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The Oregonian: The failing war in Afghanistan has no easy solutions
Author: By Grant Farr
Posted: July 10, 2010

Grant Farr: It appears that the Afghan war is beginning to come undone. The war is now the longest in U.S. history and with our military bogged down in Kandahar, an uncooperative ally in President Hamid Karzai and with military and civilian casualties increasing monthly, the U.S. position is becoming more untenable by the day. The geopolitical ramification of this failure will be profound for the United States; however, to me it is also personal.

I first went to Afghanistan in 1966 as a 22-year-old Peace Corps volunteer teaching mathematics to tribal boys and I, like many who have lived in Afghanistan, fell in love with this harsh land and its tough people. Afghanistan has become my area of scholarly specialization, and I have returned there many times during the last 40-plus years.

My admiration for the people's spirit and tenacity has not diminished. Afghans accept that life is tough but get up each day to eke out a living tilling their fields, minding their flocks, selling their wares or services. They are hospitable and kind to strangers and have always treated me with respect and courtesy.

Afghanistan is a harsh country, much different from the green Puget Sound where I was raised. It is large, about the size of Texas, with the formidable Hindu Kush mountain range running the diagonal length of the country and burning salt deserts in the southwest. Kabul, the capital, is at an elevation of nearly 6,000 feet.

Afghanistan also is a country of various tribal, religious and ethnic groups. I remember riding my bicycle a short distance outside of Kabul and talking to a Tajik tribesman tending his flocks who had little idea of being in a country called Afghanistan. The allegiance was, and remains today, to tribe, kin or village. Because of this some have argued that Afghanistan is ungovernable, but those of us who knew the Afghanistan of the past remember it as a place where various tribes and ethnic groups coexisted in relative harmony.

Although the Afghan war has been portrayed in the West as a religious or ideological battle, most Afghans are concerned with the day-to-day struggle to maintain a decent standard of living. While Afghanistan has never had a high standard of public services, the basic amenities of everyday life have deteriorated during the last nine years of war. Electricity is sporadic, the post office does not function, banks don't work, governmental ministries are corrupt and incompetent, and in general basic public services are in disarray. The average Afghan is frustrated and fed up with the current state of affairs.

The people of Afghanistan did not ask for this war, just as they did not ask for the Soviet invasion in 1979, and their lives are the worse for it. According to the United Nations, more than $36 billion of international humanitarian aid has been given to Afghanistan between 2001 and 2009. Yet the standard of living, as measured by the U.N.'s Human Development Index, continues to be one of the lowest in the world. Afghanistan now ranks 181 out of 182 countries on this index, which measures quality of life, literacy, educational attainment and income growth. This may be because more than half of this foreign aid has gone to strengthen the Afghan police and military rather than to the public services for which it was intended.

I have lost a number of good friends in this war. I can remember the young Afghan intellectual Hakim Taniwal, whom I met and worked with in Peshawar, Pakistan, in the 1980s. This gentle scholar voluntarily returned to Afghanistan in 2001 to help rebuild the country and agreed to serve as governor of the troubled province of Paktia. A suicide bomber killed him on Sept. 10, 2006. Thousands of other brave and well-intentioned Afghans have perished in this ill-planned war in addition to the thousand-plus American lives lost.

With the military campaign going badly, options are limited. One tactic may be to bring elements of the Taliban into the government. Despite American skepticism, this solution could work. The Afghans do not view this war through the same ideological lens as it is viewed in the West. To many Afghans this war is not an epic battle between East and West but a tribal and ethnic struggle to determine which tribe or ethnic groups will control Afghanistan. Afghans understand tribal warfare; it has been common in Afghanistan for hundreds of years. Bringing warring tribes into the government is a common solution to tribal conflicts.

This does not mean that bringing the Taliban into the fold will be easy or accepted by all Afghans. It will increase the Pushtun presence in Kabul. For the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Harazas, the groups that led the Northern Alliance in ridding Afghanistan of the Taliban, any inclusion of the Taliban in the Afghan power structure will be an anathema. During its reign in Kabul, the Taliban slaughtered a number of non-Pushtun people, especially the Shia Hazara. Including the Taliban in the government in Kabul will also provide an entry into Afghanistan of its long-time enemy Pakistan.

The end will not be pretty. Those of us old enough to remember Vietnam saw America beat a hasty and inglorious retreat with  the lingering images of Americans being flown out of Vietnam hanging from the rope ladder of a military helicopter. Yet three and a half decades later, Vietnam is a developing nation generally embraced in the world of nations. Portland State University, my employer, has partnered with Intel and now offers programs in Vietnam.

I am not suggesting that the end of our involvement in Afghanistan will be similar or that Afghanistan will soon be better for it. Even now, I am conflicted about whether the invasion was justified. What I do hope is that we will emerge from this war with greater appreciation of the complexities of interjecting ourselves in the affairs of a place like Afghanistan, where tribe and ethnicity matter more than government in the lives of the people.
Grant Farr is associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Portland State University. He has traveled to Afghanistan for research and has lived in the country for many years, originally as a Peace Corps volunteer fresh out of the University of Washington.