This report is an attempt to revise the conventional understanding of the war in Afghanistan, the commentary on which is plagued by historical myths and misperceptions, analytical category errors, and resultant assumptions that have calcified into dogmas. The report also seeks to examine the consequences of American withdrawal.
The analytical problems stem from the very language used to describe the elements of the war, which in English and other Western languages is saturated with assumptions about identity, particularly nationality and ethnicity, that have little relevance in discussions of Islamist groups and the states in which they operate. It leads to the use of phrases like “the Afghan Taliban,” a designation akin to “the number red”. This mode of thinking leads to the arbitrary division of integrated, supranational networks into states and their “proxies,” when what is really being discussed is an ideological movement that happens to control some territories we think of as states. As a result, analysis becomes hopelessly skewed, ascribing local causes to events that are driven from outside by transnational Islamist actors. This is not a unique problem to Afghanistan: it is an issue covered in a previous EER report on Yemen. Afghanistan, however, is a particularly extreme case. The U.S. was only in Afghanistan to begin with because the proposition that the war was a local phenomenon that could be ignored crashed into the Twin Towers, Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania on September 11, 2001.
The clearest way to think about the situation is that there are three overlapping jihadist networks operating in Afghanistan: one attached to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) that control Iran, one attached to the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) that control Pakistan, and the Khorasan “Province” of the Islamic State (ISKP) imported from Iraq and Syria. The IRGC and ISI networks in Afghanistan stretch back fifty years and have engaged in a complicated cooperative competition, as is set out in great detail. The crucial point is that, despite the popular belief that the Mujahideen were created with American help in the 1980s as a reaction to the Soviet occupation, the reality is the reverse: these networks, created a decade earlier by ISI and later joined by the IRGC, drew in the Soviets and then the Americans. The ISKP is the newest of these three jihadist trends and the fastest-growing, infiltrating and rapidly cannibalizing large sections of especially the ISI network.
Across multiple American administrations since 2009, a “new thinking” has taken hold, a deeply ideological view about the world and the U.S. role in it, unaffected by external considerations related to actual events, a philosophy encapsulated by the term “forever wars” and the opposition to them. It amounts to a belief that if the U.S. leaves a country, the problem is thereby solved or at least no longer of concern to U.S. interests—hence the refusal of the U.S. to reassess its Afghan withdrawal even as the evidence that the U.S. drawdown was creating a strategic and humanitarian disaster grew. The cold realist case for this drawdown is that U.S. resources are better devoted to great power competition rather than counterterrorism. As this report shows, this is a false dichotomy.
This report is not intended as a comprehensive history of Afghanistan, but as a step towards stripping away the mythology and misrepresentation that has disconnected almost all contemporary commentary of the conflict from reality.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.
Image credit: Aviva Childress. She can be found on Instagram.