Afghanistan: A New Quagmire?

On August 6, the New York Times reported that on July 22, 2008, the United States reached a new plateau in Afghanistan, the “other war” that has been going on since October 2001: 500 Americans have now perished on the Afghan plain. What is it exactly that we are doing there?

Afghanistan is widely contrasted with Iraq: Afghanistan, we are told repeatedly, is the real war where American interests are engaged, unlike Iraq. Had the United States not allowed itself to be diverted from the central mission of tracking down and destroying Al Qaeda in Afghanistan by going into Iraq, things would have been better: we would have gotten bin Laden, wiped out Al Qaeda, and probably broken the Taliban forever. The result would have been a peaceful Afghanistan under the Karzai government, and a real victory in the war on terror.

These assumptions are rarely questioned, but they should be. Both candidates herald the drawdown in Iraq as evidence that troops will then be available to go after the “real” enemy in Afghanistan. Obama says an extra 10,000 troops; McCain ups the ante to 15,000. The immediate answer is to provide more adequate protection for exposed forces in the field. But is that enough?

Look at the situation. There are currently about 57,000 western troops under NATO auspices in Afghanistan (of which about 32,000 are American). Add the McCain figures and that force become 72,000 (assuming more NATO countries do not bale out). This number is being asked to pacify a country roughly the size of Texas (analogy compliments of the CIA Factbook) with 33 million inhabitants, many–if not most–hostile. By comparison, Iraq is about two-thirds the size of Afghanistan (twice the size of Idaho, according to the CIA), with about 28 million inhabitants, also many hostile. For the Iraq mission, American troop levels are currently about 140,000, and it is not entirely clear who is winning.  

Then there is the small matter of historic Afghan “hospitality” toward foreign intruders. Since Afghanistan became independent in the 1700s, various countries have tried to subdue it, most notably the British and the Russians (mostly as part of the Great Game of the 19th century). The Soviet Union, which no longer exists partly as a result, was the latest to enjoy Afghan hospitality. History would seem to suggest that invading and reordering Afghanistan is not the best idea anyone has ever had. What makes us think it is different this time? No one seems willing to say. Could it be they know we can’t win anything worth winning? That Afghanistan is Arabic for quagmire?

Clearly, making Afghanistan inhospitable to Al Qaeda is a worthy goal, but is it achievable in the way we are going about it? Seven years of “slogging” it out has not exactly proven the case that it is. How exactly half the number of troops (Afghanistan versus Iraq) is going to pacify and stabilize a country half again the size of Iraq that has a long history of chewing up and spitting out invaders has not been made by anyone who is putatively an adult in charge: the Bush administration, the candidates, or the military command. Lt. General Carter Ham, a spokesman for the JCS and an old student of mine, has been made the front man for all this enterprise, and I don’t envy him the task. A decade ago at the Air War College, he had a wry, self-deprecating sense of humor. It is ertainly going to be put to the test.  

I want Al Qaeda destroyed as much as anyone else, but what we are doing is simply not working. Can someone please help me understand what a larger U.S. force commitment in Afghanistan is going to accomplish, except for more American casualties. Would we, for instance, not be about as well off withdrawing our ground forces from the country and bombing and strafing everything suspicious that moved along the Afghan-Pakistan border (the Durand line)? Might not work, but it would reduce casualties. Otherwise, I have the foreboding that we may be in Afghanistan indefinitely with little gain to show–another quagmire. I hope I am wrong.

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2 Responses to “Afghanistan: A New Quagmire?”

  1. Phil Myers Says:

    Yes to all that you say, especially weighed against the history of the Great Power conundrums in the region going way back, especially Britain and the Russians. After reading all that you have to say, I wonder what the U.S. and its allies have thought about doing with Afghanistan if, and this is only an unmeasurable if, the allies were successful. How can a world power structure make use of an ethnic powderkeg buried in a vast region of nativism all across the board, and in an impossible region geographically to conquer by military force. It would take much more technology than exists in a form to pinpoint targets (whoever the enemy is) than we will ever have.

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