Afghanistan - the Next Disaster
By Saul Landau
31 January to 05 February Issue 2008
After six plus years, the war in Afghanistan drags on. The media occasionally cites casualties, but if it doesn't involve National Football League veteran Pat Tillman's execution by his own comrades, Afghanistan gets sparse attention. A few stories feature the growing number of Afghan and Iraq War vets on American streets. But the aspiring candidates ignore such "blowback." Instead, they demonstrate verbal aggression, a characteristic thought necessary for victory. "We've got to get the job done there [Afghanistan]," Barack Obama asserted without specifying what the "job" is. (AP, Aug 14, 2007)
Obama called for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq and sending them to "the right battlefield," Afghanistan and Pakistan. To pressure Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf to act against terrorist training camps, Obama would use military force - if he became President - against those "terrorists holed up in those mountains who murdered 3,000 Americans." (Bloomberg, Aug 1, 2007)
In mid January, Bush dispatched 3,200 additional marines to Afghanistan. Curiously, the uncurious media didn't ask why U.S. and NATO forces continue to fight there. Nation Building? With little or no budget for reconstructing the country?
Junior partners, the British leaders, haven't learned lessons any better than their Yankee counterparts. Defense Minister Des Browne predicted British troops could stay there for "decades." Did he not learn that from 1839 to 1842 British troops fought in Afghanistan so they could take that sphere away from Russia? Now, NATO makes war there, says Browne, to insure that it would not again "become a training ground for terrorists threatening Great Britain."
In the 19th Century, the British Empire suffered disastrous losses when it invaded Afghanistan and erected a puppet regime in Kabul - just as the United States did (Hamid Karzai) after Bush's 2001 invasion. The puppet fell quickly when the British could not quell resistance. By 1842, Afghan mobs attacked Englishmen who remained in Kabul. The British army retreated toward India, its officers believing they had negotiated safe passage. Afghan "insurgents" slaughtered some 16,000 English soldiers.
In 2001, the British and other NATO forces marched in to capture or kill Osama Bin Laden and overthrow the Taliban. Six plus years later, Bin Laden remains hidden - probably in Pakistan - and the Taliban have returned to Afghanistan to mount a major insurgency in areas they once controlled. In addition, Afghani farmers have produced bumper opium crops that end up as heroin in western cities and profits for the Taliban leaders who tax the growers. Like its British-backed predecessor, the U.S. puppet government in Kabul controls virtually no territory.
Browne omitted that terrorists have found training grounds elsewhere - in English cities, for example, and on the web. They can buy from hardware or agricultural stores - lest anyone forget where the Christian Oklahoma bombers (pre 9/11) got their explosives. The U.S. army provided training to Timothy McVeigh, convicted and executed for his role in the Oklahoma City explosion. Those bombers didn't need Afghanistan; nor did the fiends who blasted the Madrid train station, or the killers who hit the London underground. European and U.S. cities offer ample meeting places and the U.S. and British armed forces have taught hundreds of thousands of young men and women to kill with efficiency.
The Russians had also failed to grasp lessons of fighting a people determined to resist. Approximately 15,000 Red Army soldiers died from 1979 until 1988 when the Soviets withdrew. The humiliation speeded the implosion of the Soviet Union.
Bush ignored these facts as well as centuries of experience when he ordered the invasion of Afghanistan. Indeed, the lack of success in Afghanistan has not stopped the major presidential candidates from pledging to stay the course there. Wars of choice in Korea, Vietnam and now Iraq have shown that Americans and their European junior partners don't easily tolerate taking casualties abroad, especially in wars their leaders cannot successfully explain.
The overwhelming sentiment against Iraq will turn to Afghanistan as casualty rates continue or accelerate. Yes, the Taliban government harbored Bin Laden and offered training to would-be militants but, ask millions of people, which country supplied the funds for the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan? Saudi Arabia, our dear and loyal ally! Who paid for the madrasas (religious schools) where the young Afghan boys and teens learned their religious ideology - including beating an effigy of George Bush I - and got military training?
Pakistan - another ally - not only hosted the madrasas, but offered Bin Laden and gang ample protection before and after 9/11. Bush chose to hit Afghanistan and Iraq, countries whose involvement was secondary or non-existent. No major candidate addresses this issue. The press screams the question every day - through its silence.
As additional U.S. marines land they will discover in Afghanistan that the old tribal forces continue to struggle for power. The largest, the Pashtuns, have shown sympathy to the Taliban. Some tribal leaders or their fathers received CIA aid during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. They used none of it to build the country, but rather fought with each other in the post Soviet era and made it possible for the Taliban to enter and take control.
Key Pakistani generals promoted the Taliban in the early 1990s, and their zealous brand of Islam spread deeply inside their country, including within military and intelligence circles. When assassins struck Benazir Bhutto on December 27, they delivered a severe body blow to secular government.
The tribal forces unleashed by "Charlie Wilson's War (it was really Ronald Reagan's and CIA Chief William Casey's war to weaken the Soviet Union) had no interest in changing Afghanistan into a modern democracy; another dependable cog in the big wheel of corporate globalization.
Bush's neo con advisers, however, threw "democracy" at the public much as TV preachers intone Jesus while offering to cure their flock's ailment with a little pressure from silver-crossed palms blessed by God. They had no plans to transform this ancient land and people into poorer carbon copies of themselves.
Afghans have proved more resistant to Western efforts to change their old life into one of a consumer society than new bacteria are to antibiotics. William Pfaff in an excellent January 16 column quotes Rory Stewart, head of the Turquois Mountain Foundation in Kabul. The United States and its western allies "should accept that we don't have the power, knowledge or legitimacy to change those societies."
Stewart noted that "War has eroded social structures and entrenched ethnic suspicion....Power is in the hands of tribal leaders and militia commanders. Much of Afghanistan is barren and most people cannot read or write....The local population is at best suspicious of our actions." Stewart claimed that in at least one province, Helmand, "...it is more dangerous for foreign civilians than it was two years ago before we deployed our troops." (Jan. 16, 2008, Tribune Media Services) Bush's argument relies on fear, not fact. If the Taliban retakes control, the West would be threatened.
The Taliban will remain after the West grows weary of this enigmatic war. Paddy Ashdown, the UN's new envoy to Afghanistan, warned: "We are losing in Afghanistan - and rather than militarily, we are losing the political mission - and in large part we are losing because there has been a complete failure of the international community to co-ordinate its efforts."
That failure, he continued "relies on the fact that we believe, for some bizarre reason, that we have such a unique system of government in our own countries - by the way, not a view shared by many of our citizens - that we believe we have a right to impose it lock, stock and barrel, along with the values and everything that goes along with it, on other countries with the use of B-52s, tanks and rifles." (Doug Saunders, Globe and Mail, January 17, 2008)
Little thought or planning preceded Bush's order to invade and occupy Afghanistan. The war makers assumed their traditional omnipotence, that from noble intentions (or rhetoric) a stable and prosperous nation would somehow develop. It didn't happen, but the Taliban returned, and gained strength and confidence. Bush responds by dispatching more US forces, already overstretched and overstressed, to bring force into a place where it has traditionally proven ineffective.
Before the next appropriation, Members of Congress and the media might read a few verses of Rudyard Kipling on older wars in that region:
"And after - ask the Yusufzaies What comes of all our 'ologies.
A scrimmage in a Border Station - A canter down some dark defile - Two thousand pounds of education Drops to a ten-rupee jezail - No proposition Euclid wrote, No formulae the text-books know, Will turn the bullet from your coat, Or ward the tulwar's downward blow Strike hard who cares - shoot straight who can - The odds are on the cheaper man." ("Arithmetic on the Frontier")
Saul Landau is an Institute for Policy Studies Fellow and author of A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD. His new film, WE DON'T PLAY GOLF HERE is available on DVD.