During the fall of 2001, what Americans expected, bolstered by overconfident leadership, was a quick war that removed the Taliban from power and captured or killed its leaders, as well as the complete destruction of al Qa'ida and its leadership, to include one Osama bin Laden. That hope ended in Nov. and Dec. 2001 at a place called Tora Bora as a direct consequence of one of the most egregious tactical errors by American forces in over 150 years, click here
George W. Bush is scheduled to leave office in a matter of a few weeks. In a statement of pure irony, Bush will soon be gone; Tony Blair is long gone; and Osama bin Laden remains at his post.
Unfortunately, there are some other unpleasant historical facts to consider. The reality is that Afghanistan is a land that defeated Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, the British Empire, as well as the aforementioned Soviet Union. In the latter case, the Soviet defeat contributed to the collapse of their government a few short years later. The Soviet Union deployed 160,000 troops in Afghanistan. Despite being strengthened by 200,000 soldiers of the Afghan Communist Army, this impressive force was unable to crush the Afghan resistance. Today, after seven years, reality is the war rages on and the Taliban and al Qa'ida are more virulent than ever, operating from their bases in Pakistan's tribal areas in the Northwest Frontier Provinces. Reality is, high tech war machines do not work in Afghanistan as we keep bombing wedding parties, friendly Afghan troops, and a friendly sovereign nation that just happens to be on our side, theoretically speaking, Pakistan. Reality is our President-in-waiting wants to double the number of American troops in Afghanistan from 30,000 to 60,000, which reminds me of a card game called Blackjack where one can double down. Reality is, recently, American supply routes from ports in Pakistan then through the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan have been endangered. As a consequence, today, we either face reality or reality will doom us.
Anand Gopal, Tom Dispatch, reports that there is this valley in Logar Province, 20 minutes south of Kabul. In this valley "the American-backed government of Afghanistan no longer exists." He goes on to say, "The police say they don't dare enter these districts, especially at night when the guerrillas rule the roads. In some parts of the country's south and east, these insurgents have even set up their own government, which they call the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (the name of the former Taliban government). They mete out justice in makeshift Sharia courts. They settle land disputes between villagers. They dictate the curricula in schools."
Gopal then adds, "Just three years ago, the central government still controlled the provinces near Kabul. But years of mismanagement, rampant criminality, and mounting civilian casualties have led to a spectacular resurgence of the Taliban and other related groups. Today, the Islamic Emirate enjoys de facto control in large parts of the country's south and east. According to ACBAR, an umbrella organization representing more than 100 aid agencies, insurgent attacks have increased by 50% over the past year. Foreign soldiers are now dying at a higher rate here than in Iraq." Indeed, 2008 is the deadliest year for American forces since the war began.
Gopal continued, "It wasn't always this way. When U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban government in November 2001, Afghans celebrated the downfall of a reviled and discredited regime. 'We felt like dancing in the streets,' one Kabuli told me. As U.S.-backed forces marched into Kabul, the Afghan capital, remnants of the old Taliban regime split into three groups. The first, including many Kabul-based bureaucrats and functionaries, simply surrendered to the Americans; some even joined the Karzai government. The second, comprised of the movement's senior leadership, including its leader Mullah Omar, fled across the border into Pakistan, where they remain to this day. The third and largest group -- foot soldiers, local commanders, and provincial officials -- quietly melted into the landscape, returning to their farms and villages to wait and see which way the wind blew."
What makes this guerilla war so difficult for NATO forces is that nothing is simple in Afghanistan, no single force we can call an enemy. Or it is simplicity itself that is so daunting. "Who exactly are the Afghan insurgents? Every suicide attack and kidnapping is usually attributed to 'the Taliban.' In reality, however, the insurgency is far from monolithic. There are the shadowy, kohl-eyed mullahs and head-bobbing religious students, of course, but there are also erudite university students, poor, illiterate farmers, and veteran anti-Soviet commanders. The movement is a mélange of nationalists, Islamists, and bandits that fall uneasily into three or four main factions. The factions themselves are made up of competing commanders with differing ideologies and strategies, who nonetheless agree on one essential goal: kicking out the foreigners." Gopal. Basically, Gopal reports, the Taliban is still a Pashtun tribal movement, but the Pashtuns exert little or no influence on other Afghan tribes, primarily the Tajiks and Hezaras. Also, the Taliban's ideology is undergoing a transformation to win over the hearts of Afghan peoples, permitting music and parties, even the acceptance of girls' education, practices absolutely forbidden under the old Taliban regime. Unfortunately, not all field commanders follow the new edicts, relying on the old ways.
To make matters more complicated, there are multiple Talibans, not just the one ruled by the former ruler of Afghanistan, Mullah Omar. Oops, change that, Omar is now merely a figurehead, and a fella named Mullah Brehadar, a politically savvy leader, is now running the show. According to Gopal, there is the educated Hizb-i-Islami under the leadership of warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. One member stated, "I want to teach the uneducated Taliban." Today, the Hizb-i-Islami is one of the fastest growing groups in the country. "It assisted in a complex assassination attempt on President Karzai last spring and was behind a high-profile ambush that killed ten NATO soldiers this summer. Its guerrillas fight under the Taliban banner, although independently and with a separate command structure."
Then we have the Haqqanis. Gopal says, "Erstwhile CIA hand Jalaluddin Haqqani heads yet a third insurgent network, this one based in Afghanistan's eastern border regions. During the anti-Soviet war, the U.S. gave Haqqani, now considered by many to be Washington's most redoubtable foe, millions of dollars, anti-aircraft missiles, and even tanks. Officials in Washington were so enamored with him that former congressman Charlie Wilson once called him 'goodness personified.'" The Haqqanis are more extreme than their Taliban counterparts, and, unlike their counterparts, they work closely with al Qa'ida.
Adding to the mix, we now have the Pakistani Taliban, called the Tehrik-i-Taliban, which aids the Afghan Taliban. It is under the leadership of an enigmatic guerilla named Baitullah Mehsud. It is generally accepted by Pakistani authorities that this bunch is responsible for masterminding the assassination of presidential candidate, Benazir Bhutto. The Tehrik-i-Taliban are rather powerful, fighting toe-to-toe with Pakistani army units who are not keen on engaging their countrymen.
So there you have it, a montage of Afghanis and Pakistanis, poor and illiterate farmers, reasonable and unreasonable leaders, rival factions, educated elites, and this doesn't take into account the international terrorist organization known as al Qa'ida that started it all. Even Gen. David Petraeus, architect of the allegedly successful strategy in Iraq, recognizes that Afghanistan is not Iraq. It is a far more primitive society, whose people are stridently independent and resistant to the possibility of any central government. Petraeus warned that Afghanistan was going to be the longest campaign of the long war.
What about the people? I do not mean the resistance fighter. I mean the shopkeeper, the poor farmer, the clerk, the common folk, if you will. What do they think? Although there are thousands of responses to that question, I chose one that may be representative. Sarah Chayes is a former National Public Radio reporter who recently wrote an op-ed piece for the Washington Post. She has lived in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan, since shortly after 9/11. She was interviewed on the Bill Moyers Journal, PBS, and I have some of that transcript, courtesy of Michael Winship, a colleague of Moyers. What she said was quite revealing.
She told Moyers that the United States and its NATO allies have had to convince themselves and public opinion in each of their countries that, "this is a democratically elected representative government [in] Afghanistan in order to justify the sacrifices in money and troops. But the Afghans see it differently." What they see instead, she said, is a restoration to power under President Hamid Karzai of the gun-slinging, crooked warlords who were repudiated when the Taliban first started taking over vast parts of the country a few years after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. The "appalling behavior" of officials in the current government, including rampant bribery, extortion and violence, is a serious factor in the Taliban resurgence - it's estimated that they now have a "permanent presence" in 72 percent of the country, according to one think tank, the International Council on Security and Development. Chayes said, "There are people who don't like the Taliban but may kind of knuckle under to them because, on the one hand, the government isn't doing anything better for them. And the Taliban are going to kill them if they don't visibly divide themselves away from the government."
The historical precedence combined with a mountain of evidence to the contrary should create a moment of pause on the part of our leadership in terms of upping the odds on the survival of our brave and irreplaceable troops. I am not privy to the Pentagon's latest strategy to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. However, Americans are fully aware of the past, seven grueling years of war, costing lives and treasure with little apparent results. In point of fact, in striving for the goal of victory in Afghanistan, it is readily apparent that 2008 yielded only negative results.
The Afghan people, if you can call them that as opposed to Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hezaras, Uzbeks, Aimaks, and Turkmen, each of whom have little in common with the others, are without a modicum of "Afghan" nationalism. Each tribe is fiercely independent. Moreover, they have never experienced a strong central government that rules the entire country, not even the Taliban regime. "Afghan" peoples wish to be governed by tribal law, which is local, thus sympathetic to local needs, not a central government in Kabul. It would appear that American officials are totally ignorant of this aspect of Afghan society. Afghan society is not the perfect society, but, then again, what is. While Americans may believe in a Christian-based, strong, federal democratic government that allows for religious freedom, as well as many other freedoms, to other societies, such as the Afghan society, this may be abhorrent. Is it time to provide "Afghans" exactly what they want regardless of consequences? Conversely, what gives America the right to decide what is best for another sovereign nation? Answer: we simply do not have that right. Is it time to give up the ghost of conquest of a people who simply will not be conquered, a tradition that dates back 2,350 years ago? Americans with their own tradition of fierce independence should equate.
Righteous military supporters may argue that I advocate that American forces surrender to Afghan resistance fighters, including the satanic al Qa'ida, the latter a purely odious alternative. That argument is a bit obtuse. Our proud military will never surrender, nor will they be defeated in combat. What I advocate is realism. If we are fighting to provide benefits to the "Afghan people" that they do not want, that is the ultimate in futility.