Afghanistan: The War of Words

2 December 2009


A population map of Afghanistan that shows the population primarily conforming to the valleys of this mountainous country.

The President has given a speech about Afghanistan. It is a long-awaited speech that commits the US to an Afghanistan “policy” and to certain actions, most notably the deployment of another 30,000 US troops to Afghanistan. The speech (as is to be expected) was very polished, but at 4,617 words it was rather longer than I expected.

US soldiers in Afghanistan.

One can’t really say that the speech was about a strategy for Afghanistan, for announcing a troop surge is not yet a strategy. The troop surge in Iraq, sometimes credited with turning around the situation in Iraq, was probably not so much responsible for the gains in stability there as was the program of creating the Sunni Awakening Councils. This latter is a strategy; the surge was a component of the strategy. The speech was primarily given over the justifying the US presence in Afghanistan and arguing that Afghanistan is not Viet Nam. Strategy is mentioned without being given an explication:

The 30,000 additional troops that I am announcing tonight will deploy in the first part of 2010 — the fastest pace possible — so that they can target the insurgency and secure key population centres. They will increase our ability to train competent Afghan Security Forces, and to partner with them so that more Afghans can get into the fight. And they will help create the conditions for the United States to transfer responsibility to the Afghans.

And a little later in the speech there is this nod to strategy:

These are the three core elements of our strategy: a military effort to create the conditions for a transition; a civilian surge that reinforces positive action; and an effective partnership with Pakistan.

In other words, the President has given nothing away. There is nothing new here. The important thing is that this does not mean that new initiatives will not be undertaken on the ground; it only means that any new initiatives were not announced in the President’s speech. And one would not expect the Commander in Chief to give away any crucial element of strategy in an address to the nation.

There is already a statement purporting to be a response from the Afghan Taliban. This comes from the same website that I mentioned in The Graveyard of Empires as the source of a recent statement from Mullah Mohammad Omar. The most recent Taliban statement does not claim to come from Mullah Omar, and it is not as well (or as extensively) translated as that previously referenced statement. But it is quite concise, at a mere 780 words.

Like the Eid-ul-Fitre statement from Mullah Omar, the response to President Obama is a pastiche of many elements, mentioning colonialism, anti-Afghanistan conspiracies, and unlawful invasion, liberally sprinkled with name-calling and glittering generalities, and even invoking a term that sounds like it was taken from a contemporary book on management: “results-oriented” (as in, “The [sic] Obama’s assertion to increase and train more soldiers and police for the Kabul Administration is pointless and not result-oriented”). While many of the elements are similar to Mullah Omar’s statements, this was obviously written by a different person, probably the work of a Taliban booster who has no privileged access to Taliban strategies and could not reveal them even if he had a desire to do so.

The Taliban, like the President, have given nothing away. There is nothing new in their statement, any more than there was nothing (strategically) new in the president’s statement. We don’t really know how the US is going to go about waging the next stage of the war in Afghanistan, and we don’t really know how the Taliban will respond to the US escalation. At this point, the escalation is an escalation of the war of words. According to news reports, nothing of significance has changed on the ground, but this, too, is to be expected: offensives in Afghanistan wait for the spring. When the spring comes, and the 30,000 additional US soldiers are in position for a spring offensive, then we will see what the strategy is, and not before.

I previously made the point that Afghanistan (and parts of Pakistan) have never been politically assimilated to the nation-state paradigm. This is as much as to say that these geographically difficult regions have never been unified under the territorial principle in law. The essentially feudal character of governance in Afghanistan means that what institutions there are more or less exemplify the personal principle in law, such that an individual is assimilated to a legal system on the basis of his ethnicity and not on the basis of this citizenship in a geographically defined political entity.

To further refine the conflict at issue, we could say that Afghanistan represents the confrontation between the personal principle in law and the territorial principle in law. Islam, by laying its emphasis on the Ummah rather than upon any state structure, could be said to assimilate the personal principle in law to a trans-ethnic community of the faithful, so that all Muslims everywhere ought to be judged by Islamic standards and not by the laws of a nation-state in which an individual Muslim happens to find himself. This constitutes a generalization of the personal principle in law, and I think it is not an unfair characterization of contemporary pan-Islamic thought.

Thus while there is a sense in which the US is fighting in Afghanistan in order to deny any future safe haven of Al Qaeda or similarly inspired groups of militants, there is also a sense in which the US is fighting to impose the territorial principle in law upon a landscape and a people for whom this institution is foreign. This is partly the fault of a lack of political imagination. Western diplomats don’t seem to be able to grasp any solution to regional problems other than the cookie-cutter nation-state. The international system, on this view, is like a recently built suburb in which all the houses look the same because they are all built to the same plan.

True diplomacy and statesmanship would be revealed by an effort that sought to intervene in Afghanistan without attempting to impose a nation-state system or the territorial principle in law. This is important not least because of the powerful role of Islamic jurisprudence in the history of Islam. Such an effort could mark the transition from a war of words to a war of ideas, and from a war of ideas to a war that could win hearts and minds. But hearts and minds will not be won by imposing Western structures of governance upon a landscape and a people for whom these institutions are alien. It does not have to be so, but it will continue to be so as long as our diplomats and politicians lack imagination and are unwilling to engage in political experimentation. Political imagination and experimentation are the missing elements in our strategy.

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Another population map of Afghanistan, but this from worldmapper shows regions re-sized based upon population.

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