The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Developments in the Longest War

June 9, 2010

Here is my list of some of the most important developments and trends that have occurred so far in the longest war in American history.

10. The term “Neo-Taliban” was coined in 2003 (by the Economist magazine) to describe the insurgency that emerged after the US toppled the Taliban regime.  However, the distinction between the Paleo-Taliban and the Neo-Taliban is mainly a shift in organization from a highly centralized government to a decentralized “brand-name” insurgency on the model of Al Qaeda.

9. The term “AfPak” was coined in 2008 (originally by candidate Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy advisor,  Richard Holbrooke) to describe the shifting center of the conflict from Afghanistan to the borderland between Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Unfortunately, even after the neologism was adopted by the President, the “Pak” component of the US strategy was never articulated.  Later the term was politely dropped because it offended Pakistan.  Diplomatic niceties aside, the locus of the conflict is on both sides of the Durand Line.  And a second front has opened in the war between those fighting under the banner of the Taliban and the US client regime in Pakistan.

8. The indefinite detainment without trial of suspected combatants at the prison at Guantanamo Bay has been quietly shifting from Cuba to the prison at Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan. Despite the election of a President who promised to restore America’s international reputation, little has changed in practice. If anything, conditions at Bagram may be worse than those at Guantanamo. Even the paltry rights extended to the detainees at Guantanamo under the US Constitution do not apply to those at Bagram. The policy of indefinite detention will continue to impair America’s image as a beacon of human rights in global politics. And regardless of the reputational effects, the policy is morally bankrupt.

7. North America and Europe, as opposed to the Middle East and South Asia, have increasingly become the sites where disaffected individuals become radicalized to join extremist groups. Unfortunately, this trend has not led to more insightful understanding of how individuals and religions which become divorced from their local cultural moorings can generate fundamentalist and even extremist dispositions

6. In late 2009, the US military shifted to a “population-centric” counter-insurgency strategy designed to foreground the protection of civilian lives. Almost no one in US bothered to ask why this was not the strategy from the outset or what the legal and moral implications of the previous strategy were. In any case, the population-centric strategy has generally failed despite numerous attempts to win over the hearts and minds of the civilian population through good works and good deeds. The practice of nighttime raids and the accidental slaughter of unarmed civilians by foreign forces (through air strikes and at checkpoints) has led to massive (and sometimes violent) protests against the occupation of Afghanistan.  Intimidation tactics and incitement by the Taliban have kept Afghan civilians focused on incidents perpetrated by foreign forces; there have been very few anti-Taliban protests in nine years, even though the majority of civilian deaths are attributed to the insurgents.  The failure to win over the civilian population generally means that areas which are cleared of insurgents cannot be held by foreign forces over the long term — much less transferred to Afghan forces.

5. The nascent electocracy of Afghanistan has so far failed to transition to democracy. The Afghan Parliament continues to be populated by notorious warlords.  Corruption is both massive and rampant at all levels of society. The Karzai regime has repeatedly attempted to reconcile with the Taliban creating international friction with the US and domestic anguish with women and other minorities in Afghanistan. The grand project of nation building has been completely abandoned; even the hope of propping up a stable and at least semi-legitimate state to which power can be transferred is in doubt.

4. The proxy war between the nuclear armed arch-rivals, India and Pakistan, has generally shifted from the disputed territory of Kashmir to Afghanistan. India, which is still a developing country, is one of the largest contributors of development assistance to Afghanistan and has a notable contingent of paramilitary troops in the country. Pakistan has argued (unconvincingly in the eyes of the US and Europe) that India is using Afghanistan as a base to support an ongoing separatist movement in the largest Pakistani province, Baluchistan. The shift in the site of Indo-Pak rivalry to Afghanistan may portend a new phase of conflict after ISAF forces withdraw.

3. The first railroad in Afghanistan has been built connecting the country with Uzbekistan and a new land route to the Persian Gulf via Iran has been built through a joint venture between India and Iran. In the long run, these new routes may help to reduce Afghanistan’s historic dependence on Pakistan for access to markets and supplies. Also noteworthy are the lucrative mining contracts which have been awarded to Chinese firms. If Afghanistan is able to break free of its dependence on Pakistan, regional dynamics in South Asia and Central Asia may shift dramatically in the next decade.  If Afghanistan can achieve autonomy, then one of the only remaining regional impediments to the rise of India on the global stage will be removed (of course, domestic and global impediments abound).

2. A massive attempt to create a biometric archive of all 28 million Afghans has been initiated. The project, which originated in Occupied Iraq and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, has led to the creation of biometric support teams assigned to each combat brigade and at all points of entry along Afghanistan’s international border to collect data.  Biometric enabled intelligence (BEI) units use the collected data to hunt for persons of interest on the biometric enabled watch list (BEWL).  As a national archive rather than merely a criminal database, the technology promises to create a digital dossier that provides a “complete picture” of each Afghan individual.  Although the project will fail to encompass the entire population before foreign forces withdraw, it may enable new modes of disciplinary governance (i.e. “turnkey totalitarianism”) when the technology and archive are turned over.

1. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (i.e. drones) have moved from being used to assassinate high value targets to a conventional method of war fighting, particularly in Pakistan’s tribal areas.  The shift is important because these machines are often controlled by US intelligence agencies rather than one of the main divisions of the armed forces and their use on the battlefield represents a challenge to conventional rules of warfare since the “pilots” of these aircraft are not subject to the risks and responsibilities of ordinary soldiers. The notable increase in drones has also resulted in rapid technological evolution.  The next generation of drones (Micro-Aerial Vehicles or MAVs) promise to imitate the behavior of birds and even insects. These developments (points 2 and 1) matter because the illiberal surveillance technologies developed on the battlefield of Afghanistan and Pakistan will inevitably migrate back to the US and Europe.  Far from being stuck in the Middle Ages, Afghanistan is the laboratory of the future.

[Cross-posted from my Afghan Notebook]

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Vikash is an Associate Professor of Political Science and Asian Studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva, NY. His main areas of academic interest are (post-) globalization, economic development, and economic freedom, with a regional focus on South Asia