• Richard Murff

An Afghan Kind of War

Goodbye to All That...


There was something about land wars in Asia...

In the ever shifting “Whose side are we on now?” nature of the war on terror, it looks like the Islamic State just might do to the Taliban what we’d been trying to do it for two decades. In our defense, though, our war aims were never entirely clear. At the start of the year we were using US air cover to help the UN backed government keep the Taliban at bay in the urban area while helping the Taliban keep the Islamic State at bay in the hinterlands. And that is about as straight forward as things get in Central Asia.


It’s counter-intuitive to a super-power with the world’s largest, and arguably the most powerful, military on the planet that a modern force backed by international law and, with its Western allies, controlling most of the global flow of money could fail to win a 20-year contest with what is essentially a homegrown medieval tribe. That said tribe might be taken down by and even more slapdash and brutal group is even more confounding.


The Taliban and the Islamic State – whose local chapter is Islamic State Khorasan Provence (ISKP) – are fighting the same kind of war. The basic lines and baseline assumptions of which are so primitive that Western forces simply don’t understand entirely what’s going on. These existential wars are all encompassing, there is no collateral damage. Just as the Taliban was willing to go lower and more brutal than Western forces in it’s fight to win, the Islamic State is willing to go even lower still.


After being thrown out of Syria and Iraq, ISKP has set its eyes on an even more unstable neighborhood and has been operating in Afghanistan since 2014. Since the fall of Kabul, ISKP has stepped up attacks on Shi’a mosques and Taliban fighters becoming a much greater military threat to the new regime than the resistance of the former government forces. And yet both are facing a still more ancient threat that neither is well-suited to combat or resist: Hunger.


Afghanistan’s economy, a global charity case to begin with, has cratered since the Taliban takeover and foreign aid dried up. As winter approaches, more than half the country is facing severe food shortages., the same half living on about $1.90 a day. The UN reckons that number will rise to 97% by the summer.


This presents a problem from both side of the conflict, and one neither is suited to address. It’s one thing to submit to an oppressive and hated group in return for stability and bread, which is the awful deal most war-weary Afghans decided to strike with the Taliban. It’s another to submit and watch your children starve.


Exactly how dire the situation is, is hard to say, as the Afghan economy has never been fully on the books. Given conditions on the ground, there is no good way to deliver aide to the country without a military intervention, which would only lead to another drawn-out fiasco. In the end, however, the question is moot. In the words of Robert Mardini, the chief of the Red Cross, “no humanitarian organization can… replace the economy of the country.”


To take power and to hold it are two completely different things. This war on a Shi’a minority is certain to draw in their large neighbor, Iran. Sanctions already have the Islamic Republic on the ropes, now they are facing the mother of refugee crises, which is almost certainly going to lead to a flood of heroin. For good or for ill, this is Iran’s problem now.


If nothing else, it might keep them closer to home.