The South Asia Channel

Graveyard of empiricism

As Yogi Berra famously put it, "It’s déjà vu all over again." Amid a looming budget standoff, a presidential election cycle in full swing, and the popular dissatisfaction of both the left and the right, the United States has arrived — yet again — at a critical juncture in its war in Afghanistan, with key ...

Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images
Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

As Yogi Berra famously put it, "It’s déjà vu all over again." Amid a looming budget standoff, a presidential election cycle in full swing, and the popular dissatisfaction of both the left and the right, the United States has arrived — yet again — at a critical juncture in its war in Afghanistan, with key decisions being debated concerning the post-surge scenario and the prospects of political reconciliation with various militant groups. The tragedy is that, much like its previous iterations, the current round of the Afghanistan debate in Washington is riddled with a staggering number of mischaracterizations. While the Cold War produced a cohort of able Soviet specialists, the decade-long war inAfghanistan has so far failed to produce sufficient regional expertise in the United States (this reasonably comprehensive list, for example, identifies just 107 Afghanistan-watchers in the United States).

Consequently, a number of questionable assumptions about the Afghan people — concerning their attitudes to foreigners, their history, their society, and their values — go unchallenged. Historical analogies and socioeconomic data are regularly manipulated by various parties to validate their own biases and preconceptions, and readings of Afghan history are, when not completely erroneous, unapologetically Western-centric. For example, one common view that has gained circulation among think-tankers, policymakers, and congressional staffers is that a majority of Afghans are inherently hostile to the United States. Yet this viewpoint is not borne out by polling data, however imperfect. The last poll conducted by ABC News, the BBC and, ARD German TV, for example, says that nearly seven in 10 Afghans support the presence of U.S. forces in their country.

Another and perhaps more damaging misperception is of Afghanistan as the "graveyard of empires": a historically insignificant strategic backwater where great civilizations — inevitably European ones — ended up mired in ruinous war. But even a cursory examination of the region’s history makes a mockery of this now entrenched concept. During his conquests, Alexander of Macedon spent about two years solidifying his control of what is today Afghanistan and Central Asia, referred to in his day as Bactria and Sogdiana. In fact, his army chose to reverse its course in today’s Punjab, over 200 miles to modern Afghanistan’s east, after the Battleof the Hydaspes. The 19th-century British Empire, despite an initial setback, won subsequent engagements against the Afghans in its bid to create a bufferzone to British India’s northwest. And the defeat of the Soviet military in the 1980s was only made possible with American, Pakistani, and Saudi support.

The "graveyard of empires" canard also largely ignores non-Western history. Ancient and medieval Afghanistan was in fact at the heart of a number of major civilizations, including the Greek Bactrian states; the Kushan Empire, which was a contemporary of imperial Rome; and, from the 10th to 12th centuries, the Ghaznavid sultanate, whose rulers made regular military forays into the subcontinent. The great Mughal Empire, at its zenith perhaps the most prosperous realm on Earth, had its foundations in what is today’s Afghanistan, when its progenitor Babur established a presence in the region between Kabul and Peshawar. Count, on top of all this, several centuries of sustained Persian rule over the region.

In addition to popular misconceptions of Afghan xenophobia and historical backwardness, arguments are regularly set forth about the incompatibility of Afghan society with democracy. Although Afghanistan does have a history of underdeveloped democratic institutions, there are many reasons to question this blanket assessment. Definitional problems certainly persist: For many rural Afghans, democracy connotes unlimited freedoms, rather than responsible and self-determined governance. During the 1970s and 1980s, Soviet forces and their Afghan clients often called themselves democrats, further adding to confusion about the term in the minds of many Afghans. At the same time, there are mechanisms — shuras, jirgas — that, though hardly Jeffersonian, are analogous to the town halls that formed the bedrock of early American democracy. In this year’s edition of the reasonably reliable Asia Foundation survey of Afghanistan — which polled 6,348 Afghans from all 34 provinces — an overwhelming 69 percent of Afghans polled say they are satisfied with the way democracy works in Afghanistan.

Ethnic politics is another common source of confusion, with regular calls now heard in Washington for a soft partition of the state, creating a Taliban-dominated "Pashtunistan" separated from a confederation of provinces dominated by ethnic Tajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks. Soft partitions, which were also advocated in the case of Iraq not that long ago by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, may appear to be easy and seductive solutions to pacifying complex post-colonial societies overrun by civil war. But among other problems, they present a moral quandary, implicitly (though unintentionally) opening the door to ethnic cleansing. A cursory look at history tells us that the partition of mixed political entities has almost always been accompanied or preceded by ethnic cleansing or immense sectarian violence: Consider India, Palestine, Bosnia, or Cyprus. Afghanistan’s population is heterogeneous, and given the commitment to establishing a pluralistic and democratic state, calls for the country’s de facto or de jure partition appear both irresponsible and impractical.

Just as there are several peculiar narratives about Afghan society and history in steady circulation, thereis also growing skepticism about the United States’ ability to prosecute the Afghanistan war, with enormous divergences between official U.S. and Afghan perspectives. One reason often cited for limiting the United States’ involvement is the financial burden that the Afghanistan war represents in an era of austerity. But according to the Congressional Research Service, the war in Afghanistan will cost the United States an estimated $114 billion this year, a mere 3 percent of the federal budget, and a much smaller fraction of the American economy. This appears to be a small investment relative to the importance to American foreign policy and national security of getting Afghanistan right.

Some commentators make the argument that the Afghanistan war is a sideshow to other forms of security competition, particularly in East Asia — that, in essence, the continued U.S.involvement in Afghanistan distracts from looming threats to U.S. security posed by other great powers such as China. This is questionable for at least two reasons. Firstly, other major powers — including China, India, Russia, andIran, all of whom see Afghanistan as part of their extended neighborhoods — are closely watching developments affecting the U.S. position there. American success or failure will resonate in Moscow and Beijing, as well as New Delhi and Tehran. Secondly, the United States is not confronted with a binary choice between prosecuting the Afghanistan war and retaining a military presence against major state threats. The United States has faced multiple security challenges before; the resources required to tackle them are quite different from one another; and U.S. military resources dedicated to securing Europe and the Asia-Pacific region have been steadily declining regardless of investments in Afghanistan.

Finally, it is widely believed today in Washington that the Taliban enjoy popular public support, particularly among the ethnic Pashtun population ofAfghanistan. If true, it is certainly not reinforced by extant survey data. Nor is the Afghan public weary of the United States’ intensified involvement. According to the Asia Foundation survey, a plurality of Afghans (46 percent) believes that the country is headed in the right direction, compared with 35 percent who believe otherwise. What is even more encouraging, only 11 percent of Afghans have a lot of sympathy for armed opposition groups, half the proportion who expressed similar sentiments two years ago. In that same period, those who have "no sympathy at all" for the Taliban have almost doubled to 64 percent of the population. Despite frustrations with the ability of the current government to deliver, Afghans express optimism about democracy as a principle, associating it most closely with peace and freedom. The United States, such polls clearly reveal, should not fool itself with undue pessimism. Its efforts are gradually beginning to bear fruit.

Currently, Afghanistan’s fledgling state, though challenged frequently by security, governance, and development problems, has an elected government and an international presence to contribute to the work of nation-building. Despite the ongoing insurgency, widespread corruption, and the daily risk of arbitrary or extrajudicial killing, the Afghan people continue to strive for normalcy in their day-to-day lives and hope for peace and prosperity in the future. Withthat in mind, the pontification of a few pundits and the exigencies of near-term politics should not lead to poor or rash decision-making. A balanced view of Afghan public opinion, history, culture, and politics — and, just as importantly, of the United States’ ability to shape these factors in advancing its national security interests — is crucial as Washington debates a decision that will have important regional and international implications for decades to come.

Javid Ahmad, a native of Kabul, is program coordinator and Dhruva Jaishankar is program officer with the Asia Program of the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington, D.C. The views reflected here are their own.