“There is no single piece of land in Afghanistan that has not been occupied by a Soviet soldier . . . no single military problem that has arisen and not been solved, and yet there is still no result.” Sergei Akhromeyev, Soviet General Staff Chief 1986
Sometimes one wonders if anyone actually reads history and if they do whether they actually want to learn from it. Back in 1979 the Soviet Union had advisors in Afghanistan. A lot of them. A local and indigenous Communist Party had some measure of political power and this was before the Soviets invaded.
However in March 1979 a major unit of the Afghan National Army in the city of Herat mutinied against the Soviets and the Afghan government. Before the mutiny was put down 50 Soviet advisors as well as 300 of their dependents were brutally murdered by Afghan Army personnel. A further 5000 Afghans died in the revolt.
Since 2009 the trend of Blue on Green killings, that is Afghan Soldiers or Security Force members killing US or NATO personnel has been increasing at a troubling rate. We should not be surprised, the one thing that the Afghan loathes above all is the foreign soldier on Afghan soil. While some Afghans may desire a more modern society and something more akin to the Western democratic political model to include women’s suffrage they are in a distinct minority. The fact is that as General Barry McCafferty recently noted regarding the murder of two US military advisors in the supposedly secure Afghan Interior Ministry “we may be seeing a watershed event after billions of dollars and 16,000 u.s. casualties. we see how shallow the impact we have on this primitive society is.”
Approximately 130,000 US and NATO troops including a number of my friends are deployed in penny-packets across Afghanistan and are increasingly isolated and in danger. The “inadvertent” burning of copies of the Koran in a garbage dump by US personnel has resulted in the deaths of at least 4 US military personnel and the wounding of 8 more and put our bases on lockdown as thousands of Afghans protest and attack them. More than two dozen Afghans have died in the recent violence.
As deployed they are able to achieve local success but unable to secure the country. Dependent on supplies delivered by air or along tenuous supply lines hundreds of miles long these forces though numerous are dispersed and deployed in areas where their inherent technological and operational superiority is negated by weather, terrain and restrictive rules of engagement as well as a counterinsurgency strategy in which these advantages matter little and that they do not have enough troops to accomplish.
US and NATO forces are embedded with the Afghan Army, Police and Border forces, many of whom are either incompetent, corrupt or allied with Taliban or Al Qaeda. Most Afghans feel that any foreign occupier is a mortal enemy and mistakes such as the recent Koran burning only add fuel to the fire of hatred no matter how many times our leaders apologize. Formerly unclassified but now classified reports easily available on the internet including at US Government websites paint a picture of mutual distrust and animosity that can only be described as toxic between the Afghans and NATO personnel, especially Americans.
To make matters worse the US and NATO forces in Afghanistan are surrounded to the west by an ever more bellicose Iran, to the south and east by an unstable and often adversarial “ally” Pakistan through which 30-40 percent of their supplies transit. To the north the United States and NATO are dependent on agreements with the former Soviet Central Asian Republics Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan with most having had to transit Russia. In the 1980s the Soviets only had make a withdraw across the border into their own country.
Another potentially disastrous situation would be for a war to break out between Iran and Israel or with the United States and our allies. The way our troops are deployed means that they cannot be easily concentrated to parry any threats and their isolation prevents them from being used as an offensive asset should a war break out against Iran.
The fact is that US and NATO forces are now in a very similar position to the Soviets in the mid to late 1980s. We are engaged in a war where military success is not going to win the war. No matter what any politician says there is nothing that can change that unless they would be willing to commit to greatly increasing the number of ground forces in Afghanistan with the costs and logistical problems that would entail.
President Obama is in a “damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t” position. If he keeps the status quo the danger persists and maybe increases. If he were to begin a more precipitous withdraw there would be the same dangers and possibly more during the withdraw. But mitigating against a faster withdraw is the 2012 election in which his Republican challengers would accuse him of “losing the war and betraying our troops.” However the chance to end the Afghan War from a position of strength was lost in 2003 when we diverted our efforts to the invasion of Iraq. That action gave Al Qaeda and the Taliban the breathing space that they needed to make a comeback and that was not on President Obama’s watch.
Geopolitically the presence of 130,000 US and NATO forces does nothing for regional or US national security and prevents those forces and the attendant resources needed to support them unavailable for any other dangers in the region. The goal of “creating a stabile and secure Afghanistan” is a myth. Afghanistan is not Iraq and will for generations remain a backward, tribal and religiously intolerant society that will never embrace western ideals that conflict with their culture.
The question now is how do we get out of this place, seal it off to keep terrorist threats from emanating from it and endangering US, NATO and Allied interests in the region. The reality is also that no matter what we do that any defeat or withdraw will be grist for Al Qaeda, Iran and other Islamist propaganda. The inability of the Soviets to “win” in Afghanistan was of the factors that brought down the Soviet Empire and ended the myth that Soviet Communism was invincible. The same could happen to the United States.
When presented with a cataclysmic strategic situation on the Western Front in 1944 Field Marshall Gerd Von Rundstedt was asked what should be done. His simple response was “End the war you fools.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ch56NAL1C-I
We are not yet in a cataclysmic situation but the time to make decisions is now not later because there is nothing that can change the strategic or operational conditions in or outside of Afghanistan. Facts are facts and politicians from both the Republican and Democrat parties should stop trying to turn this into short term political advantage and look at the actual strategic interests of our country as well as our broader security and economic interests in the region.