A reality check for Obama in Afghanistan
He's facing pressure to increase US troop levels there. Has Washington learned nothing from the Soviet experience?
OaKton, Va. — History may not repeat itself, but all too often it recycles mistakes. In 1961, before the Vietnam War became full-fledged, former Gen. Douglas MacArthur warned President Kennedy not to fight a land war in Asia. Over the next 14 years, more than 58,000 Americans died as Washington ignored his advice and ramped up operations.
Today, the US is stuck in another land war in Asia: Afghanistan. The original mission was to capture Osama bin Laden, disable Al Qaeda, remove the Taliban, and keep the country from being a safe haven for terrorists. After seven years of fighting, hundreds of dead US soldiers and thousands more wounded, those objectives have not been met.
And now the US wants to double down, adding as many as 30,000 additional US troops there to get the job done.
Sharp lessons from the Soviets
It's unfathomable that Washington learned so little from the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, which ended in an ignominious retreat followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union three years later. The Soviets lost 15,000 soldiers.
In the brief honeymoon after the collapse of communism in the early 1990s, US and Russian intellectuals and officials met to analyze the Afghan war and concluded it would have required 750,000 to 1 million Soviet troops to subdue Afghanistan. But Moscow never deployed more than 100,000 troops in Afghanistan at any one time. The Soviets discovered they could win battles but never hold more than a few cities in a country the size of Texas.
The United States now has 33,000 troops in Afghanistan. Even if President Obama agrees to double that amount, the effort will be wasted. Half a million US troops might not be enough. It wasn't in Vietnam. Mr. Obama needs to recognize that hesitation to expand the war in Afghanistan has nothing to do with will or cowardice and everything to do with wisdom.
The totalitarian Soviets lacked the political will to deploy three quarters of a million troops. Kremlin mossbacks knew even the docile Russian populace of the Communist era wouldn't buy it. In 1979, when the ruling Politburo reluctantly decided to send in the troops, it was bitterly opposed by the chief of staff, Marshal of the Army Nikolai Ograkov. He flatly first told then-Defense Minister Dimitri Ustinov and later party leader Leonid Brezhnev that a war in Afghanistan would be a huge mistake. So controversial was the decision to commit Russian forces that only a handful of senior members of the ruling Politburo participated. In the end, those elders chose to go in, primarily because they feared the US was trying to destabilize Afghanistan and sew it into the West's patchwork encirclement of the Soviet Union.
It took nine years before Moscow concluded that its war in Afghanistan was a mistake. After the cold war, Russia declassified documents on Afghanistan and the West learned that on more than a dozen occasions between March of 1979 and the December invasion, Brezhnev refused to intervene despite destabilization of the Soviet Union's southern border.
As a correspondent based in Moscow in the 1980s, I made several trips into Afghanistan with the Soviets. When I returned to Moscow, my Russian office manager asked me what it was like there. Waxing enthusiastic, I told her, "It was magnificent, straight out of Kipling and the 19th century." Her blue Slavic eyes narrowed. "No, Walt, you are wrong. Afghanistan is the 14th century."
After 9/11, when hordes of reporters traveled to this mystical, medieval land, the recommended reading was historical fiction of the late George MacDonald Fraser's first "Flashman" volume on the Anglo-Afghan War of 1839-1842. The entire retreating British column of upwards of 16,000 men, women, and children – save for one survivor – was wiped out by the forefathers of those who drove the Soviets out 150 years later. Obama would be well advised to read "Flashman" and realize how little Afghanistan has changed.
It would be delusional to expect any American expeditionary force to liberate and enlighten Afghans, freeing women from resurgent Taliban. There's an adage familiar to all who worked there: "There only two times an Afghan woman leaves her home: when she gets married and when she dies." Afghanistan is a land polka-dotted in graveyards beyond counting. UNICEF says 20 percent of all Afghan children die before their fifth birthday. The entire US Army will not be able to convert greedy warlords to modernity.
Afghanistan is a feudal quilt of tribes. It's disingenuous to call it a country. It is a failed state, perhaps best babysat by its regional neighbors: Russia, Iran, China, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and India.
Their individual interests and goals in Afghanistan may differ, but none is eager to have a rejuvenated Al Qaeda caliphate led by loose cannons such as Ayman al-Zawahiri or Osama bin Laden, whom they cannot control. If three regional superpowers – India, China, and Russia – opt to sit on the sidelines in their own neighborhood, what logic is there for American intervention from an ocean and continent away?
Even as they request more troops, US generals have acknowledged that an Iraq-style "surge" won't work. "Afghanistan is not Iraq," said Gen. David McKiernan, who leads US and NATO forces in Afghanistan. General McKiernan, who led ground forces in Iraq in 2003, has described Afghanistan as "a far more complex environment than I ever found in Iraq." Today, the Pentagon talks of achieving not victory or lasting democracy but merely progress against militants.
No good options left
There are no good options left after the Bush administration's unnecessary war in Iraq. An increased American intervention in Afghanistan might have been more welcome six years ago. Now it is probably too late. Yet a total American withdrawal from Afghanistan would leave in its wake anarchy and bloodbath. An ugly Taliban triumph would ensue. The Taliban need to be contained, but not exclusively by the US, so Obama must persuade NATO and Afghanistan's near neighbors to play a larger, perhaps dominant, role.
Pakistan can no longer labor under the illusion that it can manipulate events from across the border. If the Pakistanis have learned anything since 9/11, it should be that Afghanistan's growing destabilization increasingly threatens their own society. Imagine for a moment that the Obama administration were to announce a withdrawal from Afghanistan in six months. The regional powers who know their own neighborhood far better than Washington would quickly come up with a formula and the troops to stabilize the failed state. If there is no constituency among these neighbors to "fix" Afghanistan, then the US can no more go it alone than could the Russians.
The resurgent Taliban may be unstoppable. The Bush administration was warned of that four years ago but spent most of its resources instead in Iraq. Still, accommodation with the Taliban, who are brutal and medieval, is not the same as capitulation to bin Laden. Recall that in the late 1990s, the Taliban was initially reluctant to have an Arab-led Islamist jihad waged from Afghanistan. The past seven years of US bombing and war in the countryside have sharply reminded the Taliban that they were better off without bin Laden as a guest. The Sudanese were persuaded of that more than a decade ago.
The idea of creating a secular national army in Afghanistan to fend off the Taliban is not only tardy but smacks of the usual American mind-set of throwing money and advisers at a problem. The Afghan tribes speak Pashto, Dari, Uzbek, and Turkmen with some Baluchi, Pashai, and Nuristani thrown in for good measure. Which language is the Afghan Army going to fight in?
The real challenge to a new Afghan Army, however, is that it is not aflame with the Islamic cohesiveness that fires the Taliban. Until it is, it will be little more than a collection of uninspired, unmotivated militiamen more interested in collecting a monthly American paycheck than in creating a unified nation out of the ashes of 30 years of war.
It is still not clear what Obama thinks other than that, unlike George W. Bush, he says Afghanistan is more central to the war on terror than Iraq. On that he is correct. Washington and Kabul just agreed to a strategic review of the war. Whatever option Obama chooses, he must not risk the same mistake the Soviets made in underestimating the energized power of the Islamic faith. An enlarged American footprint in Afghanistan runs the risk of repeating Russia's fatal miscalculations. War, like politics, is the art of the possible.
Obama must remember that it is intolerable in the eyes of Muslims to be subjugated and occupied by non-Muslims, whether in Iraq or Afghanistan. Western military occupation didn't work for the Crusaders in the Levant, for Napoleon in Egypt, or for the British in Iraq. Obama needs to be mindful of this as he decides whether to expand a war in southwest Asia, a historic graveyard of empires.