The following op-ed by Lecturer on Law Ganesh Sitaraman ’08, “The land of 10,000 wars,” appeared in the August 17, 2009, edition of the New York Times.
As General Stanley McChrystal’s 60-day strategic assessment is wrapping up, he poised to recommend a new approach for Afghanistan, one grounded in counterinsurgency’s strategy of protecting the population.
This is an important step, but for the new strategy to succeed, it must recognize that there isn’t just one Afghan war — there are thousands of Afghan wars, each differing in motivations, organization, regional strength and possibilities for resolution.
The defining feature of Afghanistan is its diversity. Consider, for example, the eastern province of Nangarhar, on the Pakistani border. Nangarhar is about 90 percent Pashtun, but it has a significant minority of Nuristanis, Tajiks, and Pashai, each of whom speak different languages. In addition to ethnicity, Afghans identify by qawm, a kinship or residence group akin to a tribe. There are almost 30 different qawm within the Nangarhar Pashtuns alone.
The sources of conflict in Nangarhar are as complex and overlapping as the identities of the people. The local insurgency has splintered into at least three major factions, each of which was once aligned with one of the others. Pakistani Taliban and Al Qaeda send fighters into the area, and vast criminal networks provide support to the local Taliban faction. In the midst of these interconnected insurgent relationships, tribal feuds and blood feuds between families put the Hatfields and McCoys’ to shame. One story I heard featured a man who waited 40 years before taking vengeance on his neighbor. Insurgency was his cover for retribution.
Crime is perhaps as much a problem in Nangarhar as insurgency. While I was in Afghanistan, an oil tanker exploded on the road to Jalalabad, Nangarhar’s capital, backing up traffic for hours. But the driver wasn’t in the tanker and no one was hurt. Insurgent terrorism? Probably not. Most locals saw it as a common example of insurance fraud along a major transportation artery.
The famed opium problem in Afghanistan likewise has a complex history in Nangarhar. According to the United Nations, Nangarhar was a major poppy producer in 2004, was virtually poppy free in 2006, a leading producer in 2007, and again poppy free in 2008. These shifts are not simplistically linked to violence as those who decry “narcoterrorism” might wish. Rather, violence has risen as poppy cultivation has decreased. Poor farmers, unable to provide food for their families, resort either to opium or to insurgency.
For all its complexity, Nangarhar is only one small section of Afghanistan. With over 34,000 villages, 398 districts, and 34 provinces of diverse people and conflict, Afghanistan cannot be treated by a single formula alone. Each village, district and province has different dynamics, different sources of violence, and different governance and development challenges.
The challenge for General McChrystal is creating a comprehensive and integrated strategy for Afghanistan out of the hundreds, if not thousands, of peoples, identities, and conflicts in the country.
So, should the United States negotiate with the Taliban? This is the wrong question. There isn’t one monolithic Taliban-driven insurgency that is unified in goals, organization and desires. The right questions are: What are the goals of the local Taliban in a particular district? In which areas should the U.S. negotiate with the local Taliban? And, in places where violence and insurgency isn’t driven by the Taliban, should the U.S. negotiate with leaders of those groups?
Should the U.S. eradicate poppies and use wheat as a replacement crop? This too is the wrong question. The right questions are: Where should the U.S. should eradicate poppies and where shouldn’t it do so? Where can wheat be sustainable as a replacement crop and where will it not? And most importantly, where are markets and local security sufficient to sustain a replacement to poppies?
Paradoxically, the right strategy for the Afghan war is one that recognizes there can be no single strategy. To be sure, broad principles and strategic direction are absolutely necessary, but the strategy must be flexible and adaptive. It must recognize that what works in one province or district might not work in the next, and that some of the most important strategic decisions cannot be made by generals in Kabul or Washington, but only by the soldiers and civilians who are out in the villages.
In the land of 10,000 wars, the right strategy is one that integrates national priorities with the variety of divergent local realities.
Ganesh Sitaraman is a lecturer at Harvard Law School. He just returned from Kabul, where he was a research fellow at the Counterinsurgency Training Center Afghanistan.