Helmand has begun the long slide. One by one, the districts are going. There is little positive to take away from the recent events as southern Afghanistan begins to fall apart again. It makes me wonder at the entire effort–what was the point? There were some fundamental problems with the scheme to bring governance and stability to Helmand, and I asked myself about those. Keep in mind, this is an incredibly simplified version of Helmand, the insurgency, the economy, and our efforts there. I barely scratch the surface of history, tribal conflict, the nature of the insurgency, and institution building. If you would like more, please let me know in the comments.
- Does Helmand matter?
Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Little America tries to make the case that the push into Helmand was neither strategic nor necessary. I disagree–Helmand does matter, just not as he thinks it should. Yes, Kandahar was incredibly important as the city of the Taliban, and its stability should have been secured, but this overlooks the fundamental nature of insurgency in Afghanistan and the south in general. The insurgency’s roots have always been rural–there is a connection between disenfranchised locals and the appeal (and larger payments) of the Taliban. Capturing Lashkar Gah and Gereshk managed to keep the Taliban out of the cities, but the insurgency grew and boiled over in ungovernable spaces. Dishu, rural Marja, Now Zad and Musa Qala, Khan Neshin and Bahram Cha–these were safe spaces in which the Taliban could operate. Not only did they experience freedom of movement, but they could recruit and operate from the population of farmers whose livelihoods were destroyed (more on this later). Helmand developed the grassroots insurgency, and a lack of security in the province spills over to Kandahar along the Ring Road without stoppage. Chandrasekaran’s focus on population centers displays a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the Afghan insurgency, a misunderstanding that may be attributed to his time in Iraq. Thinking in terms of urban insurgents and the power that individuals could accrue and wield therein does not match the Afghan mold. Individual khans and local leaders are more powerful in rural zones, where their warriors are those in charge. In Afghan cities, corruption in the government rules the day, and semblances of stability are better for business for all involved. ISAF was able to take Gereshk and Kandahar, but the insurgency simply melted into those self-same rural areas. But there are rural areas throughout Afghanistan, so why does Helmand matter?
Because Helmand grows the poppy. Nowhere in the world comes close to the production found in Helmand. That money creates the staggering corruption witnessed in Afghanistan today. That money funds the insurgency. That money funds the warlords we purposefully or accidentally left in charge. But it is not simply poppy.
Historically, Afghanistan is dominated by loose affiliations of local leaders. The looseness of these bonds allows local tribal elders to switch allegiances when necessary, to ally and betray, and to survive occupation after occupation. When ISAF came into Helmand, it was obvious they were the “Top Dogs,” and elders followed them for as long as necessary to ensure survival. Those locales where the strategy ran into trouble were those where the power structure did not seem as black and white. Upper Sangin, Upper Gereshk, rural Marja–these took massive amounts of firepower to imprint the “Top Dog” strategy. And then, when Afghan forces were found to be wanting in the ability to assume control of these areas, local leaders immediately reverted back to gamesmanship.
But the thought that Helmand, if left alone while ISAF focused on Kandahar, would remain a backwater is flawed. The connections between elders, and across borders into Pakistan, meant that at some point, the Helmandi insurgency would rear its ugly head. Simply thinking that a staggeringly medieval economic system, flush with opium cash, and culturally aligned in many ways with the Taliban (I want to note here, that Helmandis themselves may not believe in the message of the Taliban, but that the archaic ruling system in Helmand and certain conservative views are more conducive to Taliban-style thinking than the foreign presence of ISAF) would not affect the insurgency in Kandahar is ‘pie-in-the-sky’ hoping.
Helmand matters because of its rural base, its economic system, its cash crop, its connection to Kabul and Kandahar (and Pakistan), and its historic value.
Yes, Helmand is historically valuable to the Afghan population. In Helmand (and somewhat Kandahar, too), Afghans won culturally symbolic, remembered, and powerful victories against foreign occupiers–namely the British (but also the Soviets). This begins to become complex, because rural districts in Kandahar, especially those further from the urban center, resemble Helmand more so than suburbs of the city. ISAF’s constraint of dealing with specific boundaries and areas of operation led to divisions that may not exist in Afghan historical memory. Those who have spent time in Afghanistan know that cultural memory often precedes immediate events. Feuds last hundreds of years. Slights from before Durrand line still sting today. History is yesterday. This ISAF never truly comprehended–that Afghans have seen invaders come and go, while Afghans stay. ISAF, without a realistic end state, had very little to offer Helmandis.
3. What was our end state?
This is the million-dollar question. What were we there to do? Defeat the Taliban? Stabilize the nation? Build the nation and its institutions? Provide security? Build the armies and police forces?
Our idea was to build a safe and stable Afghanistan that turns away from terrorism and fundamentalism towards the rule of law. This effort takes billions of dollars and decades of support. We were not prepared to establish this as our promise to Afghanistan. When it became clear that our venture in Afghanistan would have timed deadlines, there was no incentive for elders to turn to GIRoA (the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan), especially as GIRoA became more and more predatory and incapable of running itself outside of Kabul and a few provinces. This must be examine more in-depth.
GIRoA, backed by ISAF, overextended and over-promised. There are places in Afghanistan which have never seen the Kabul government, yet we–in all our pride and vanity–began to see those places as possible GIRoA expansion. Chandrasekaran’s piece on Taghaz illuminates this perfectly–the town is deeply opposed to the imposition of government spheres of influence, yet–3 years after his visit–I was there with a reluctant district governor facing down angry local leaders. For those 3 years, we had been promising the world from a government that could not deliver, that would not deliver. The district governor himself hated going to Taghaz, since all he had were empty promises, and the locals knew it. These promises came from a district governor of a district that even the provincial government cared little about. Connecting the district to the province was an impossibility in Khan Neshin–how would it go about fulfilling the promises to Taghaz?
4. You mentioned livelihoods–how does this play into the insurgency?
As stated, Helmand grows poppy–and this it does better than anywhere else in the world. And it grows poppy in a mix of smallhold farms and a serf/sharecropper system that benefits the leaders. Very few Afghans own land in Helmand–the absentee land-ownership percentage is incredibly high (though take any statistic about Afghanistan with massive grains of salt due to difficulties in survey construction, distribution, collection, and interpretation–yes, ADB, I’m looking at you). Many Helmandis rent plots of land to grow wheat and poppy, and a varied collection of other crops. A little bit of the poppy may pay the rent on their land, or they may be ordered to pay it to their khan or elder. They are beholden to that rental cost, and have to pay it.
Then, in a war of massive fumbles, we gave away a huge one. ISAF initiated programs of poppy eradication. We gave district officials the go-ahead to destroy acres of poppy cultivation with our security and backing. This meant a number of things: 1) Eradication could be used as a revenge tool on unwilling elders; 2) Endemic corruption meant that eradication efforts could be bought off; 3) ISAF became synonymous with destroyed livelihoods; and 4) Taliban offers became more appealing. Imagine a hardscrabble farmer who cannot afford to pay the bribe to the Afghan police so that they do not destroy his field. His harvest is gone and he has no money left for his family. Next to his field, the field of an elder (maybe associated with the government, or just able to pay the police enough) remains untouched. The Taliban take advantage of this farmer by offering him small jobs like reporting when Americans leave the base or sheltering incoming fighters during spring for one night. Or they prey on his anger, using distorted versions of a future the farmer will typically never see. His fields destroyed, this farmer has few options in Helmand. Add to this, the same warlords we as ISAF kept in power seem to continue abusing the population unhindered, and we have the makings for extremism.
Now this is a deeply simplified version of the economies of Helmand and the insurgency, but ISAF operated off even simpler ideas–poppy provided money to the Taliban and was a corrupting influence, and therefore needed to be destroyed. It also provided very nice PowerPoint slides that could show how much a district was advancing in eradication. ISAF began to use eradication as a measurement of government influence, furthering the delusion of the spread of accountable governance.
5. So, we have a flawed end-state with an incapable partner in an important and rural province, flush with money and corruption, with insecure borders, and very little to promote sustainability…did we do anything right?
This is the hardest question, and one with which I have been wrestling ever since I came back from Afghanistan. What could have made our efforts there effective? Little bits and pieces improved–we built back and improved the health systems we destroyed or dismantled at the start of the war. We improved the lot of women, especially in urban areas. We tried to connect the pieces of the government to foster
stability and continuing institutions. We perhaps forced the Taliban to show they could govern as a liable alternative. We rebuilt the Ring Road. We took out some bad guys. Perhaps we instilled some forms of governance that will eventually take hold (we have to think about these issues in terms of decades and not 6-month deployments). But will anything we made keep?
In my days at Khan Neshin, I lived in Castle–a literal castle made of mud that had stood as the center of governance in the district since the Ghaznavids. Shortly before I left, an Osprey helicopter, coming into land, destroyed one wall of Castle with the concussive force of its downdraft. We didn’t mean to do it, it just happened. The wall had stood for hundreds of years, and we bull-in-a-china-shopped it. This incident sums up Helmand for me. We meant well, yet still the walls came crumbling down.