major passes crossing it — the most famous being the Khyber Pass.

In the 19thcentury, the British, trying to secure a western frontier for their Indian Empire, drew a border down the middle of these mountains after a sapping series of conflicts. Pashtun tribes simply ignored the line and continued to move along mountain tracks that they knew.

Four years after the border was drawn, the British faced their biggest frontier war, which broke out in the very same areas that today shelter the Taliban and are the heart of the insurgency against Pakistan — Swat, Buner, Bajaur, and Waziristan. This is natural guerrilla territory that has defeated every invader since Alexander the Great.

2. Islam can always be used to rally resistance.

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Before the Taliban took Kabul in 1996, their leader, Mullah Omar, declared himself “Amir al-Mu’minin” (leader of all Muslims) while draped in Afghanistan’s most revered item — a cloak believed to have belonged to the Prophet Mohammed. The only other Afghan ruler to have done that was Dost Mohammed Khan when he declared jihad against British rule in 1840.

We may have forgotten this history, but the Afghans have not. When I spent a few days “embedded” with the Taliban in Helmand province in 2006, they were keen to remind me of this, and of the Battle of Maiwand, fought nearby in 1880 — one of the worst-ever battlefield defeats of British forces in Asia.

The 1897 uprising against the British was led by a man whom the young Winston Churchill, then working as a war correspondent, called the “Mad Mullah,” and the most fanatical of the enemy were men he identified as “Taliban.” The first reference to a “Talib” fighting against British rule was even earlier — back in 1880.

This political Islam did not go away. It was successfully exploited by the United States in the 1980s in supporting the mujahideen in their war against the Soviet Union and is now turned against U.S. forces.

3. Beware of the deceptive lure of tactical superiority.

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Afghanistan is the graveyard of military planning. Invaders have generally found the country rather easy to take but not to hold. And it was no different for the United States in 2001. Just like the British and the Soviets before them, after the fall of Kabul U.S. forces found themselves in a bruising asymmetric struggle in which awesome technical strength, and in particular overwhelming air superiority, is of little use against warriors who do not fight conventional battles.

The Soviet Army lost in Afghanistan despite having far more troops than are currently available to the U.S.-led forces, as well as many other advantages — better-trained local allies, a contiguous land border, more warplanes, and a ruthless use of land mines.

Exactly a century before that, a strong British force that had defeated a far larger Afghan army on the battlefield to take Kabul soon found itself besieged in its fortress and outsmarted in a series of skirmishes. That was the first time the British began to use the phrase “hearts and minds” about Afghanistan — a phrase that ought to be the center of U.S.-led efforts today.

U.S. Gen. David Petraeus, now heading Centcom, and in overall charge of the Afghan war, seems to understand this point, writing, “[M]ilitary actions by themselves cannot achieve success in [counterinsurgency]. Insurgents that never defeat counterinsurgents in combat still may achieve their strategic objectives.” In other words, the Taliban have time on their side, and they know it.

4. Don’t expect Afghan society to westernize.

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Some observers had entirely unrealistic expectations of cultural change in Afghanistan in 2001. Afghan women were not going to throw off their burqas just because the Taliban had gone. The Taliban were not uniquely evil, nor were the Northern Alliance leaders who deposed them uniquely good. Cutting the Taliban out of the political settlement was a major mistake of the sort warned about in every war manual going back to Sun Tzu — victors should be generous with their enemies and skeptical of their allies.

If anything, rights for women are worse now than they were under the Taliban because of insecurity that has licensed local warlords to do their worst. And democracy should mean more than holding elections every few years; it has little value without transparency and accountability.

The frustrating pace of social change in Afghanistan is nothing new. In the 1920s, the government under King Amanullah Khan tried to modernize Afghan society as part of a wave of change in the Islamic world after the First World War, building women’s schools and doing away with dress codes. But all it brought about was intense civil unrest as traditionalist elders and mullahs opposed the changes.

Today, Afghan President Hamid Karzai frequently uses this example to water down reform proposals dreamed up in the West. He likes to tell visiting ministers, “Remember, the last king of Afghanistan who tried to improve rights for women ended up dead.”

5. Afghan wars are always international.

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During the initial invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the United States had extensive behind-the-scenes diplomatic contact with Iran. Because Iran was a strong opponent of the Taliban, arming and financing opposition to them for several years, this made sense. But instead of continuing to cultivate this relationship, President George W. Bush branded Iran part of an “axis of evil” within months of U.S. troops landing, alienating a potentially helpful ally.

Iran is now engaged in building the biggest university in Kabul, while all of Afghanistan’s other neighbors and interested countries, including India, Pakistan, China, Turkey, and Russia, have projects in the country as well. U.S. President Barack Obama’s offer to extend a hand to Iran’s “unclenched fist” is a start, but it took a major insurgency on the frontier of two unstable countries in a nuclear-armed region where Osama bin Laden is still being harbored to engage U.S. policymaking at the top level.

Bin Laden was only the latest person in a long line of fighters who have used Afghanistan’s strategic position at the crossroads of the world for their own ends. In Balkh in northern Afghanistan, which has a fair claim to be the oldest city in the world, archaeologists have discovered a rich harvest of Greek, Buddhist, Zoroastrian, and Muslim remains going back thousands of years. These attest to Afghanistan’s place as a crucible of conflict.

Imperial Britain wanted to control Afghanistan as it did much of the rest of Asia. But after two bruising wars, the British had to content themselves with hoping that the funds they paid to client kings in Kabul would help keep Russia away. Instead of controlling Afghanistan, British spies participated in the century-long “Great Game” against the Russians for influence across the Hindu Kush. As the latest great power to try its hand in taming Afghanistan, the United States has acquired its own great game, stretching into Pakistan, Iran, Central Asia, and beyond. Let us hope it ends less badly for the Americans.

David Loyn is the BBC's developing world correspondent.

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