Afghanistan After We’re Gone

I find Ahmad Shah Massoud, the late leader of Afghanistan’s Tajik community and a hero of battles against the USSR and the Taliban, to be pretty fascinating. So I loved April Rabkin’s reported piece on the Cult of Massoud in Northern Afghanistan, and beyond the local color she gets into some important analytical points:

Fighting alongside Hekmatyar and then against him. Ambushing the Soviets, then receiving support from Russia. These were just a few of Massoud’s shifting alliances. Even his legacy is tricky. When asked who is funding Massoud’s shrine and memorial complex, one of the guys at the grounds said it was the Iranians. (Massoud’s widow and family now live in Iran, a Shiite neighbor that was Massoud’s surest ally against the Sunni Taliban.) But at Massoud Foundation headquarters in Kabul, the deputy CEO went on the defensive. “There are some contracts with engineers from Iran,” Shafiq Shahim told me. “Iranians know how to build minarets. Iranians and the Iranian government don’t support it [financially].”

But one nation always remained an enemy, the animosity spelled out in clear black lettering and white paint outside a medical clinic in the Panshjir Valley. A message on the side of an ambulance reads, “Donated by the Islamic Republic of” with the name of the donor country literally painted over. Pakistan, which supported the Taliban then and maybe now, was Massoud’s worst enemy. The southern neighbor triumphed in the fight for America’s affection after Pakistan demanded that all arms and financial support for the Afghan resistance to the Soviets must pass through its own intelligence service, the ISI. In the 1990s, when Massoud asked the CIA for support to stave off the Taliban, the CIA gave him the military equivalent of pocket change.

Americans tend to get a little solipsistic about foreign situations we’re involved in. But part of the nature of wars in poor, landlocked countries on the other side of the globe is that we’re not going to be there forever. It’s far away, and everyone knows that American military and economic power is in relative decline. And in the past our level of engagement has waxed and waned. Massoud always wanted American support to help achieve his objectives, but he couldn’t count on it or let his relations to any group of foreigners dominate his goals. There are these enduring elements of regional politics — Tajiks don’t want to live under Pashto domination, Pakistan doesn’t want a government allied with India or Russia to control its border — that are bound to persist after we go and that shape everyone’s behavior as long as we’re there.