John Havelock: Who lost Afghanistan?

commentJanuary 21, 2013 

Who lost Afghanistan? The war is coming to an end. The finale and American discussion of it will both be ugly. The initial goal was, or should have been, to wipe out a terrorist group that had sponsored a spectacularly successful attack on the United States on 9/11. "Mission creep" expanded this goal. Afghanistan must be made safe from border to border, our forces doing good at every turn, winning the "hearts and minds," consolidating American influence while trying, unsuccessfully, to avoid the label "nation building" and the realities nation building represents.

We merged our enemy al-Qaida with "the Taliban," a much larger, local, loose organization of fundamentalists defending a medieval concept of Islam which, while ruling Afghanistan, had given shelter to al-Qaida. We now slowly recognize the strategic error in assuming they were identical. Remember George W's "Mullah Omar and Osama Bin Laden, dead or alive"? Well now, Obama killed Osama, but we need to cut a deal with Omar.

Deal-making follows exasperation with the corruption and commitment lapses of our Afghanistan allies. After all these years of building and training the Afghanistan forces, how can it be that only one battalion out of twenty-three in an army of 200,000 can operate independent of support by U.S. forces? How come a military force that size, supported by a force of 200,000 trained police, backed or led by tens of thousands of American troops, can't decisively beat scattered insurgent forces estimated generously as maybe 40,000? Or, as Americans might put it to our generals, why must we still worry that withdrawing American troops will result in the collapse of the Afghanistan military, police forces and the national government in which we have invested so much in blood and treasure?

There are many reasons. Our forces, with feeling, may first point to the sanctuary provided to the Taliban in our "ally," Pakistan (shades of Cambodia). But that is hardly the most important reason.

Afghanistan has been ruled by warlords for centuries. There has never been a rule of law. Periods of peace have come about through uneasy and shifting alliances and truces among tribes. The people are used to settling disputes by the sword. Corruption, in our terms, is a way of life. The idea that a people with a culture roughly reflecting the culture of the early Middle Ages in the West could be brought round to a rough resemblance of modernity through military invasion was always a fantasy. The Taliban's authoritarian rule, including its treatment of women, is deeply imbedded in a culture subscribed to even by many women. Thousands of Afghanistan men and women share some level of sympathy with Taliban ideology. The Taliban could not operate as they do without this cadre of underground sympathizers.

To the five foot tall ragged-robed Afghanistan peasant with his donkey, the six foot American white or black skinned soldier, enclosed in helmet, goggles, boots and body armor, dismounting from fantastic enclosed vehicles, speaking no understandable language, is to all appearances a menacing visitor from outer space. The Taliban foot soldier, supposedly his enemy, looks like him and prays like him.

Afghanistan commitment to the Americans depends on billions of dollars for soldiers' pay, and billions that trickle down from the American forces and their contractors. The Afghanistan war has enriched the residents of Kabul and some other places beyond life's experience, temporarily. It is a false economy, like Saigon's. What happens when the Americans leave?

Here at home, how will Americans feel, two and three years from now and on, when we are deluged with stories of torched schools, abused women, the compulsory burqa, vengeful torture, mass murder and other atrocities?

If the politicians had not gotten in the way and cut back on the required commitment that the generals said was necessary, we could have won. Who are these politicians? President Obama is not running, but he is a Democrat. The Democrats lost Afghanistan. The presidential and congressional election of 2016 will swirl around questions of fault and recrimination. Good morning Vietnam.

John Havelock briefly toured Vietnam in 1967. He is a former Alaska attorney general.

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