RESTREPO chronicles the deployment of a platoon of US soldiers at one of the most dangerous outposts in Afghanistan. This amazing documentary depicts a sad microcosm of that never ending struggle and how it effected a small group of US soldiers and their loved ones. Taking a 100,000-foot view is philosophical, but seeing the brutal reality of it grinding away at ground level is not.
We are still struggling in Afghanistan and now it increasingly appears that Russia may be arming the Taliban against the most recent quasi-stable government in Kabul -- one that we have supported since the US Invasion deposed the Taliban -- just as we armed the Mujaheddin against the Soviets and the regime they supported during the Soviet Invasion in late 1979.
The US has been at war in Afghanistan for 16 years and counting (the longest running war in US history by a wide margin — now under a third US President) with no end in sight. With the exception of the brief and brutal period of Taliban fundamentalist Islamic government following the Soviet withdrawal and the end of a brutal civil war that filled the power vacuum, Afghanistan has continually been at war since the 1978 communist coup. But the roots go back 5 more years to 1973 (I was 11 years old when this started) when Daoud Khan overthrew the feudal Monarch (his older cousin) in a bloodless coup and declared himself President of a Democratic Republic.
The feudal system created order by recognizing legitimacy of minor war lords (tribal chieftains more correctly) and their mountainous territories and strongholds, in exchange for homage and fealty to the Crown in Kabul. They met in a Loya Jirga to debate and decide the fate of their system and to endorse succession in the Monarchy (no divine right of Kings). Old fashioned, but effective, given the primitive circumstances on the ground in that complex geography.
Zahir Shah was, by common telling, a “good King”. Daoud was idealistic and thought he could drag Afghanistan into modernism. The sudden alienation of vassals and traditions, immediately resulted in a breakdown of the fragile order the Monarchy had managed, and within a few years, Daoud was overthrown and assassinated during a coup by a conjoined communist party (that also proposed to drag Afghanistan into modernity through Stalinistic methods). This provoked insurgency by the spurned vassals who entirely rejected the new regime and the never ending modern nightmare of Afghanistan began.
Two generations of men have been born and raised under arms. A third generation is starting. They know nothing but war. War without end. War funded by others and by opium cultivation. A few million people (the total figure is uncertain by plus or minus one million) have died in conflict since then, the majority of them have been non-combatants. Afghanistan is a small and extremely mountainous country that is sparsely populated mostly by traditional Islamic tribes. They have genes, religion and usually language in common. They are tough and self-directing people, befitting their rigorous geography. Their geography enhances their tribal sentiments by providing a natural maze of territories. In Europe, the closest topography is the region of the Alps, the high center of which is Switzerland. A country that even Hitler bypassed as too troublesome to take on.
Switzerland is divided into a Confederacy of many Cantons that are the remnants of small feudal lords (Germanic tribal chieftains). They’ve outlasted and fought off empires (the Romans, the Holy Roman Empire, the Hapsburgs, the Napoleonic Empire). Switzerland has been conquered several times, but never held for long by a central, let alone foreign, power. Only the Confederacy of geographically based Cantons has persisted (each one “democratizing” with modern development).
Unlike Switzerland, which has lots of water and related natural wealth, Afghanistan is arid and austere. It seems unlikely that a central federal or a foreign power can gain and maintain control very long under such conditions. It may be that feudalism is the natural course through which Afghanistan might find enough peace to develop its way out of endless war. But now it threatens to head back into the abyss of a geo-strategic contest between great powers.
I wonder if I will live long enough to see peace restored in Afghanistan and how that might happen. I can’t imagine the horror of being born and raised in the midst of perpetual warfare. Humans are even capable of “normalizing” continuous combat and others seem happy to use their country and its people as a battle ground in a proxy war.
Jon Phillips is a Senior Nuclear Technology Expert at the International Atomic Energy Agency and Director, Sustainable Nuclear Power Initiative at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. The opinions expressed here are his own.