Should we get out of Afghanistan?
Imperialism, in general, is a tough business. Even with good intentions—reform, rebuild, bring democracy, modernize, civilize, liberate, pick up the white man’s burden.
There is a classic sequence. A rebel group commits violent acts. The occupying power reacts with force. This alienates the population. If it doesn’t, the rebels push until they get the reaction they need. The rebellion grows.
Since the Second World War imperialism has become increasingly difficult. It is especially difficult if the occupier is ethnically, religiously, and culturally different than the locals. It doesn’t matter if the foreign power is there by “invitation,” as the Russians were in Afghanistan and the US was in Vietnam.
But an occupation is tough. It can only succeed in a state that is contiguous, as Chechnya is to Russia and Tibet is to China. Success demands utter ruthlessness, secret police, assassinations, the murder of civilians, leveling neighborhoods and sometimes entire cities. Open societies like ours find that hard to tolerate.
Afghanistan, in particular, is a tough place to run an occupation.
Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire in six months.
But it took him three years to conquer Afghanistan. He only settled things by taking an Afghan bride, then moving on.
In the 19th century, at the height of their imperial power, Great Britain fought two wars against the Afghans. The first time, the Afghans destroyed an entire British army. The second time, the English attained a limited victory. They put a puppet on the throne who gave them control of Afghanistan’s foreign policy—to keep the Russians out—but otherwise withdrew from the country.
In 1978, an indigenous Marxist group took power in Afghanistan.
Their goal was to modernize: liberate women, change marriage customs, abolish usury, and cancel farmers’ debts. These things upset many of the Afghan people and an insurgency began.
Early in 1979, the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan asked the Soviet Union for help. The Russians were obligated by a treaty, and, with some reluctance, sent advisors. The situation deteriorated, and at the end of the year, Soviet troops entered the country.
The Russians were tough. The Russians were ruthless. They carpetbombed, bull dozed, and deployed land mines. Over 1,000,000 Afghans died, 1,200,000 were disabled, 3,000,000 were maimed or wounded, and 5,000,000 fled the country.
In spite of all that, the Soviet Union, withdrew, defeated, 10 years later.
Over 600,000 of Soviet troops had served, 80,000 to 104,000 at any give time. They had over 14,000 dead, 496,685 were wounded or seriously ill, including 115,308 cases of infectious hepatitis.
Withdrawal was followed by a civil war, which the Taliban won.
Why don’t we get out of Afghanistan?
Estimated number of Al Qaeda members now operating if Afghanistan, according to the US national security advisor: 100.
Number of US troops who would be stationed there if General Stanley McChrystal’s leaked request were granted: 120,000 (Harper’s Index, November, 2009).
So that doesn’t quite make sense.
If Afghanistan goes (where?), then Pakistan goes! And Pakistan has nukes! And that’s really important! When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan and Mullah Omar hosted Osama bin Laden, Pakistan was actually more stable.
Christopher Hitchens says we need a presence in Iraq and Afghanistan to contain Iran! Hah! Take that!
The answer to which is, Huh? Wah?
Would Iran go to war against Iraq? With the memories of the last Iran-Iraq War fresh? Against Afghanistan?
And get into a quagmire like we’re in? Maybe they are that stupid.
Better them than us.
The war in Afghanistan has cost $228 billion dollars (www.costofwar.com), so far. We seem to take one and a half steps back for every step forward.
So why are we there?
The real answer is, we’re embarrassed.
The sole superpower in the world defeated by semiliterate, religious wackos from medieval times? We proved that we could succeed where the Russkies failed! Thus demonstrating our superior superiority! Except we haven’t, quite, yet, and if we withdraw, we’re failures like them and if Obama pulls out then the Republicans will label the Democrats weak war-losers for another 50 years!
It’s the same reason the Russians stayed and the same reason we stayed in Vietnam. The fear of admitting a mistake and the fear of the domestic political consequences of that admission.
How can we get out of Afghanistan?
Get Osama bin Laden.
Nobody seems to remember, but this whole thing started with a small gang, led, we’ve been told, by Osama bin Laden, who hijacked planes and flew them into the World Trade Center and who hoped to commit more such heinous acts.
We asked the Afghans for bin Laden. The Taliban was willing to turn him over to another country for trial, but not to the United States.
So we invaded.
Even before we commenced hostilities, the goals had shifted. To launch a global war on terrorism and, specifically, to invade Iraq.
Let’s go back to basics.
Osama bin Laden conspired to commit mass murder. He deserves to get got. That’s a legitimate target and a legitimate mission.
It’s hard to believe that for $20 billion or $40 billion or $228 billion, with all the resources of the US Armed forces and the intelligence services of all the Western countries, we can’t get him. If that’s what we want to do.
In any case, it is an achievable objective.
Making Afghanistan a stable, democratic, Western friendly country, instead of a narco-state, or an oppressive theocracy, or a divisive collection of squabbling tribes, is probably not an achievable objective.
President Obama should call in his generals and intelligence chiefs and say, “Get this guy.” If they can’t, then he should fire them like President Lincoln used to do, until he finds the General Ulysses S. Grant who can get the job done.
If they can’t do it, then, yes, the entire US military and intelligence establishment is a failure.
If they can do it, it’s a success.
It makes the essential statement that has not been made all these years, that America cannot be attacked with impunity.
Then we can say that’s why we came, it’s done, and withdraw. Without embarrassment.