Pakistan’s army and intelligence service, the ISI. Like the British before them, the Soviets eventually had the good sense to simply quit the place, though instead of finding their own Iron Emir, they left behind a terrible civil war.
The Afghan civil war – which the world did its very best to ignore during the 1990s – was finally ended by the emergence of the Taliban, a group so strict in its adherence to medieval Islam that it was actually welcomed as a solution to corruption, chaos, and 20 years of unending bloodshed. Islam had for a millennium been one of the few unifying factors in Afghanistan (Massoud, the great Tajik hero of the Soviet war, was a very devout Muslim) but it was most pronounced among the borderless Pashtun in the south and east. While the Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Turkmen in northern Afghanistan were familiar with their cousins back in the USSR, and may even have fled from those territories after Lenin’s rise, the Pashtun remain the obdurate, and original, Afghans. The world’s largest surviving tribal group, it is they who continue to make the place unconquerable, if only because of their unyielding refusal to comply with modernism.
The Taliban finally achieved order in Afghanistan, while appalling the rest of the world with its reinstatement of medieval morés; but then one of their few allies, the Arab-led group al Qaeda, launched the most devastating attack in history against the American homeland. We can only speculate at this point, but a good guess is that while al Qaeda did Mullah Omar a favor by assassinating his most obstinate opponent, Massoud, on 9/9/2001, the Taliban had little idea that Osama bin Laden was also planning to bring the United States military against him two days later.
As far as the current invasion of Afghanistan is going – by America and its allies – a poor sign was received on June 15, 2010, when the leader of US Central Command, General David Petraeus, actually fainted at a hearing before his Congressional overseers. For a few years after 2001, the Western (Christian) forces actually had an easy time in the country, while Pashtunistan licked its wounds and thought how to roll back the latest incursion. But with every month’s casualty rate now higher than the month before, the Afghans themselves increasingly disillusioned with the foreign presence, and the Pashtuns in Pakistan (many of whom are in the highest circles of the ISI) increasingly
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The US pulled a cruel trick on the British and Canadians when, in 2006 while dealing with their own self-inflicted crisis in Iraq, they asked their allies to occupy the Pashtun south in a “peacekeeping” role. The Commonwealth troops ran into a buzzsaw, as the Taliban was suddenly resurgent, and the fighting in that part of the country became far more intense than in Iraq.
Ironically, after the fiasco-inclined Texan, George W. Bush, left office, it was decided by his calmer, more peace-loving successor, President Obama, to considerably increase US troop strength in the country. The result was to place many more deaths on Obama’s head than Bush’s, mainly Afghans killed by US troops. But Obama took care to moderate his “surge” with a pre-announced withdrawal date (summer 2011) so that we were encouraged not to worry about history repeating itself. Unfortunately, just this month the Obama braintrust announced that its true withdrawal date had shifted to 2014, when it expected to hand over “responsibility” for the war to the Afghans. But given that country’s history, what is the term “Afghan responsibility” supposed to mean?
The Commonwealth troops ran into a buzzsaw, as the Taliban was suddenly resurgent, and the fighting in that part of the country became far more intense.
Considering the advances in military technology, there is no fear of another Elphinstone disaster, as America, like Britain and the Soviet Union before it, prepares to gradually give up on the project. However, our Muslim foes in that far-off land could still spring an unpleasant surprise—say the knockdown of a transport aircraft with some 200 deaths at a shot. Geopolitical turmoil in Iran, Russia or Pakistan could also mean the disruption of the US/NATO logistics network, isolating our troops against ever-increasing native resentment.
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In this writer’s view, wiping out al Qaeda would suffice, and it should have been done in the first place. Waging war against that small organisation’s proxies – an entire population which had no notion of the 9/11 plot – is pointless. Afghanistan itself is not worth fighting for, even as Western populations become increasingly paranoid (see the latest patterns in airport search procedures) due to a full-fledged war the US itself perpetuates. At best it is an opportunity for the soldiers of the West to once again demonstrate their skill, bravery, and fortitude against steep odds and harsh conditions. No patriot can fail to gain a sense of pride at how our own warriors have performed. (And frankly also that they still exist in such numbers in our affluent societies.)
But Afghanistan is not a good playing field for testing our people’s strength, and it is far better left to the Afghans themselves. The United States and its closest allies must soon learn that certain ancient truths are self-evident, and that the pax Americana, which so gloriously appeared to be pre- eminent immediately after World War II, has since been mismanaged and now appears forlorn in the face of rising power and cultural centres elsewhere around the globe. Peace and mutual respect can certainly be achieved, but the days of forcing such through the agent of American military might alone have certainly come to an end.
It’s not a bad empire, the United States, and it has had better intentions on occasion than most. But to see America now embroiled in the midst of barren Central Asia, in the ancient graveyard of empires, where it has no compelling interest, is if anything a mind- boggling tutorial in the continuity of world history. If not for the tragedy it was also pursuing, America’s following the same path as its predecessors might even be worthy of respect – even as at times we expected quite a bit more from the “New World.”
STEPHEN TANNER is the author of Afghanistan: A Military History from Alexander the Great to the War with the Taliban (2002, 2008) and The Wars of the Bushes: A Father and Son as Military Leaders (2004). He currently lives in Rockville Centre, NY, USA.
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