AFGHANISTAN has proved to be the graveyard of armies and empires for centuries. Invading Afghanistan doesn’t work. Just ask Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, the British Empire and the Russians for an informed view on fighting in Afghanistan. Two millennia ago, Alexander the Great took one look and moved swiftly on.
The present war in Afghanistan has been rumbling on and off ever since the USSR tried a palace coup in 1979 and became snared in a long-running insurgency with the CIA-backed Mujadiheen. Gorbachev tried a massive increase in Soviet troops to end the war quickly. However, that didn't work. (Sounds familiar?) By 1988 Moscow realised the war was causing unacceptable casualties while damaging the USSR’s failing economy and withdrew, defeated. The last Soviet troops left Afghanistan in 1989. Around 13,000 Soviet troops were killed and over one million Afghans died, mostly civilians. Around five million Afghans fled to Pakistan or Iraq as the war destroyed much of the country's infrastructure, leaving the country as one of the poorest nations in the world.
Into this vacuum poured the fanatics of the Taliban (roughly translated: “students”) – Islamic warriors for God. They ejected Afghanistan's warlords and imposed order with harsh Sharia law, banning music and forcing women to wear head-to-toe coverings. In 1996, the Taliban moved on to the capital, Kabul, and encouraged Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda to set up training camps in the country. It was from these that al Qaeda planned their devastating 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre.
The United States retaliated by invading Afghanistan, hounding out the Taliban and chasing al Qaeda into the mountains on the Pakistan border. Bin Laden eventually took sanctuary in Pakistan before his death, and the United States has had a military presence in Afghanistan ever since.
We tend to think of the Nato dead over the last 16 years as mainly Britain’s 453 fatalities and 2,188 wounded in action, plus America’s 1,900 dead and over 20,000 wounded. But others have suffered too: for example, France has had 90 dead and even little Denmark has seen 43 killed in action. Afghanistan still lives up to its bloody historical reputation.
So President Trump’s decision to try to win the long-running war in Afghanistan by committing more US troops has taken many by surprise. The American president spent a lot of time during his election campaign loudly denouncing the US’s efforts in Afghanistan as “a waste of lives and treasure” and vowed to pull the troops out.
The realities of life in the White House appear to have caused him to change his mind. President Trump coupled his pledge with a demand for countries like Britain and America’s Nato allies to do more. It will be hard for Theresa May, bogged down in Brexit, to refuse. The “Special Relationship” depends on British acquiescence – as Bush’s lap dog, the obsequious Tony Blair, was only too happy to demonstrate.
The US president’s stated goals in Afghanistan are different to those of his predecessors. He claims he wants to defeat and exterminate the Taliban, not just stop them from overthrowing the next Afghan government. Political reconciliation and nation-building figure low on the White House’s priorities. America’s aim is now quite openly to kill terrorists and insurgents until they either give up or are destroyed.
The key question is whether this strategic re-orientation will succeed? There are already more than 12,000 Nato-led troops -- more than half of them American – in Afghanistan helping to train and advise the unreliable Afghan security forces. A separate counter-terrorism mission of up to 2,000 US special forces, plus British SAS and other troops, is focused specifically on hunting down al Qaeda, IS and the Taliban.
Many disagree with Nato’s new mission. They believe that the "shoot/bomb everyone who gets in the way” approach cannot guarantee peace and stability. The allies established Camp Bastion, brought an area under control at the cost of dead soldiers, then pulled out, leaving the Taliban warlords to flood back in, as they have done many times before. Russia made a similar mistake when trying to resolve the Afghanistan problem. Imposing our way of life on the murderous tribesmen of Helmand Province, let alone the rest of Afghanistan, has proved not to work.
The reasons why are many and complex, ranging from the cultural to the historic. The Pashtu tribesmen have a harsh code of vengeance; “kill my brother or cousin and I will kill you back”, is their rule. Every dead Pashtu is an excuse for a life-long vendetta. Any bombed family mistakenly slaughtered by a drone attack becomes the trigger for a lifetime tribal quest for retribution. In vengeance, the Pashtu make the Sicilian Mafiosi look like amateurs.
And the Pashtu have long memories too; many Welsh Guardsmen deployed to Afghanistan in 2011 were appalled to learn that the local Pashtu elders saw their presence in Helmand merely as a continuation of Britain’s failed Imperial expeditions of 1844, 1869 and 1919. For the blood-thirsty warriors of Afghanistan’s north-western provinces they were all part of the same long war against the British.
The problem is that the allies just don't have the ruthlessness, political will, or endless timescales of their enemies. Experience shows that we cannot win, because the Taliban cannot be flushed out, and our own populations at home will eventually grow tired of seeing the body bags rolling in funereal processions from RAF Brize Norton yet again. The best we can hope for is containment and isolation. To the pessimists, any permanent presence merely implies permanent targets for the Taliban, not a lasting peaceful solution.
General David Petraeus, who defeated the insurgency in Iraq after the US-led invasion, believes otherwise. He has compared the latest American decision to station US forces permanently in Afghanistan as similar to the presence of American forces in South Korea ever since the Korean war, or in Europe during the Cold War. He told the Times: “The analogy with Afghanistan isn’t perfect, given that is a true shooting war, but when we have had significant national interests at stake . . . I think that is why a sustained commitment [in Afghanistan] is important here but also why that has to be sustainable.” Petraeus “wouldn’t hazard a prediction” on how long Nato forces would be in Afghanistan, but indicated that the 16-year war, America’s longest, was going to last a long time. “This is not the fight of a decade, much less a few years,” he said. “We are engaged in a generational struggle.”
A generational war? That sounds both ominous and a source of future woes. While post-WWII history indicates that the US economy needs a permanent war somewhere to keep the military industrial establishment and the shareholders of Wall Street, General Dynamics and Lockheed happy; others do not share this view. While “a nice little war” keeps the British army’s budget safe from the Treasury’s endless quest for defence cuts, Britain and her allies simply cannot sustain an indefinite war without closure. Public opinion will tolerate only so much. What have Afghanistan’s problems got to do with the disgruntled council taxpayers of Arbroath?
The possible future outcome therefore looks gloomy. American colonisation and a permanent garrison in Afghanistan will invariably be a costly venture, both in blood and treasure. Whether it will pacify the Pashtu is problematic; experience indicates not. War-torn, primitive Afghanistan is not prosperous South Korea. The big danger is that this will turn out to be another Vietnam, because for the Mujahideen Afghanistan will always be their home turf.
The conclusion is that America’s new policy in Afghanistan will turn out at best to be a long bloody war of what amounts to colonial attrition; at worst it will eventually end in ignominious retreat, just like Vietnam.
The omens are not good.
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