Diego Solis recently returned from a two-week assignment to Afghanistan. In an effort to interact with as broad a demographic as possible, his extensive travel took him from the more populous urban cores to the hinterlands of the war-torn country. During his time there, he spoke with local leaders, foreign diplomats, former mujahideen and Afghans of every persuasion. Contained in the following column are some of his anecdotal experiences, excerpts from personal interviews and photographs from the field.
Afghanistan embodies geopolitics in a way that few nations can. Its breathtaking mountains, vast steppes and harsh deserts have obstructed the influence of would-be rulers since ancient times. Yet these topographical impediments have protected and sheltered so much of what defines Afghanistan today, forming zones of refuge that harbor ethnic patchworks living in defiance of easy categorization or governance. Interpreting the complexities of the human and physical terrain from the lines and colors on a map is almost impossible. It is only when gazing over the deserts and mountains from 35,000 feet that the intricacies of the country become clearer. And only by walking in the shoes of everyday Afghans can you begin to comprehend their mindset. Very quickly you learn that Afghanistan is a country that rejects easy solutions.
Flying in over this arresting land, it's impossible to forget that the mountains drifting by are the same ones that constrained the armies of Alexander the Great, challenged Genghis Khan and blunted numerous empires from the Moguls to the British. The Soviets rolled the dice (unsuccessfully) in the 1980s, and now the United States and some of its allies are returning to America's longest war, supposedly for the end game. But Afghanistan accepts outside influence like granite accepts water. And deeper than the nation's impermeability, perhaps, is a common missive that revealed itself to me through the people I spoke with: The country is not simply a space to be inhabited, or presided over. Rather, it is a forge.
Afghans tell you in no uncertain terms that the jarring environment, complicated history and conservative religious beliefs — regardless of ethnicity — will make you a warrior. And as a warrior, you are compelled to resist any perceived foreign encroachment against your land and beliefs. It is this Afghan warrior culture that will ultimately delimit any proposed long-term resolution. Many people I sat with felt that a negotiated solution to the country's problems is the only plausible outcome. Time and again it was emphasized to me that the existing tribal order will continue to trump any foreigner-backed government that operates under perceived Western values. Any system of governance associated with outsiders is immediately suspect in the eyes of Afghans, regardless of intent or investment. This is in part why the Taliban's message continues to resonate and why the militant organization is so hard to eradicate. The group represents a distinct tribal order that emerged from the rural countryside and the ungoverned expanses that typify the region. The Taliban will not give up, not until they have achieved at least a stalemate in their favor. They have already endured better than anyone expected, thanks to their fluidity and comparative military resilience, their deft use of mountain hideaways and the support they receive from local communities — willingly or unwillingly given.
Exploring the Ethnic Divide
To understand the Taliban insurgency, it is important to first acquire a picture of the country's diverse ethnic groups. As a result of five decades of war, relying on official numbers can be as difficult as navigating the streets of Kabul. Therefore, in Afghanistan, you quickly learn that there are only "approximates" — whether it is the total population of a city or a village or even the age of someone you interview, things are rarely definitive. To further complicate matters, Afghanistan has more than 10 different ethnic groups. In isolation, these groups can coexist, but when having to agree on countrywide matters or forced to make difficult compromises, ethnic divisions inevitably impede progress. The most powerful groups are by far the Pashtuns and Tajiks, though the Hazaras and Uzbeks hold some sway to a lesser extent.
Living in the mountains and deserts of the south and east, and occasionally the west, the Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group, accounting for around 40 percent to 45 percent of the Afghan population. The Tajiks account for a further 35 percent, and inhabit the narrow valleys and mountains in the country's north. Then you have the Hazaras, a Shiite minority, living in the mountains of the central region known as Hazarajat. They make up around 10 percent of the population while the Uzbeks, who mainly inhabit the steppes of the north and west, are only slightly less. The other minor ethnic groups — including the Aimaq, Turkmen, Balochi and Nuristani — make up the difference.
In an ethnically complex, highly conservative Muslim rural tribal society, where climate, altitude and geological barriers have separated and influenced human interaction over millennia, it is the Pashtuns who have thrived. They are the main tribal composition of the Taliban and make up the majority of the Pakistan-managed Federally Administrated Tribal Areas. As I learned, Pashtuns self-identify by naming their ethnicity first, followed by their tribe, sub-tribe and then clan. A person's kin, village and religion embodies what it is to be a Pashtun, and explains why they fight to maintain their legacy. Besides the holy Koran, the Pashtunwali — a series of unwritten laws that have normalized justice and warfare for hundreds of years — is an important driver and regulator of behavior among rural Pashtuns. Because the Afghan battlespace encapsulates the country's rural outreaches, especially the predominantly Pashtun areas, understanding the Pashtunwali is as important as grasping the teachings and lessons of the Prophet Muhammad when it comes to understanding Afghans.
During my two weeks in Afghanistan I had the opportunity to interview rural and urban Afghans from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. Many people I spoke with were pro-Taliban. A few supported Washington's efforts to stabilize Afghanistan, but the majority didn't. Certain themes resurfaced time and again, however, chief among them a common distrust of government, reinforced by accusations of flagrant corruption and a general frustration at the lack of an efficient justice system. When it comes to dealings with the United States, there is a perceived cultural disconnection when it comes to American soldiers and diplomats. Conversely, the Taliban's respect for tribal laws and gradual religious moderation were broadly respected. What follows are excerpts from conversations accompanied by observations.
Disconnected Diplomats and War Fatigue
One of the biggest complaints echoed by my Afghan colleagues in Kabul concerned the naivete of diplomats and consular figures — the supposed representatives of their home country's interests. Isolated behind their compound walls and insulated from the actual dynamics of Afghanistan, it was a common criticism that these diplomats, particularly the American ones, simply didn't understand the country, the situation or the people. There was a feeling that the outsiders were happy to remain squirreled away, oblivious to the concerns of the country they had a stake in. I argued that, given the unstable security environment, it was dangerous to venture out in the field as an American representative. Many I spoke to — especially those from rural areas — thought otherwise. One individual from the Pashtun-dominated province of Paktika relayed this to me:
Americans have been here for 16 years. Now that bin Laden is dead why are they still in Afghanistan? What do they want from us? They have never made a legitimate effort to understand Afghanistan and Afghans. They only have their interests. In their embassy and Bagram they have everything — hotels, restaurants, convenience stores, underground tunnels, everything you can think of. So, with all of this comfort and lack of interaction, they still think they can win the war against the Talib.
Similarly, a former Turkmen mujahideen commander told me how the problem doesn't simply rest with Americans. All Western diplomats are, in his opinion, culturally disconnected.
It is not just Americans. There are the Europeans as well. They all live in their bubbles in Kabul, in the best areas you can think of, where venturing out to Kabul's market to them is as good as visiting a foreign planet. And these are the people that are telling our government what to do.
Little Faith in Government or the Justice System
Many Afghans expressed concern over the concept and implementation of central governance, distrusting those in positions of power and influence. Widespread corruption affects both rural and urban populations alike, and much of it stems from the authorities set in place in accordance with Western values. There is a feeling that individuals holding power at the national or provincial level can act with impunity and are not held accountable for their actions. As one Kabuli explained to me:
The West has made an effort to establish a constitution and a Western-like system of justice. But that is the problem. In the West, if you can afford a better lawyer, it is certain that you will win a case even if you are at fault. With the Taliban, Sharia justice is for everyone: rich, middle and poor. And everyone gets quick justice. In the warlord government in Kabul, if you are rich and have connections, you can get away with anything. This is what the West has brought here: A slow and corrupt system of justice.
More complicated still, in the countryside, the concept of "state" is non-existent. I spoke with a person living in the Federally Administrated Tribal Areas — the indeterminate space that falls between Afghanistan and Pakistan — who told me:
Where I'm from, there are only two things that matter: Pashtunwali and Islam, which are very intertwined and which are the only rules of law that we need. We do not view ourselves as Afghans or Pakistanis. That is a creation of the states. We are tribal and Pashtun. The so-called state and those that support it want to take away our customary laws and give us in exchange their Western laws, while encroach on our lands and levy taxes on us. That is why we will always resist.
Support for the Taliban
What struck me the most, though, was the level of support for the Taliban — not just among Pashtuns, but among Tajik, Uzbek and Turkmen minorities as well. They were mostly from the countryside. I found myself in the famous and militarily unconquerable Panjshir Valley, speaking with a combat-hardened former mujahideen who had served under the famed Ahmad Shah Massoud, bygone leader of the Northern Alliance. The fighter had this to say:
Commander Massoud would have never supported the American-led intervention if he'd knew they would stay this long. In fact, before his death, he explained to American intelligence that this was an Afghan internal problem that Afghans have to resolve, militarily or politically. [He explained] that it was one thing to topple the Taliban but another to rule and govern Afghanistan under a Western worldview. For reasons likes this, the Taliban have been able to recruit all of the country's non-Pashtun minorities, while even respecting minorities like Hazaras; they are not committing the same mistakes they made before: they want to unite all Afghan ethnicities under the banner of Islam and Sharia, leaving aside tribalism for once. Everyone is tired of war.
In Bamiyan, talking to another mujahideen commander who had served under Hazara leader Abdul Ali Mazari, I got this angry explanation:
While we have fought the Russians and the Taliban in the past, the government in Kabul has disrespected and ignored our due rights as former mujahideen. The leaders in Kabul are where they are because of the blood the Hazaras spilled, too. At this point, regardless of religious reasons, if we have to eventually join the Taliban in their cause — if only to make a living — we will if we have to.
Having spoken with members of rural communities and the weary survivors of Afghanistan's numerous conflicts, I sought the opinion of a different demographic: young city-dwellers that have a different perspective from their forebears. In the opinion of one young Uzbek I spoke to in Kabul, it is the duty of all Afghans to be united under a single country and state. For a Hazara in her mid-20s, the goal was to get a college degree and eventually run her own business. Such a dream could only become a reality under the current government in Kabul. And for a young male Pashtun who ran a local enterprise in the city, the Pashtunwali and the strict interpretation of Islam belonged to the countryside, not in places like Kabul.
The Challenges Ahead
When I left Afghanistan, there were 8,400 U.S. soldiers and roughly 13,400 NATO personnel stationed in country. Under the plan recently announced by U.S. President Donald Trump — who seems to have heeded the advice of National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, Defense Secretary James Mattis and Gen. John Nicholson — it would seem that America's engagement with Afghanistan is far from over. Though specific troop numbers weren't released, well-placed individuals I spoke with suggested that an immediate uplift of between 3,000 and 8,000 personnel wasn't unrealistic. It is good that the president appears to be listening to his advisers, because the ground truth in Afghanistan is very different from some of the prevailing opinions outside of the country.
The fact that the Taliban control or contest large portions of the country — the numbers vary from 10 percent to 60 percent, but most likely it's around 40 percent — is not necessarily because the United States has failed militarily. Rather, it has to do with the counterinsurgency strategy planned and executed by the Pentagon in Washington. When juxtaposed with the difficulties faced by tactical commanders in their attempts to manage and understand the tribal order that characterizes rural Afghanistan, the deficiencies become clear. The rural-urban divide in Afghanistan is much more distinct than I expected.
Whereas city people have a more nuanced view, the common perception among rural Afghans is that coalition forces have overstayed. Most people I spoke with longed for a quick justice system where all are treated equally regardless of their place in society. They also foster the notion that the Taliban are relatively free from corruption, as opposed to the elites in Kabul. For rural Afghans, the hierarchy and structure of the cities — infused with Western influence — are not in line with the robust beliefs of those occupying the steppes and mountains. It is this divide between the more progressive population centers and the comparatively modest outlying villages that will define the struggle going forward, much as it has throughout the country's history. This, unfortunately, plays into the hands of the Taliban, who represent the simple life and values that many jaded Afghans long for. It is worth noting that according to the World Bank, about 75 percent of Afghans live in rural, dispersed areas.
A final dynamic that I thankfully wasn't exposed to was the revenge cycle that mainly occurs in Taliban-controlled areas. If a civilian is mistakenly killed by a military operation or armed drone strike, the family of the deceased are obliged to take revenge. Pashtuns hold dear the concept of badal, which is one of the primary unwritten laws that stretch beyond mere revenge. According to the Pashtuns I spoke with, badal loosely means "proportionality." As such, if an American-associated strike killed an entire family, to not lose their honor, the relatives of those killed would be obliged by the Pashtunwali to inflict badal on foreign troops. In other words, the male relatives will either conduct a solo, lone-wolf attack or will join the Taliban. Either way, it is bad news for coalition personnel. It is a cycle that is almost impossible to break. And the more U.S. and NATO troops participate in combat operations against the Taliban, the more grievances among the rural populations will continue to accumulate. It was very clear to me upon leaving the country that Afghanistan's bloodiest days are not yet fully counted.