Recent international affairs calamities in the Middle East have caused me to reconsider some previously held assumptions about the stability of affairs in Afghanistan. I had long thought of Afghanistan as being able to absorb any all sorts of damage caused by war. Iraq’s example has opened my eyes that perhaps, we should reconsider the assumption that our impact on Afghanistan won’t be catastrophically bad.
On one of the bases I stayed at in Afghanistan, rain and snow turned a central portion of the base into a strange morass of mud. It wasn’t that it was just a shitty place to walk or move, it was that it was more of a sinkhole than mud hole. Some smart NCOs attempted to solve the problem of the mud with wooden pallets that were on the base. We used them to walk above the mud, but with each soldier’s weight, they slowly sank in themselves. One on top of another, they sank. With enough water, the mud turned into a bottomless pit for our equipment and gear. No drainage, no bed rock, just pure sinkhole.
For a long time, I viewed Afghanistan and our activities there as being similar to our failures with the sinkhole. It was useless to do more because it would just get absorbed. Still, it was only useless to send more money and weapons to a region of strife. The outcome was unavoidable, to my old way of thinking, and essentially a null hypothesis. We didn’t make a difference. Pallets of money, guns, bullets, soldiers were all destined to sink into Afghanistan’s sinkhole forever and remain an absorbed piece of historical trivia until some archeologist of the future discovered this odd stash of military equipment.
I believed that partly due to my own experience in Afghanistan with locals who could take money and turn it into nothing and with a military that took our weapons and turned them into nothing and an earth that took our best and brightest and turned out nothing, I came to believe that all of our efforts would amount to nothing. I also took this belief because it appeared as though our military and political leaders were waging this war so as not to lose it. The strategic vision of the Pentagon and Washington appeared to be that given an input of X we could maintain the war in Afghanistan without loss forever. Given that such a strategy would never actually prevail and only provided short term and feeble benefits, I naively assumed that such a strategy would at least have the benefit of having little long-term ramifications post-the end of the war.
This way of thinking, though, is flawed, and events in Iraq have helped clarify why that is. Afghanistan is not a sinkhole. The actions of the US are not ultimately wasted effort. They are inherently destructive. We are not leaving Afghanistan just the same due its ability to absorb our wasted efforts; we’re leaving a bomb that will explode.
For those of you who missed Afghanistan’s brief moment of national security significance, it should be noted that the IG noted that the US has sent close to 750,000 weapons into Afghanistan in the past decade plus of war, with some 250,000 being totally unaccounted for. Afghanistan’s presidential election has turned out worse than not holding one as the two candidates refuse to concede, have rejected US mediation efforts, and Afghanistan’s weak government is now in extended limbo, and although recent news suggest that US has finally managed to overcome this impasse, I think its worth mentioning that this is not the first time the news has carried this story. Add to that, incredible amounts of waste and corruption in the form of cash and development work and you have the recipe for something terrible.
Afghanistan has been gifted the disposition and tools for tremendous violence. The US has left a huge trove of weapons both intentionally and unintentionally. This doesn’t even account for the trove that the Taliban has amassed and the arms industry that has thrived in this world during the war. It is a mistake to think that when the war ends for the US that those millions of weapons will remain silent. It’s nearly an impossibility to imagine such a scenario.
From my perspective, the best case scenario is that the Afghanistan war does continue in a way where both the Afghan government and Taliban collectively start to de-escalate the fighting while still continuing to battle one-another and over time reach a healthy settlement that avoids a one-side overwhelming and destroying the other side in a bloodbath sort of way.
What sort of historical precedent is there for such an outcome? None. This doesn’t happen outside intervention or limitations on armaments from the outside world. Pakistan and the Taliban aren’t interested in limitations and neither is the US. Outside quarantining the two quarreling parties, the war will only escalate until one side or the other breaks. Take a good guess at which side it’ll be? The one with zero political leadership and nearly absolute corruption that just happens to be sitting on metric shit tons of weapons and cash but without the will to fight for it? Sounds a lot like the force we assembled in Iraq. Not that a slaughter of the Taliban wouldn’t happen if our team prevailed, it just seems so immensely unlikely.
Never mind what this means about how terribly we’ve failed to date because it’s simply too staggering a disaster to consider. Consider what it will look like if the Taliban take over one of Afghanistan’s biggest cities in the years after the end of the war? More importantly, consider how Afghanistan has generated a great deal of conflict-oriented industry in a region that features Islamist insurgencies in China, India, and Pakistan and what the departure of the great Satan and the fall of its puppet government will mean for the region? Now add the $90 billion unaccounted over the past 13 years, and hundreds of thousands of weapons, and you have the makings for a pretty decent sized war in its own right. Not to mention the billions being spent by those three countries alone and all the nuclear weapons in the area.
I think that the best case scenario is that both Kashmir and Xinjing both get significantly more violent in the short and medium term but don’t become extra-territorial conflicts. Worst case involves some strange ISIS-like hoard occupying areas of central Asia from the –stans to Pakistan to China and causing a regional war that kills hundreds of thousands of people. Probably won’t happen, even though, ISIS has found some friends in a part of Afghanistan that has ties to ever conflict in the area.
Doesn’t matter though, Afghanistan has not reached a violent equilibrium and our addition of huge amounts of resources has only made sure that when that equilibrium is reached, it will be gigantic, catastrophic and hugely violent. America needs to reckon with this and take steps to ensure that the conflict gets shrunk in a controlled manner. We won’t, or at least we have no history of doing so, so I guess I’m getting ready to see the Third World War fought in the next decade or the Islamic equivalent of the Khmer Rogue as a result of the craziness we let loose there.