In January of 1842, a sole survivor, Surgeon William Brydon, would ride into Jelalabad to tell the story of the British demise in Kabul. One survivor of the retreat, from a force of 16,000 British troops and followers, lived to tell the story.
British escapades into Afghanistan had begun as a desire to deter an attack from Russian forces on the British Crown Jewel- India. This “Great Game” as it was called was a strategy of conflict by both sides to gain supremacy in central Asia. The British had sent an army, the grand “Army of the Indus” to lay claim to Afghanistan and set up a puppet government in 1838. Just four short years later this once great army, now dubbed the “army of retribution” would return to India with less than 1,000 survivors. It was one of the worse defeats ever inflicted on the British, right at the height of her wealth, power, and prestige. The British embarrassedly would forever curb their ambitions for Afghanistan.
Today, a new “great game” in Afghanistan is being played out. We have seen the United States (with the International community in tow) desire to complete the installation of a new regime. It is continually seen that the legitimacy of the regime is challenged, just not (yet) as drastically as during the British reign. Also, very clandestine struggles for oil and gas pipelines deals have come to fruition since before the US led invasion of Afghanistan. Economic policy and a grandiose plan have no doubt been in effect for a long time. This paradox must make us ask what makes America think it can quell a region that has not been conquered since Alexander the Great? How will we adhere to the lessons of history, or will the U.S. quagmire and aftermath in Afghanistan just become another history lesson itself? The British Empire’s demise was a long time coming, but there is no doubt that the ruinous escapades into Afghanistan helped to bring down the Empire. In the past, Afghanistan has almost mystically helped ravage countries into ruins that have infringed upon its sovereignty. What will prevent this from happening in the present?
The US had entered Afghanistan with a bang. The U.S. would quickly establish dominance in a region that seemingly goading for a conquering. The war was declared as a win for the Bush Presidency, but they were yet to establish tangible control, and therefore by default, legitimacy in their claims. So what happens next is the million dollar question? There was virtually no private sector economy before the invasion and it had one of the lowest GDP’s in the world. State building and establishing an economy from essential scratch has no doubt been and will continue to be the point of contention and struggle for the United States. Making the economy successful and competitive is the challenge, because it is a fact that an economy that is not competitive will surely never be successful. This is why we are intrinsically bound to Afghanistan for many years to come. We are trying to package and deliver something that takes many, many years to establish.
Afghanistan has gone from an extremely harsh dictatorship of the Taliban regime to an Islamic Republic. This is no doubt far superior for the longevity of and legitimacy of the government. But the government has yet to ensure the Afghan people security in many aspects. The Taliban continually re-emerge and cause instability as well as grief, thereby very effectively undermining the Afghan government. Many claim the election of Hamid Karzai was rigged and pre-destined, causing much contention. Corruption within the government is rampant, establishing mistrust of politicians and the government in general. Outside of Kabul, warlords literally run the show and call the shots when it comes to government affairs, acting as such, leading to provincial instability and un-alignment as well. These provincial governors continually violate human rights, perpetrate violence, commandeer justice, and are the main proponents of the opium trade. It is often joked that Karzai has control of just a few city blocks. This is a self perpetuating cycle since Karzai knows his hand is weak, and because so he is cautious to round up and challenge drug traffickers and warlords alike. Centralizing and monopolizing power is something that private U.S. contractors are helping Afghanistan accomplish, and the U.S military is changing its role to help win over public opinion, apart from eliminating military threats within the country. It seems as though the government is paper thin, and just the same only a government on paper and not in practice. Very slow but important progress toward legitimacy is being made, but slow being the key word ensures U.S presence in Afghanistan for many years to come.
Equally, if not more, important, in ensuring a continued Afghan “success” is establishing and expanding the Afghan economy. When the Taliban fell, Afghanistan was at the bottom of every index that measured an economy, showing Afghanistan as an impossible and unbearably miserable place. The insurrection against the Soviets, along with the prolonged civil war destroyed virtually all progress made before the 1970’s. Infrastructure and resources were destroyed and depleted, and human capital was eroded. The financial sector had ceased to exist during the past 20 years. There was basically no place to invest in, other than the opium trade, and all that was borrowed and invested surrounded the opium trade, even using opium as a medium of exchange and a source of savings. No central bank, treasury, or taxing system was functional, so taxing opium was the only dependable source of income. Opium really became the livelihood of the country. No financial, or other basic infrastructure for that matter, existed during the decades of war. Even with the U.S occupation, Afghanistan struggles to recover.
Although much progress has been made since the U.S led invasion, Afghanistan has many shortcomings and issues such as extreme poverty, being landlocked, living standards, reliance on foreign aid, literacy rates, job creation, agriculture, and trade deficits. As previously mentioned, the provincial warlords are not only causing political instability, but are also not allowing for future economic growth and economic integration. Less than 10 percent of arable land is being cultivated, and as there is almost no agriculture infrastructure present now, it leaves the doors wide open for yields and profitable (legal) crops. Natural resources must be tapped into and developed. And a transportation infrastructure must be made available to ensure trade. The opium trade is still the cash crop for a broad range of Afghans, from warlords who exploit, down to the farmers who have no alternative choice in crop or in lifestyle. The foreign aid must be maintained while developing and diversifying a self-supporting economy in Afghanistan. This is why we are intrinsically bound to Afghanistan for many years to come.
To truly wave a mission accomplished, banner a legitimate, central government must be established that will be able to build upon itself as well and provide security and justice for Afghan citizens. Second, the economy must be diversified and expanded. The opium trade must cease, but is something that will not and should not happen overnight as to ensure stability. Afghanistan is the wild of all Wild West’s, probably the most lawless place on the planet. The U.S therefore must not shrink its responsibilities, it must fully back and support the central government immediately and in the future. The U.S should in fact increase all facets of support to ensure a job well done and a mission accomplished. This is how to prevent a similar fate as the British.
The war is similar in style to Vietnam, but is a hegemonic era, make or break war. This is why the comparison is made to the British. The U.S and the British were in very similar global importance when they entered Afghanistan. They both had goals of alignment to their set of ideology, and they both had rivals that had their own interests, today those countries being Iran, India, and Pakistan. The British “lost” in Afghanistan and this era became their peak of power, never fully able to recover themselves, steadily losing power in the years to come. With this in mind, the U.S. must heed and understand this important history lesson. The success of Afghanistan determines the future and future success of the U.S. This is the supernatural power of Afghanistan. This is why the fate of the U.S and Afghanistan are intrinsically bound, their fates, still to be determined, will undoubtedly be a reciprocal one.