Weekend Update 02/29/2020: the Graveyard of Empires
So many stories popped up during the lunchtime read yesterday, that I was contemplating a different format of a Weekend Update this time, with a lot less commentary and just a bunch of links. Then I woke up this morning to a really big news story, which was related to a link that didn’t make it into this week’s Friday Five… so you’re going to get some commentary, oh some commentary!
For some context: 133 years ago, when Arthur Conan Doyle’s very first Sherlock Holmes story (A Study In Scarlet) was published, he introduced the world to both Sherlock and Dr. John Watson. Watson, we learn in the first scene, was a British Army medic serving in Afghanistan where he was wounded so severely he was mustered out and has returned to England to try to get his life back together. The British spent decades trying to tame Afghanistan during the 1800s, and never did.
It should have come as no surprise, I mean, 2350 years ago Alexander the Great was busy conquering the Persian Empire, and pursued one of his enemies into what is now Afghanistan which seemed to him an easy territory to conquer. At first. Later historians described the guerilla style insurgencies that kept coming up there to thwart Alexander’s plan as a many-headed hydra: whenever they struck one group down, two more arose to take its place. 1500 years later, Ghengis Khan’s grandson was killed in the Mongol’s failed attempt to conquer the territory. A century and a half later, the Mughal Empire technically conquered it, but never really had control, either.
There are at least a dozen more of those attempted invasions that mostly failed during the times before 1650 AD, and that is part of the issue with the territory. Because most of those failed invasions left a small population behind that would become yet another ethnic group with its own religion and culture (Most of the inhabitants of the Hazar Valley now are believed to be descended from the Mongol garrison left behind to keep a trade route open, for instance).
The British tried many times between 1845 and 1883 to turn the territory into a stable country that could be either part of the British Empire or at least an allied nation. The Russian Empire first tried to pacify part of what is now Afghanistan in 1885 and the Russians and the Brits basically treated Afghanistan as a football to score points against each other for the next 60-some years. Then starting in 1979 the Soviet Union tried again, eventually admitting defeat after ten years of costly war.
In other words, Afghanistan has been called the Graveyard of Empires for very good reasons.
On an older blog I ranted about all of these things when George W. Bush decided to invade Afghanistan in 2001. Yes, we needed to take action after the 9/11 attacks, but trying to turn Afghanistan into a stable country that would be our ally? That was (and still is) ludicrously unrealistic.
Now we have a little background to tackle today’s news:
Wonderful! Peace in Our Time (what could possibly go wrong?) So what is is in this agreement? There’s a pretty thorough break down here: What does the Taliban-US peace agreement say? – The long-awaited comprehensive peace agreement between the two sides is made of four parts.
Important points to consider:
- This agreement is between the U.S. and the Taliban (aka the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which is not recognized by the United States as a state). The current Afghan government (such as it is) was not involved in the negotiations directly.
- Today we signed a separate agreement with them committing them to enter into a ceasefire and peace talks with the Taliban “and other involved Afghan parties” beginning on March 10.
- Also on March 10, we and the Afghans will release about 5000 Taliban prisoners of war (and the Taliban and their allies will release about 1000 prisoners of war they are holding).
- Over the course of the next 125 days the U.S. will pull about 3,400 troops from Afghanistan including closing down five bases.
- Over the course of the subsequent 9 months, assuming the ceasefire holds up, and assuming that the negotiations between all the “involved Afghan parties” are fruitful, the remaining 8600 U.S. troops (and however many coalition troops remain) will leave.
- The Taliban promises to ensure that the territory of Afghanistan will never again be used by groups to threaten the U.S. or its allies, and to help make Afghanistan a country where all people are equal and free.
Sounds good, right?
Well, except, that bit about if the ceasefire holds, all the groups come to an agreement. That’s another of the tricky bits: With Taliban Talks Soon to Start, Afghan Government Splits Apart – The Taliban gloat as Afghanistan’s chief executive refuses to accept the election outcome and vows to form his own “inclusive government”. The last couple of elections in Afghanistan have not gone smoothly. According to many within the country, the election in 2014 didn’t decided who the next President of Afghanistan was, but rather U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry did. And the same people are claiming the same thing but this time it’s Trump’s appointed envoy who decided which side of the disputed race to back.
And a whole lot of people are having a very hard time, based on what the Taliban did when it took over the country in 1996, believing the promised to make Afghanistan a country where all people are equal and free. Back then, they made it illegal for girls and women to go to school. If women were found outside of their homes without a male relative as their escort and without wearing a burqua, they were subject to arrest and public flogging. Young women and girls of certain ethnic groups were abducted with government approval and sold into sex slavery. Then there were the targetting massacres of regions or some ethnic groups deemed as enemies of the Islamic state…
The truth is that if we stay there, we will continue to lose troops, and people within the country will be radicalized and become prime candidates for recruitment by terrorist groups. I completely understand that. And I understand that even if everyone plays nice until we exit, bad things will probably start happening all over again.
Trump needs to be able to claim he finally ended the war. You can bet that’s going to be one of the things he loudly congratulates himself on at his next rally and will continue to do so…
But you should also remember, that last summer he was proclaiming that an agreement to withdraw all troops was just around the corner. Then a car bomb killed a bunch of people, including one American serviceman, and Trump walked away from the agreement, and conveniently stopped talking about it…
So, no, I don’t really find anything to feel hopeful about in this mess at all.