BOSTON – When demonstrations broke out in Afghanistan following the Quran burnings, an oft-heard reaction was: After 10 years, how could there be any Americans in Afghanistan who do not know that showing disrespect for the Muslim holy book is a mistake?
Well, in any foreign occupation there are going to be cultural and religious mistakes, just as there will always be some who don’t get the word in anybody’s army.
But the operative words are foreign occupation rather than Quran burnings. The cultural disrespect implied in burning what Muslims consider the word of God was merely the trigger. The greater malaise is that Afghanistan, a country notorious for resisting conquerors, is becoming increasingly hostile to the foreigners who say they have come to help. Trust between Americans and their Afghan clients is in free fall.
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It seems that every time you pick up a newspaper there is an account of Afghan security forces turning their guns on NATO personnel, and these are supposed to be our Afghans. The violence inspired by the Quran burning has not been limited to the Pashtun areas where the Taliban is strong. Other ethnic groups have been involved as well, suggesting that hostility on the part of Afghan minorities towards the Pashtun Taliban does not necessarily translate into toleration for foreign occupation.
It became fashionable at one point to say that the “graveyard-of-empires” naysayers had it all wrong. This occupation was not going the way of the British in the 19th century or the Russians in the 20th. This time American exceptionalism was going to carry the day. But as the war drags on, American-led forces are looking less and less exceptional, and more like the Russians who preceded them. The wholesale brutality and destruction has not been replicated, but the rising hostility of the general population is.
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The Russians had their loyal Afghans to be sure, and many of them fought long and well after the Russian armies had left. But eventually their position collapsed as did the Soviet Union.
When the Americans first arrived a decade ago the country was so prostrate after decades of war, followed by Taliban rule, that it was receptive to anybody coming in to make things better. But if we had a chance to really make a permanent difference we blew it when attention swung towards Iraq and our occupation dragged on.
Back in 2003, when I first visited post-war Afghanistan, the Afghan people did not feel they were under an occupation. That is not the case today. There have just been too many wedding parties bombed, and too many homes broken into by men-from-Mars-looking foreign soldiers, and too many foreigners telling Afghans what to do.
“COIN,” the counter–insurgency doctrine that was supposed to win over the population, never really got off the ground in Afghanistan.
General David Petraeus, fresh from his successes in Iraq, always claimed that he knew Afganistan was different. But around his headquarters you could always hear that this is what worked in Iraq, and it will work here now. But it didn’t.
The big hope that somehow the Afghan army could be brought up to speed in time for American combat troops to stand down by 2013 was always a pipe dream, as were hopes for a corruption-free civil society with western concepts of rights for women and democratic institutions.
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As relations with the crucial ally, Pakistan, have deteriorated because of differing concepts of Afghanistan’s future, so now have relations with the Afghans.
The same was true in Iraq. Americans had quite a different idea of post–Saddam Iraq than did the Iraqis who recognized the situation for what it was: a struggle between competing ethnic, religious and tribal groups that had little to do with the neo-conservative dream of Iraq as a pro-Western, free-market, light-unto-others democracy. The same will prove true of Afghanistan.
This doesn’t mean that the Taliban will return to rule as they did. Afghanistan has moved on, and that kind of rule could no longer be imposed as before. But it does mean that it will be up to the Afghans to work out how they will be governed, not NATO, not the Americans, not foreigners.