Why is Afghanistan So Hard to Control?
Every time Tom Collins returned to Chicago, people asked him the same question. They wanted to know why Afghanistan was such a mess. His friends and family followed the news from that part of the world more closely than most because Tom had been working there for more than a decade. He had a group chat to reassure people that he was OK after every tragedy.
Tom had gone to Afghanistan to build roads. A series of wars had destroyed much of the country’s infrastructure and the US government was paying to fix it. The money was good, and Tom wanted to pay off the loans on his engineering degrees. He had planned to be there for two years but that changed after he met and married an Afghan woman named Laleh.
From the beginning, Tom’s question was the same one people asked him back home: why was Afghanistan so messed up? Beggars lined the streets, bombings were terrifyingly common, and opium was the main industry. A few years before he arrived, the Muslim radicals of the Taliban had actually been in charge of the country. They beat women for showing their faces and men for shaving theirs.
Tom’s initial theory was geographical. As he traveled around Afghanistan he marveled at how isolated individual towns and villages were. Tucked away in a valley and poorly served by roads, these places might as well have been different countries. His wife confirmed the stories people told him about villagers not knowing the name of the current president. No wonder it was hard for the government to establish control.
However, he’d had to ditch that theory when others pointed out that other countries had plenty of mountains and valleys and had built stable governments. Switzerland was an obvious example. Additionally, in recent years Afghan villages had sprouted solar panels, which people used to charge phones and computers. Afghans now had all the information they wanted but that hadn’t solved their problems.
Tom’s next theory was closer to the mark. The longer he spent in Afghanistan the more he understood the importance of tribal loyalties. His wife Laleh was Hazara. They were the third largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, but had endured horrific persecution by the Taliban, mainly because their type of Islam—Shia—was different from the Sunni Islam of the rest of the country. The ethnic groups were also divided among themselves—the largest of them, the Pushtun, had many competing factions.
These local loyalties certainly made it harder to govern Afghanistan. Everyone worried that people at the top used their power to help out their own people. Stories circulated about relatives of the president receiving millions in bribes, sometimes in crisp banknotes stuffed into plastic bags.
But that didn’t explain the beggars, the opium fields, or the terrorists. Laleh told Tom he would never understand those until he knew more about the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980’s. Soviet Russia had invaded to preserve its influence in the country. They found it easy to seize the capital, Kabul, but never managed to control the countryside. The story was similar to America’s in Vietnam—it was impossible to distinguish insurgents from the villagers who sheltered them. And the terrain negated the Russians’ technological advantages—a few Afghans tucked in a ravine could shoot down a helicopter with a machine gun.
The Soviets came up with a brutal plan. They would force everyone to move to the cities, which they could control. Soviet jets bombed villages. Then, they made it impossible for people to farm and eat by slaughtering livestock and planting millions of mines. A third of the population became refugees. The women and children went to camps, the men stayed in the hills to fight. The refugee camps became a breeding ground for Taliban terrorists.
Laleh’s family lived in a city, so had stayed put. But she told Tom stories of the emaciated refugees who began to appear on the streets. Some had stepped on a mine and lost one or both legs.
Laleh also explained the connection between Soviet attacks on rural Afghanistan and opium. When the Russians left and people returned to their homes, they couldn’t farm their land because of the mines. Trying to remove them meant risking your life. Opium, by contrast, was so valuable that you only needed a tiny patch of land to produce enough to support your family. Bizarrely, the Taliban even provided lessons on how to cultivate and harvest the drug.
What Tom found harder to understand was why Afghanistan was still struggling after almost two decades of American involvement. Al Qaeda—the terrorist group behind the September 11, 2001 attacks on America—had its headquarters in Afghanistan, which is why the US invaded in October 2001. They had captured the capital, Kabul, by Christmas, and Laleh and many other Afghans cheered their liberators.
Over time, however, the mood soured. Like the Russians and the British before them, the Americans found it easy to take the capital but impossible to control the whole country. The new constitution looked good in New York and Kabul but democracy, equality, and religious freedom were a threat to traditional power holders in Afghanistan—tribal chiefs, Muslim leaders, and men as a whole. The new Afghan leaders were corrupt. And Laleh explained to her husband that Afghans also thought it was corrupt when a large proportion of the development funds that America said it spent on Afghanistan went to paying Americans like Tom.
The US also made disastrous mistakes. They bombed civilians and arrested the innocent. They found it no easier to root out their opponents from the countryside than the Russians had. Ugly rumours circulated about torture in the prison on America’s airbase.
These days, Tom had a lot more to say to those who asked him about Afghanistan on his trips back home. But fewer people did. He wasn’t the person to speak to if you wanted cheerful conversation at a wedding or a Christmas party—he didn’t have much hope. When asked whether Afghanistan had any chance of a peaceful, prosperous future he quoted his wife. She always said that her country’s best chance was if the rest of the world just left it alone.