You may have heard recently from the budding antiwar movement that “Afghanistan is Vietnam,” meaning “America’s new war” could become bogged down or even end in defeat. But Afghanistan is not simply like Vietnam.
I have followed Afghan politics with morbid fascination since the civil wars and Soviet invasion of the late 1970s. The recent history of Afghanistan demonstrates that a new war in that country would not simply be like the U.S. war in Vietnam. The war would instead be like Vietnam, Yugoslavia, Colombia and Somalia all rolled into one. Afghanistan offers a package deal of multiple disasters, loaded with extra bonus features.
Afghanistan is Vietnam
There is some historical truth to this claim. Like the Afghanis who defeated British and Russian invaders, the Vietnamese defeated the Chinese and French before us. The U.S. took on a people whose main motivation was not ideology, but a fierce sense of independence from foreign rule. Vietnamese guerrillas had widespread support in the countryside, partly because U.S. forces distinguished little between combatants and civilians and were backing an unpopular and corrupt South Vietnamese dictatorship. It will be similarly difficult to tell who is who in Afghanistan, and impossible to find any force representing “freedom.”
But Afghanistan is not simply like Vietnam. After the Communist rebels and their North Vietnamese sponsors won the war in 1975, Vietnam became a unified state with a stable central government and a single core ethnic identity. Afghanistan, on the other hand, has never had a strong central government and is split into ethnic enclaves.
Afghanistan is Yugoslavia
Like Yugoslavia before it violently split into ethnic mini-states, Afghanistan is a multiethnic country with no single dominant group. Its civil wars have further divided the country into strong enclaves of ethnic groups, most of which straddle the borders of neighboring countries. In the north, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Turkmens have strong ties to adjacent ex-Soviet republics. The territory controlled by the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance corresponds almost exactly with the Tajik region. The Pushtuns, who form the bulk of the Taliban, spill over into Pakistan. The Baluchis in the south have brethren in both Pakistan and Iran, and the Hazaras in the central region have Shi’ite religious ties to Iran. A new conflagration in Afghanistan could result in a partition that enlarges adjacent states or splinters the country into new and even more unstable ethnic mini-states.
But Afghanistan is not simply like Yugoslavia. Serbian and Croatian voters eventually ousted their ultra-nationalist leaders. Their new countries have industrial economies, unlike impoverished Afghanistan, which has long been forced to rely on an illegal underground drug economy.
Afghanistan is Colombia
Just as all sides in the Colombian civil war have profited from the cocaine trade, all Afghan factions together form one of the global centers of the opium trade. The U.S.-backed mujahadin rebels defeated the Soviets partly by purchasing weapons with drug profits. Their successors in the Northern Alliance have continued the practice despite international pressure. The Taliban also engage in drug trafficking, despite a generous U.S. grant of $43 million to aid in the “drug war.” The outlaw tradition in Afghanistan is ideally suited for the drug warlord culture.
But Afghanistan is not simply Colombia. Though Colombia is divided into government and rebel zones that intersect with narcotic fiefdoms, it at least has national institutions and national political parties. Afghanistan has little national identity apart from its resistance to outsiders, and no cohesion within its political factions.
Afghanistan is Somalia
From the outset of Washington’s so-called “humanitarian intervention” in Somalia, U.S. forces divided the East African country into “good guys” and “bad guys.” Instead of working with clan elders to end clan warfare, the United States sided with one local warlord against another local warlord. The United States is repeating the same basic error in Afghanistan by backing the Northern Alliance and alienating the Pushtuns and their Pakistani allies. Not only has Afghanistan been divided into political, ethnic and clan factions, but each faction is itself divided. The pro-Soviet Communists were divided into Khalq (Masses) and Parcham (Flag) factions that fought each other. The mujahadin who ruled Kabul in 1992-96 also battled each other, opening the way for the Taliban takeover. New schisms are becoming evident within both the Northern Alliance and the Taliban.
U.S. forces may well topple the unpopular Taliban and install a paper government in Kabul, probably under former King Zahir Shah. But then their problems will only be beginning. The king is 86 years old and has no clear successor. Each of the political and ethnic factions will grab for power in a new government, and will deeply resent the United States if they do not get it. In the same way that U.S. support for the mujahadin planted the seeds of Osama bin Laden, U.S. support of a new Afghan resistance only guarantees continued instability for the region.
It is one thing to cut off Afghanistan from the rest of the world, in a cordon sanitaire around terrorist camps backed by an international tribunal. It is another thing entirely to be lured into what British journalist Robert Fisk has called the “trap” of massive retaliation. When Osama bin Laden launched his vicious attack on the United States he was not simply making a political statement, but was sending an engraved invitation to war in Afghanistan, a nation already littered with 10 million landmines from past wars. Such a long open-ended war would serve his agenda of polarizing the region, and plunging it into new Islamic revolts. By sending an RSVP of B-52s and loose talk about a new “crusade,” President Bush is playing right along with bin Laden’s script.
Zoltan Grossman is a doctoral candidate in the University of Wisconsin-Madison Department of Geography.