Afghanistan: Compounding Mistakes Made

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The Afghan Trap Revisited: Compounding our Mistakes
by Jack Random
Let’s assume that the group of people who planned and executed the September 2001 attack on America’s institutions of finance, the military and an unknown third target (I would have thought the CIA in Langley, Virginia) were something more capable than idiots. 
Let us assume they had at least a notion of a plan that went beyond hitting us where it hurts.  

The American response to such an attack was not difficult to predict:  We would identify a likely enemy and strike with the awesome might of the world’s most powerful military.  

Our response may have gone beyond what the enemy predicted.  If they had knowledge of the then residents of the halls of power, they could have predicted a war in Iraq. 
Though unrelated to the attack and the attackers, Iraq was a war the White House wanted for reasons as obvious as a solar eclipse.  


They may have known that we would attack Iraq but they were certain that we would attack the nation that unwittingly hosted them:  Afghanistan.  They would have predicted that our zeal to display our awesome powers of destruction would cut short any discussion with the ruling Taliban.  They would have predicted that our pride and stubborn determination would lead us further and further into the Afghan trap where we would awaken years later to find that we can neither go forward nor get out.  

As any foreign power might have told us: there is no winning a war in Afghanistan.  There is only a slow, painful death.  

Our military commanders tell us what they are supposed to tell us.  It is not in their vocabulary to lose a war once it has begun.  They tell us what they need to win tempered by what the public will accept.  Instead of saying we need to exterminate half the Afghan population and annihilate the northern provinces of Pakistan, the commander requests another 30 to 40 thousand troops.  If he gets them have no doubt there will be another request six months down the road and another and another until at length we are in so far we can neither go forward nor get out.  

We are in the process of doing precisely what our attackers wanted us to do.  

But the commanders and their defenders in Washington protest:  The surge will work just as it did in Iraq.  Never in the annals of military history has the truth been so deviously distorted.  When true history is written, it will record that the American occupation forces in Iraq, trapped and cornered in a spiral descent, made a deal with the enemy.  We would give them arms and money (just as we did the Mujahideen in Soviet occupied Afghanistan) to fight against a common foe.  They took our money, our weapons and our ammunition on the condition that we would agree to withdraw our forces from the battlefield.  

So what have won in Iraq?  Have we won control of the oilfields we so coveted?  Have we won a more loyal ally in the region than our former ally in Saddam Hussein?  Have we weakened our regional adversary in Iran?  Have we secured the democratic form of government?  

We have in fact accomplished none of these.  We have in fact strengthened Iran, lost our influence over the oil, and the only thing less certain than Iraqi democracy is the prospect of Iraqi unity and peace.  As the Hollywood oil man famously opined:  There will be blood.  There will be a fight for control of Iraq that will likely tear that creation of the British mandate apart.  It will be a battle that will stretch on for years and decades and perhaps even centuries and in the end we will have little say over who wins and loses.  

As it is in Iraq so it is in Afghanistan but more so.  We find ourselves in the same dilemma that confronted the Soviets in the fateful year of 1987.  Before the occupation Soviet military commanders warned that Afghanistan was a trap.  It was a nation of disparate tribes that could only be united by a foreign occupier.  It was a war the Soviets could not win but it would suck the life out of the Soviet treasury like the unquenchable thirst of a vampire.  Soviet political leaders would hear none of it.  They were the mighty Soviets.  They would prevail where no one had before.  Once it became clear they could not prevail they were afraid to fail, afraid to be embarrassed as the Americans had been in Vietnam.  They were caught in the Afghan trap.  

Flash forward to today.  The situation in Iraq is unstable even as we prepare the withdrawal of the vast majority of our troops.  The situation in Afghanistan is a spiral descent.  The Karzai government has revealed itself as hopelessly corrupt.  The Afghan model of democracy was clearly Florida 2000 in which votes can be manipulated to the desired outcome at the command of the government in office.  (To Obama’s credit, it was not acceptable to the new White House.)  We are sponsoring murderers, thieves and drug dealers even as we condemn the enemy for doing the same.  

We are losing the war not because we have the wrong strategy and not because we lack the soldiers.  We are losing the war for the same reason the Soviets lost:  It is not our land to win or lose.  The Afghanis may play with us for some time.  They may take our weapons.  Some may take our money.  Whatever they promise or bargain away, in the end we will leave and they will decide for themselves who rules their land.  

Our legitimate objectives in Afghanistan are (a) eliminating terrorist cells and training centers intent on attacking our people or assets and (b) ensuring that nuclear weapons in Pakistan are not transferred to irresponsible hands.  

Despite the bravado of our former president, we have always known that the mission in this part of the world is one of intelligence gathering and precise covert military action backed up by prosecutions in international courts of law.  

It is time we stopped playing by the script of our enemy and started standing for the cause of justice.  We are not engaged in a battle of civilizations.  We are upholding the rule of law.  

From any rational perspective the Afghan president by embracing the illegitimacy of his government has enabled the American president to find the most direct path out of this hopeless quagmire. Clearly, the kind of democracy Karzai envisioned is the kind illustrated by Karl Rove, Dick Cheney and Dick Nixon in a former era.  It is the kind of democracy practice in Russia, Iran and countless African states.  It is the kind that does not leave the important questions government in the hands of a mindless rabble.   

That kind of blatantly undemocratic reasoning might have brought no more than a chuckle from our previous administration as they blindly pressed on with their predetermined agenda of empire building but it should not be acceptable to our current president.  

In the beginning many of us were willing to give Karzai the benefit of the doubt.  So what if he was a lackey for the oil industry?  So what if he had a history of corruption?  Anyone who takes the stage in international politics has danced with the devil once or twice.  This was his chance to come clean.  Instead, by embracing the dark side of electoral politics and rejecting the very concept of democracy, Karzai has become our worst Afghan nightmare.  He gives the lie to the benevolence of the American occupation.  

It is not in our national interest to uphold a corrupt and unlawful government.  It is not in our interest to maintain an occupation indefinitely.  Our only interests are fighting the violent extremists who threaten us and maintaining a stable government in nuclear Pakistan.  Both objectives would be better achieved by maintaining a small footprint in the region and by withdrawing the bulk of our military presence.  

However we may despise the Taliban for their archaic beliefs it was a mistake to declare them the enemy alongside Al Qaeda.  The Taliban had no part in the planning or execution of the terror attacks on America.  When we declared war on the Taliban we compelled them to join ranks with Al Qaeda.  We simultaneously committed ourselves to an unwinnable war.  With eyes wide open and led by arrogant folly we marched into the world’s deepest muck hole.  

When we made our mission not a surgical strike by Special Forces to eradicate Al Qaeda but a full-scale invasion and occupation, it was a mistake of epic proportions.  When we announced to the world that our goal was not to subjugate the Afghan people but to establish a working democracy, we ought to have kept our word.  

A democracy is not a packaged good.  It is a process and a very messy process under the best of conditions.  The most basic premise of a democracy is that all segments of the population must be represented.  You do not disenfranchise those with whom you do not agree.  No matter how repugnant we may find a group’s beliefs, in a democracy we provide equal access to the electoral process.  To exclude a segment of the electorate (as we did the Sunnis in Iraq) is to guarantee a civil war.  

We must remember that in the broad scope of history, our own nation disenfranchised women and minorities until only yesterday.  Imagine that a foreign power took control of our government and excluded Mormons or Jews or evangelical Christians for their archaic beliefs.  The most secular of Americans would never accept that kind of manipulation in betrayal of the democratic ideal.  

The way forward in Afghanistan is clear.  We must correct the errors of the past.  If it is still possible we must invite the Taliban to join the electoral process and we must make sure that the process is fair and equitable to all Afghanis.  

The Taliban is not our rightful enemy on the field of battle.  They are our adversaries in the universe of ideas.  That is a battle we can and will win for we carry the forces of justice and destiny on our side.  

What has happened in Afghanistan is shameful.  There is no redemption for the kind of corruption the Karzai government has shown.  We cannot defend them.  We must therefore ensure that a fair and open electoral process sweeps them away into the dustbin of history.  

The only agreement we should and can require of the Afghan government is one the Taliban would surely have agreed to nine years ago:  a modest presence across the landscape from which to operate a continued assault on those who attacked us and those who intend to attack us and those who similarly threaten the nuclear stability of neighboring Pakistan.  

That is our legitimate interest in the region and it is the best scenario we could possibly hope for at this stage of the game.  



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