‘Mowing the Grass’ in Afghanistan

Mowing the grass is the term frustrated soldiers use to describe the war in Afghanistan. America and its NATO allies sweep in and clear an area. But, once they leave, the Taleban creep back like weeds in the lawn and the allies have to mow it all 
over again.

By H D S Greenway

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Published: Mon 8 Mar 2010, 9:52 PM

Last updated: Thu 2 Apr 2015, 10:25 AM

The Soviets felt the same frustration. Their firepower was superior, but they were never able to keep the Mujahideen from growing back.

So it was with the British who kept mowing the Afghan grass for the better part of 100 years — sending armies in again and again, but never to lasting effect.

It is ever thus with these kinds of wars. Think of the Israelis who have been mowing the Palestinian grass for more than 40 years, with the last major cutting in Gaza in 2007.

In Indochina, Americans churned over the same area again and again for more years than it took armies and navies to sweep across Europe and the Pacific in WWII, but, as it was for the French before them, never succeeding in keeping the grass trimmed. The battle for the Afghan town of Marja is being hyped as if it were the battle of Stalingrad.

There was never doubt that NATO would force the Taleban out. A contemporary British account of frontier in the last century said of the Pashtun-fighting man: “When he stayed and defended something, whether a gun or a village, we trapped him and pulverised him. When he flitted and sniped, rushed and ran away, we felt we were using a crowbar to swat wasps.’’

General Stanley McCrystal wants to put an end to grass mowing. He plans to hold Marja and has brought in his ready-made Afghan “government in a box.’’ Can it last?

And what of other Marjas? Since it would take a foreign army of many hundreds of thousands to stand on every blade of grass — a force level we will never see — the war will continue. Part of the problem is the very nature of Afghanistan, driven by ethnic, tribal, and linguistic rivalries.

It is governed best when it is decentralised, playing to its strengths rather than its weaknesses. But the United States and NATO have tried to build a highly centralised state, lumping regional commanders together and ignoring tribal differences.

This is beginning to shift. Americans now flirt with the concept of paying off local anti-Taleban tribesmen without going through the Kabul government — “bribe a tribe,’’ as the British did. But this has its own dangers, undercutting efforts to make Hamid Karzai into something more than the president of Kabul.

At a conference in Camden, Maine, Pakistan’s Ahmed Rashid, who literally wrote the book on the Taleban, pointed out that despite all their differences no Afghan leader of any ethnic group has called for the breakup of Afghanistan — unlike Pakistan where, after 60 years, “there is no consensus on Pakistan’s identity.’’

But anthropologist and former diplomat in Afghanistan, Whitney Azoy, said that many of the Uzbek minority think of Afghans as being Pashtuns who pushed them out of the valleys into the hills.

The same is true of many Hazaras, according to Azoy. This makes it difficult to form a national Afghan army whereas the Taleban are almost all Pashtuns. “I hope I am wrong,’’ Azoy said, “but I doubt that Afghanistan has the DNA of sustainable nationhood.’’

Part of Afghanistan’s tragedy has been that invaders come and go with no interest in Afghanistan for itself. They just want to keep somebody else out. In the “Great Game’’ the British wanted to keep out the Russians.

Later, the Russians wanted to keep Islamists out and Pakistani-American mischief away from their Muslim Republics.

The Americans got involved to force the Russians out, and are now fighting a proxy war against the Taleban to keep Al Qaeda out.

Afghanistan has lived too long with a buffer state economy. The British subsidised their chosen Afghan leaders. So did the Russians, and now it’s the Americans and other foreigners who are paying the bills. Has dependency entered Afghanistan’s DNA, and will grass-mowing always be the fate of foreign armies?

H D S Greenway is a Boston-based commentator and columnist of Boston Globe

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