The U.S. misadventure in Afghanistan started in 2001 because Islamic militant training camps supported the 9/11 attacks. Assuming this was a legitimate purpose, we made only a half-assed commitment to the Afghan war for all of the Bush 43 presidency. (Iraq, which played no demonstrable role in the attacks, moved to the front of the line based on the fear of unknown, unproven, and ultimately non-existent weapons of mass destruction.) 


From a historical perspective we should back up. Way up.


Afghanistan has been invaded time and time again throughout history. Some invaders have fared better than others, but ultimately, none in modern times have achieved any long term “victory.”


The whole area of what we now call the “Middle East” has been a region of tribal warfare since the beginning of recorded history. From time to time, various outsiders have invaded the region, temporarily changing the local balance of power, but none have maintained any sort of long term control of the region. The first outsider to achieve any significant “control” of the area was Alexander the Great who took over the entire Persian Empire in about 320 B.C. After he died in 323 B.C., control over the area fell apart again and internecine warfare continued until Arabs attacked from the west in 642. Although they “conquered” the area, they were never able to occupy or control the entire country/region. In 1219, the entire area fell to the Mongols who controlled the area into the 1500’s. For the next 300 years, the area was ruled by local or semi-local rulers. (”Controlled” is misleading. One of the ways rulers maintained their rule was by assassinating their rivals.)


And then the British showed up with all of their notions of Empire. (Not to belabor the point, but that notion generally did not work out so well. In case you haven’t heard, Britain is currently planning to apologize to several hundred thousand [now dead] children who were forcibly sent to Australia and essentially sold into slavery or indentured servitude. [You have to love the British sense of timing. Apologize after every one you are apologizing to is dead.] The British had two goals: (1) to get rid of poor people in Britain; and (2) to maintain white supremacy in an area facing the “yellow threat.”


At the time, Britain was THE world superpower. As they were so fond of saying, “The sun never sets on the British Empire.” Things weren’t so super in Afghanistan. The First Anglo-Afghan War lasted from 1839 to 1842. The Second Anglo-Afghan War lasted from 1878 to 1880. The Third Anglo-Afghan War lasted only a few months in 1919. The fact that the British found it necessary to go back a second and third time (and they are there now in a supporting role) suggests that any “victory” was, at best, fleeting.


The Soviets invaded Afghanistan in 1979 because they were concerned about the “breakaway” republics on its borders decreasing its sphere of influence. (And western powers moving in to areas formerly within their sphere of influence, …………) They stayed there until 1992 when they declared victory and went home (with their tails between their legs.) Is this starting to sound familiar?


In 2001, the U.S. attacked/invaded Afghanistan in retaliation for the 9/11 attacks. Sounds good. Those sonsabitches should pay for what they did. There are two problems with that whole concept. First, we immediately lost sight of the bigger picture, and put all of ort attention on Iraq. (Which had nothing to do with 9/11.) So the real sonsabitches got very little attention while we fought a war in Iraq to what end? Second, which sonsabitches are we after? It isn’t the Afghani people as a whole, it’s the extremists who populated the Al Queda training camps and actually supported the 9/11 attacks. (Which is a little bitty teeny tiny chunk of the Afghan population.)


The “goal” in Afghanistan is to establish a strong central government which can/will exercise control over the hinterlands. Let’s be very clear – ain’t ever gonna happen. “Afghanistan” is a bunch of lines on a map. In the real world, there is no such place. Afghanistan is a big piece of land where every village is controlled by a single clan or tribe. There may be some sense of order in the major cities, but that sense of order stops at the city limits. By and large, the Afghan people do not and have never answered to a central government in Kabul (or anywhere else). When the British and Soviets invaded, the tribes adopted the “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” approach and suspended their inter-tribal warfare until the infidels went away.


Here’s a little point of reference. Guess what the longest war in U.S. history is. Afghanistan. And where do we stand? Eight years in and are we any where near “victory?” And this is the really scary part – our leaders can’t even define victory, much less explain in any comprehensible way how or when we will achieve victory. They are actually changing the terminology. More recently we are not trying to “win”, we are trying to achieve “success”, whatever that may be. Even more recently, President Obama has proclaimed that we will “finish the job” in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the “job” is to make sure that Al Qaeda can’t regroup and reform and become a threat to the U.S. The only way to make sure that won’t/can’t happen is to maintain a significant military presence in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future. (Which means it isn’t going to be over anytime soon.)


Guess what. History has a terrible habit of repeating itself. Britain, the greatest superpower of its time, suffered huge losses in Afghanistan. (In the first Anglo-Afghan war, tribesmen with homemade rifles laid siege to Kabul and during the siege and subsequent retreat killed 16,000 British and their hangers on.) The Soviets, one of the two superpowers of the time, spent ten years in Afghanistan fighting the mujahadeen to a standstill and then left. What’s changed? At the end of the day, not much. We have better toys than the British and the Soviets (who had the most advanced weapons of their time), but in the final analysis, we are in the same basic position – we have a bunch of high tech stuff which has limited utility in fighting a loosely organized but seriously devoted group of fighters in hard core mountainous terrain.


One other small detail, Afghanistan is once again the leading producer of opium on the planet. The Taliban did a better job of controlling opium production. Why? The U.S. isn’t even trying to control opium production. Why not? It’s simple. There isn’t anything else that provides the same return to the farmers (and drug lords.) Another small “victory.”


Not to make you wet your pants, but as much of a nightmare Afghanistan is, Pakistan is far worse. They have nuclear weapons. (60+/-.) If everything goes to hell in a handbasket, we could have a bunch of tribal leaders (or Islamic fundamentalists, or who knows) in control of nuclear weapons. Not to worry, their rockets can’t reach the U.S., but they can damn sure reach India (their perpetual enemy) and Israel (their newer perpetual enemy) and at least most of the Middle East and Southern Europe. I’m not a huge fan of crazy people having handguns, much less nuclear weapons.


So where does this leave us? Without overwhelming brute force, Afghanistan is not governable as a “country.” Are we willing to make that brute force commitment? Should we make that commitment? How long are we willing to make that commitment? Five years? Ten? We have been in Korea for over 50 years. Afghanistan isn’t Korea. In Korea, we face off against those commie bastards across a demilitarized zone, but we don’t actually shoot at each other. (And haven’t in decades. Same goes fo Cuba.) Last I heard, things aren’t that simple in Afghanistan.

 Michael Baumer


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by Michael Baumer