In the Western mind, Afghanistan’s mountainous Nuristan region is known primarily as the setting of Rudyard Kipling’s 1888 novella The Man Who Would Be King — an entertaining story of two plucky white adventurers who aspire to become local chieftains. The real Nuristan of 2012, on the other hand, is a violent, fantastically inaccessible backwater full of gangsters and smugglers.
In 2006, as part of the American military’s campaign to establish a greater military presence in more far-flung parts of Afghanistan, the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division established Combat Outpost Keating near the Nuristani town of Kamdesh. From the beginning, commanders expressed bafflement at the location. COP Keating sat at the base of a mountain — and was bounded on two sides by rivers, and on the other by a town teeming with hostiles. The only usable road serving the area was a cliff-side path that was just six feet across at points. As Jake Tapper describes in his new book about the base, The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor, soldiers stationed at COP Keating couldn’t even patrol effectively: The only thing they could do was sit around and wait to be attacked.
In short, the camp was what one lieutenant-colonel referred to as a “self-licking ice cream cone”: It had no purpose other than to defend itself from attack.
At 6am on October 3, 2009, that attack came. Three hundred Taliban fighters came at COP Keating’s five dozen defenders with a ferocious assault, now remembered as the Battle of Kamdesh. Only thanks to the Americans’ superior discipline, training and weaponry were they able to prevent the base from being completely overrun. Eight Americans died during the battle. The disaster spawned an investigation, which found that the location of the camp had no strategic or tactical purpose. The Americans abandoned the base, and then sent bombers in to blow up all the equipment they’d left behind.
More than a decade after the original American-led invasion of Afghanistan, Outpost Keating stands as a symbol for the entire war.
It would be an exaggeration to say that the conflict itself had no strategic purpose or effect. The Americans kicked the Taliban out of Kabul and other cities, and sent their al-Qaeda guests fleeting to Pakistan, Yemen and points beyond. Eventually, they killed Osama Bin Laden himself, as well as the vast majority of his lieutenants on both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. (In case you missed it, this week brought another drone-strike kill: senior al-Qaeda commander Mohammad Ahmed al-Mansoor. These surgical victories have become so common that they no longer even make the front pages.) But it also has become clear that, overall, Afghanistan is a Nuristan among nations — an isolated, rock-hard gallstone of violence and backwardness lodged in Asia’s stomach.
Parts of Afghanistan clearly are salvageable, including Kabul itself, Herat in the West, the former redoubts of the Northern Alliance in the Uzbek and Tajik north, and some parts of the fertile south. (At a foreign-policy conference in Washington last week, I heard a proud father tell of his military son’s recent deployment to Helmand province, a once-violent place where fighting apparently is now so rare that some American soldiers deployed in the region actually half-wish for a skirmish or two, just to keep their skills sharp.)
But other areas likely won’t become civilized places in my lifetime. That includes Nuristan — whose fierce animist tribes didn’t even bend the knee to Islam until the late 1890s, and who were among the first to take up arms against the Soviets. If these people can’t be broken by the far more brutal methods of 19th-century Muslim hordes and the Red Army, what chance do our own “nation-builders” have?
This week, the McClatchy news agency reportedly obtained documents that suggest the corrupt Karzai administration — which the West has been propping up for a decade now — is prepared to cede swathes of the southern and eastern parts of the country to the Taliban as part of a comprehensive peace plan. Five years ago, this would have sown outrage in Western capitals. These days, it barely makes the news: To the extent any functional governance of this part of Afghanistan is possible, a band of hyper-violent Islamist misogynists may be the only ones capable of (or even much interested in) the task. And with drones having become America’s long-range weapon of choice, perhaps the shape of the U.S. footprint matters less than it once did: If al-Qaeda training camps take root in Taliban-run parts of Afghanistan, they can be destroyed by joystick.
This blueprint for Afghanistan involves not one country, but two: a Taliban-administered patchwork of provinces bordering Pakistan, and a Western-friendly (or at least Western aid-dependent) rump. But that scenario itself raises an interesting possibility for an even more seismic transformation: With Taliban-led, ethnic Pashtun Islamist enclaves on both sides of the invisible Afghanistan-Pakistan border, each essentially independent of Kabul and Islamabad, what is there to stop the de facto creation of the long-dreamed-of Pashtunistan, stretching from the Amu to Indus rivers?
Ethnic Pashtuns have their own language, Pashto, and code of behaviour, Pashtunwali. Moreover, the national border that divides Afghan Pashtuns from Pakistani Pashtuns, the Durand Line, is an essentially arbitrary creation of a 19th-century British foreign secretary. Afghan revanchists have been claiming parts of northern Pakistan for generations. For many tribesmen in the area, the Durand Line has as much real-life significance as those American highway sculptures you pass in northern U.S. states, noting the 45th parallel.
Fighting is the one and only thing that the Taliban does well, on both sides of the border
A few days ago, I discussed all this with a South Asian diplomat who specializes in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. His view was that Pakistan would never recognize an autonomous status for Pashtuns — because doing so would not only serve to effectively give up the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (where Pakistani sovereignty is only nominal), but also parts of Balochistan. The Pakistani military will not accede to the break-up of their country without a fight.
On the other hand, Pakistan is facing many internal threats, and its military is having trouble keeping the country stitched together as it is. Moreover, fighting is the one and only thing that the Taliban does well, on both sides of the border. If they do manage to carve out an independent Pashtunistan, they may well produce the most stable political arrangement the area has witnessed since the days of Kipling.
No doubt it would be a violent and unpleasant place, but it’s hard to imagine anything being worse than the status quo.