Afghan Anti-Foreign Sentiment: a Fatal Misconception

Posted By Elise Weinberg, JILP Member, Apr 3, 2012

            It’s time for the United States to leave Afghanistan.  After eight years of being in Afghanistan, the United States finally found the right approach to democratizing Afghanistan, but their past assumptions of the Afghan people have antagonized and disillusioned the very people they intended to help.  In doing so, the United States created the very conditions it assumed existed over ten years ago.  When the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001, it shaped its policies largely on the assumption that the Afghan people were anti-foreign.  In relying on this assumption, the United States created several problems for both itself and Afghanistan.

            Because past countries met local resistance in Afghanistan, the United States prepared resources and manpower to cope with this resistance.  The Soviet Union experienced anti-foreign backlash when it invaded Afghanistan in 1978.  Because of the Soviet experience with the Afghan people, the United States developed a policy that it thought would minimize the Afghan people’s xenophobia.  The Soviet Union’s large presence in Afghanistan was not accepted by the Afghan people.  However, the Afghan people did not reject their large presence because of its size, but because the Soviets would call in artillery and air strikes on villages without warning the inhabitants.  Genuine fraternization between Soviets and Afghans was therefore discouraged.  Instead of trying to win support, the Soviets threatened the civilians.

            There is much evidence that it was how the large presence was used that led the Afghan people to reject it.  Ignoring this evidence, the United States initially decided to have a small presence in Afghanistan.  The reasoning for this was almost too simple and naïve: because the Soviet Union’s large presence failed, the United States should adopt a light footprint policy to minimize an anti-foreign response.  Although the Soviets experienced anti-foreign attitudes, a light footprint policy was not the appropriate response.  The United States completely ignored that it was the Soviets’ threats to the Afghan people that created this so-called anti-foreign response—not merely their large presence.

            Because the United States wanted to prevent large-scale popular resistance, it has kept a small number of troops in Afghanistan.  But small numbers is not how a country achieves population protection—a large footprint is needed for this.  Due to the United States’ light footprint policy, there has been a lack of security forces in Afghanistan.  In response to the lack of security, the Taliban became more accepted as a political leader and the Afghan people began to resist the United States occupation.  In a 2008 report, the Pentagon acknowledged that the insufficient U.S. military trainers inhibit Afghanistan’s police force.  In failing to analyze how the Soviets used or misused their heavy footprint, the United States failed to consider that it was not the heavy occupation itself that caused popular resistance, but how it was used.

            By relying on this assumption, the mission at Tora Bora failed.  In December 2001, American and Afghan forces surrounded Tora Bora where Osama bin Laden was present.  Despite the certainty of Osama bin Laden’s presence, the United States failed to capture him.  In Tora Bora Revisited, Senator Kerry wrote that the reason Osama bin Laden was not captured at Tora Bora was because the United States was concerned that too many U.S. troops in Afghanistan would create an anti-American backlash and fuel a widespread insurgency.

            Partially due to this faulty assumption, the United States remains in Afghanistan today.  Because of its large financial and ground presence, the surge is the right approach.  However, due to the past assumptions, it almost seems too late for even the appropriate policy to succeed.  The United States has antagonized Afghans and has sadly created the very conditions it assumed existed over ten years ago.  This truth is manifested in the Koran burnings, the civilian protests, and the growth of the Taliban in areas where it has never before flourished.