Afghanistan and the Politics of International Intervention – Day 1

Today’s meeting was devoted to the Soviet Afghan war, the collapse of the central government in the 1990s, the emergence of strongmen and the rise of the Taliban that followed. The idea was to give the students a general understanding of the recent events that shaped today’s Afghanistan.

First they identified some similarities and differences between the Soviet and the American military campaigns. They seemed surprised, not only by the improvised nature of the U.S. intervention, but also by American strategic mistakes and naivety. Considering Afghanistan’s history, and its own experience in Vietnam, how could the U.S army come to the “graveyard of empires” without a cohesive and comprehensive long-term plan? How could it let the insurgency grow? In a sense, institutions are very much like individuals; they only learn from their own mistakes, if in fact they realize it at all. Hence, the learning process that the U.S military had to undergo in Afghanistan. Like the Soviets before them, the American military eventually realized that they had to adapt their tactics, strategies and methods to the social environment they faced. It is still an ongoing process…

We then discussed what Barnett Rubin referred to as the “fragmentation of Afghanistan” and the emergence of strongmen polities that ensued. The class was acquainted with prominent political and military leaders of the 1990s, such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, General Dostum or Ahmad Shah Massoud. The notions of power vacuum and concentration of power were lengthily discussed. Although the absence of strong political structures in some parts of the country can partly explain the rise of the Taliban, some sort of order was provided by regional strongmen (the so-called “warlords”) in other parts. Ismail Khan’s “emirate of Herat” was taken as an example.

Another intriguing topic discussed was the rise of the Taliban. How could such a fundamentalist movement get any kind of popular support? Overall, maybe the “old” Taliban (those who rule Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001) should only be considered as one of the many factions fighting for power in a bloody civil war. Issues such as Pashtun political alienation, the need for security or the role of madrassa students were discussed. More generally, we ended our first meeting talking about the role of religious believes and ideologies in insurgent movements. What are the links between foreign intervention and radicalization? One of the many questions we will try to answer in the coming weeks…

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About Afghanopoly

I am an Assistant Professor of peace and conflict studies at Radboud University's Centre for International Conflict Analysis and Management (CICAM). I completed my PhD in Political Science at Northwestern University and Sciences Po under the supervision of Will Reno and Bertrand Badie. Among other things, I teach students about the politics of international intervention in Afghanistan and elsewhere. My research focuses on the political strategies that Afghan strongmen use to consolidate and legitimize their authority. I am particularly interested in how these actors manage to conduct their own forms of international relations. My field research brings me in contact with Afghan community leaders, politicians, diplomats and foreign military officers.
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6 Responses to Afghanistan and the Politics of International Intervention – Day 1

  1. Moh. khalid bahrami says:

    that was really good, keep continung,
    but as point of my view it was so genral, if you talk little much specific about issues it would be so good,

  2. Valkyrie says:

    Re: “What are the links between foreign intervention and radicalization?”

    Well, from the perspective of any human being, having a foreign military presence in your neck of the woods would seem, at the very least, to be rather frightening.

    Can the locals really trust the motives of those claiming to be there to help? Someone will surely tend to be suspicious, even if the intentions are to assist in ridding the territory of unwanted elements.

    I would imagine that all of the cognitive errors that human beings are prone to make (errors in judgment under uncertainty) would come into play in such a situation, and that this has the potential to send the individuals into many different directions, psychologically. Some clearly can become radicalized, although it is still very difficult to perceive how this could occur (coming from a resident of the United States, it is hard to form a “theory of mind” of someone who becomes radicalized, because your thinking style is entirely different and much more analytical as an outside observer).

    I would say that the uncertainty inherent in this situation is a large part of the problem, though, not just that there’s an intervention by foreigners. In other words, there are many variables at play in discussing the linkage between intervention and radicalization.

    • I agree with Valkyrie that the linkage between intervention and radicalization is not that straightforward.

      If intervention is primarily military, and is selectively targeting the administration, it would lead to public indignation only if the government is a popular one. Otherwise, the people may actually thank the intervening force like the Shi’i Iraqis were doing in the initial days just after the fall of Saddam.

      But if the intervening force tries to implement a turnaround of the whole society, especially by dis-empowering older strongmen and creating new ones, this upheaval coming from an external source is not tolerated well.

      The earlier elites might try to use all tools in their arsenal and all tricks in their book to try and revert to the order of things as they were, and radicalization would be one of those attempts.

  3. Another thing that I was thinking about was the point of the US administration not learning from the mistakes of the British and the Russians and ending up in the graveyard of empires.

    It seems from the readings that the US and also the UN were very conscious of history and did not want to repeat the same mistakes. Their strategy of a light footprint was a result of this intention.

    Seth Jones seems to suggest that it was not a good idea and having a force outside of Kabul to help with maintaining law and order would have been a better idea. I think that it is easy to say in hindsight that this or that was wrong and had this one thing been different, the results would have been better. But there is no real reason to think that a larger footprint would not have unwelcome outcomes as well.

  4. Valkyrie says:

    Welcome to the blog, Empowerment Engineer (cool username, btw).

    Regarding this comment:

    “Another thing that I was thinking about was the point of the US administration not learning from the mistakes of the British and the Russians and ending up in the graveyard of empires.

    It seems from the readings that the US and also the UN were very conscious of history and did not want to repeat the same mistakes. Their strategy of a light footprint was a result of this intention.”

    The US clearly had to do something (not only was there a hit on the WTC, but also on the Pentagon), but it was clear that it was, indeed, rather improvised, possibly in much the same way as it is improvised when an attacker takes on an individual by surprise (who’s really prepared for that, unless they studied self-defense, or worked on a police force, or something like that, right?). So, plans were made rather quickly for what I believe are two reasons, the first being that–well–the Pentagon was attacked!–and the second one being political (what will the American people and the international community think of the sole superpower if it is not decisive in the face of a horrible attack?).

    One key problem was that the US was just not well-prepared for the reality of such an attack on US soil, and everyone seemed to be in a state of shock that terror could strike here at home (ask the Israelis if they do not constantly live under that threat, sometime, because over there, it is a part of the fabric of daily life that such threats exist). So, there seemed to be a period of rather swift decision-making that followed, for better or for worse.

    On the positive side of things, however, you mentioned the “light footprint” approach as being evidence that the US and UN were both cognizant of past failures in Afghanistan, hence the wisdom (though Seth Jones would clearly disagree) of not coming to be seen as a massive occupying force.

    Whether the “footprint” was large or small, I’m sure there would have been resistance anyways, but it would have been quite problematic to have the force that came in and made a mess of things in the short-term also sticking around long-term (and being seen as an occupier). The cultural issues clearly were different from, say, conflicts in Europe (as was discussed in class).

    Just a quick note, too, that there’s some interesting stuff on the 9/11 attacks in the Journal of Political Psychology (I hope I remembered my HTML tags accurately, but I’ll know as soon as I post, too, I suppose–LOL).

    There’s an entire issue from 2002 (look for it in JSTOR, if interested), and there are articles about the lack of US preparedness, despite warnings, internally, that the US was quite vulnerable.

    Interesting stuff. Good journal.

  5. Valkyrie says:

    Hey! My HTML is better than my French, apparently. ; )

    It worked perfectly.

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